“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we should have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task.” So begins this study of the practical benefits careful readers can hope to gain from reading the seven volumes and 3,000 pages that make up In Search of Lost Time.
How Proust Can Change Your Life is simply a work of genius. Alain de Botton believes that Proust is an author to be enjoyed and has written his book with an idea of persuading unsure readers that In Search of Lost Time is an eminently practical book filled with advice for leading a happier, more intensely experienced life. What makes this book so ingenious and often funny is the way de Botton has structured his book as a parody of a self-help manual, with chapters like “How to Express Your Emotions” and “How to Be Happy in Love.” Now, since most readers of high modernist literature would not be caught dead with, say The Complete Being: Finding and Loving the Real You, it would appear at first that the author is indulging in an inside joke with his readers, who of course have turned to him for explication of Proust’s famously difficult book. Nonetheless, in exceptionally graceful prose, de Botton discourses on several major themes of In Search of Lost Time-time, memory, love, jealousy-and demonstrates how, contrary to its reputation for abstruseness, Proust’s novel contains wisdom that really can impact for the better the lives of his readers. For de Botton, In Search of Lost Time fulfills both of Samuel Johnson’s requirements of a book, that it “should teach us to enjoy life, or to endure it.”
Since his book is ostensibly a self-help manual, de Botton does not shy from a practical concern of a reader turning to Proust for greater personal happiness: “Whereas [Proust’s] writing was logical, well-constructed, often even sage-like, he led a life of appalling physical and psychological suffering. While it is clear someone might be interested in developing a Proustian approach to life, the sane would never harbor a desire to lead a life like Proust’s. Could this degree of suffering really be allowed to pass by without raising suspicion [italics added]?” Well, as anyone of a certain age and experience understands, we only really learn through suffering. As Proust put it, “a woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than a man of genius who interests us.” Unfortunately, few of us are able to turn what little wisdom we have acquired into language that can instruct, or at least comfort, fellow-sufferers. The reason for this is our own laziness, first in not taking the time to notice more than a narrow range of the world around us, and secondly in framing our experiences in clichéd language. As Proust writes, “Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undue this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.”
Although How Proust Can Change Your Life is aimed primarily at readers new to Proust, de Botton, always desirous that his book be practical and beneficial, concludes with a word of caution for readers who might make the same mistake as poor Virginia Woolf when she read Proust. In a letter to fellow Bloomsburian Roger Fry, Woolf wrote, “My great adventure is really Proust. Well-what remains to be written after that? …How at last has someone solidified what has always escaped and made it into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.” If only Mrs. Woolf had been able to read an admonition of Proust himself in a letter that brims with moderation and common sense: “It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books…that for the author they may be called “conclusions” but for the reader “incitements”…That is the value of reading and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.” As de Botton concludes his wonderful book, “Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”