“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
Not much Proust reading this week. Mostly because I’ve had difficulty putting down Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Oh, and I’ve been gardening on my tiny, tiny balcony. It’s Spring, and you have to carpe la diem, dahlings.
I did pick up Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I read this a while ago, but found myself leafing through it again with last week’s post.
This book is billed on the cover by The New York Times Book Review as, “A self-help manual for the intelligent person.” Even putting aside the notion that other self-help books are for stupid people, I had trouble with this claim.
It’s true that the chapter titles are written as a “how to” for happiness: “How to Love Life Today”, “How to Be a Good Friend”, “How to Be Happy in Love”, etc. But, like Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne, How to Live, How Proust Can Change Your Life is a book about a writer’s work, life and ideas, arranged thematically instead of chronologically. And de Botton wrote his first – the book was published in 1997, Bakewell’s in 2010.
The format is really engaging. One of the reasons I was reluctant to pick up In Search of Lost Time initially, apart from the length, was the sense that I would have a hard time relating to a French writer from the turn of the century. I’m not sure why – I’ve read books from a variety of other cultures, translated from different languages, and enjoyed them. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are among my favourite writers, and the culture and language of 19th century Russia doesn’t seem any closer to our own than early 20th century France. (Historians, correct me if I’m wrong about this.) But when the artist’s life is told thematically, you feel like he is being brought to your time, instead of the other way around. And it enables a concise blending of the life and the work. In chapters on friendship, art, love, and reading, de Botton uses anecdotes from Proust’s life, written sources other than the novel, and passages from In Search of Lost Time to illustrate Proust’s philosophies, tastes, desires and preoccupations.
A good self-help manual (especially if it’s for stupid people) is appealing because it’s reductive. The truths are epigrammatic and unequivocal. That’s not very Proustian. He can be epigrammatic – google “Proust quotes” and you’ll find lots of beautifully expressed wisdom. But he’s usually spent pages in the novel getting to that thought.
And he might just change his mind. Or, rather, hold two contradictory views at once. For example, in the chapter, “How to Be a Good Friend”, we see Proust from the point of view of his friends: witty, sociable, generous, kind and charming – a man who understood and appreciated the value of friendship. “He was the best of listeners,” “passionately interested in his friends,” and “he certainly never put all his poetry into his books, he put as much into his life.” At the same time, he said that friendship was, “…a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone,” and,
“The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive.”
What we can learn from How Proust Can Change Your Life is a little bit more about the life and ideas of Marcel Proust. It’s a fun introduction and companion piece to the novel. To get the full story, though, you just have to dive into In Search of Lost Time. Go ahead. It just might change your life.