Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life
Alain de Botton

If you have heard of Marcel Proust raise your right hand. If you have read his In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) raise your left hand. How many of you have two hands in the air? Just as I thought. Like many of you, I only have my right hand up.

But now, after reading Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, I am ready to take steps so that I can proudly raise both hands should those questions be put to me in the future.

Sometimes we just need to know what things are about and this is where de Botton is a big help.  His book gave me not only information about this eccentric Frenchman, but also a sampling of his writings so I have a heads-up on what I would be getting into in reading his seven-volume novel - which eventually came to contain more than a million and a quarter words. 

The volumes were published in between 1913 and 1927. The final three volumes were published posthumously.  

I learned that Proust was from a well-to-do family, was a bit of a momma's boy, had asthma, was known to wear a fur coat at the dinner table, was generous with his friends, and spent the final years of his life writing in bed. The one time he did go out, his last, he caught a chill which turned into pneumonia and he died. He was 51.

Employing generous quotes from Proust, de Botton takes a look at friendship, romance, food, books, suffering, grief, and art. Along the way the reader learns from Proust how to open one's eyes, take one's time, and notice what others miss in their hurry to get on with life.

After reading In Search of Lost Time, de Botton promises:  

Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.

In the past, I have been put off reading Proust for I was intimidated by the novel's length and wandering, weaving sentences. And I wonder if I really want to read Proust's work or read more about Proust. Perhaps, from what I have read, they are the same. 

But, in search of the former, I find that Amazon offers a Kindle edition (translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff) of all seven volumes for $2.99 or on for £1.53. How handy it will be to have M. Marcel Proust in my back pocket.


  1. Only my right hand is in the air--though I think I've read small bits and pieces here and there. I do like the idea of being sensitized to what's around me--I try to be, but don't always succeed.

    I have my first de Botton book waiting for me at the library: The Art of Travel. I can't wait to start it! Even though I've been meaning to read him, your reviews have given me the little push I needed.

    1. Hi, Kathy. You can put your right hand down now! (haha)

      Sorry to be so slow in responding to your comments; I have been out of town and computer-less. I think you will enjoy "The Art of Travel." That one and his book on work are my favorites. I just finished "The Consolations of Philosophy" and as soon as I get my thoughts together I will be writing about it.

  2. You're getting ahead of me! I've read The Art of Travel and I'm reading The Architecture of Happiness but have been delayed by buildings in my neighborhood in Philly falling down. ( That's my husband interviewed in the video, the one who ran in to try to help the injured worker. Ironic that I'm reading about architecture!

    I have a copy of In Search of Lost Time, which I've started several times but never made much headway with, but I bought recently bought the Kindle version that you mention. Maybe after things here quiet down, I'll give it another try. After reading de Botton's book on Proust.

    1. Good grief, Joan. What a story about the construction worker and his rescue by your husband. All of this going on right next door to you? How frightening. And a fire as well. Hope everyone is all right and the work continues in a safely manner.

      Looks like you live in a cool neighborhood. I hope de Botton's book on architecture has given you a new set of glasses through which to view the buildings.

  3. Hi Belle
    Please as Lennon said ....."Give Proust a Chance!" I encourage you fresh on the heels of your reading of de Botton. As you know I am not a big fan of his work but his Proust book is well done and if it encourages one person to read Proust then all is well. His simplistic “paint by numbers” quasi-philosophical approach to most of his subjects is another issue I won’t get into here. Anyway please jump in at the deep end and savour the experience. Please realise that while Alain makes light overall of the “his “…” Guide to Proust” (you fill in the missing word) it is a challenge with long sentences (I think I counted more than one tightly spaced page without a period. Eleven or twelve pages on one simple thought...of going to bed!) but the beauty shines through even in translation by Moncrieff…….Alain makes light of the subject to some degree and that is good…but if you thought “War and Peace” was a challenge please add a factor of 12 to “Remembrance..” ! For a long time I shied away from Proust until a friend encouraged me to take it on after I had convinced him to read Joyce! I now have the volumes always at hand and consider it to be a sublime experience each time I read a page. Some years ago RTE radio (Irish NPR) played an interview with Nuala O'Faolain the Irish writer and journalist after she had been diagnosed with cancer and given but months to live. I knew Nuala and her family from childhood so it was a difficult to listen to. The interviewer asked a question that made me cringe…”what Nuala do you think you will miss the most?”……Nuala didn’t hesitate replying”….i will miss the beauty of reading Proust!”

    1. Wow, Tullik. Your story about Ms. O'Faolain gave me goosebumps. I just read her obituary in The Telegraph. A remarkable life touched by such sadness.

      Certainly, Proust has his loyal fans. I watched an interview with Shelby Foote (he of the extremely long history of the American Civil War) and he claimed to have read Proust 11 or 12 times. He kept a record in the back of the first volume.

      I look forward to my beginning. Thanks for the encouragement. I am glad to hear from you.