This Week in Proust: Page 25



“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.

This Week in Proust: Volume II, page 1



“A book is the product of another self to the one we display in our habits,in society, in our vices.” – Marcel Proust


Even though I haven’t started Volume II of In Search of Lost Time, Within a Budding Grove, I feel like I haven’t been far from Proust all week.  I seem to come across references to the book and its author all over the place, even when I’m not looking for them.  The most surprising was the wonderful photo above, discovered on flavorwire’s list of Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers.  It’s a refreshing reminder that novelists have lives outside of their books, with their own challenges, joys, insights and blind spots.  Below, a few things about Marcel, shamelessly cribbed from the internet and Alain de Botton’s entertaining, How Proust Can Change Your Life:

  1. He could be silly.  See above.  Proust was known for his sense of humour, and was apparently a lot of fun at parties, according to Edmund White, in an excerpt from his book in the New York Times on the Web.
  2. He had his bedroom lined with cork. Proust suffered from asthma most of his life, and thought that the cork would minimize dust.  He also wanted to block out noise because,
  3. he liked to write in bed.  Proust would sleep during the day and write at night, and his cork lined bedroom became his place of work in later years, as he rarely left his bed. Marcel may have been a bit of a hypochondriac.  Asthma was only one of a list of ailments. He also suffered continually from stomach complaints, possibly because of his diet,
  4. which was limited to not much more than croissants and coffee.  How French.  Throw in cigarettes and a couple of glasses of Chablis and you have the perfect French diet plan.
  5. He was always cold. It was not uncommon for Proust to wear several sweaters and an overcoat when venturing out on a summer day, and he was often seen at parties in a fur coat, regardless of the time of year.
  6. He liked to read the train timetable for entertainment. Proust found the place names inspiring.  He could read the timetable and imagine all kinds of dramas taking place in the little country towns.  For a writer that was useful, especially since,
  7. he didn’t like to travel.  Proust didn’t seem to mind experiencing things second hand, whether it was reproductions of paintings or reading about places rather than going there.  And it’s hard to travel if you don’t want to get out of bed.  Or have strange fears.
  8. Like, mice.  According to de Botton, Proust confessed during the bombing of Paris in 1918 that he was more afraid of mice than cannons.
  9. He was a generous friend.  Proust liked to take friends out to dinner, tip generously, and lavish attention on his companions.  He was not only an entertaining conversationalist, but a good listener, “He took an interest in you, instead of trying to make you interested in himself.”
  10. He loved his mother.  Many pages in the beginning of In Search of Lost Time are spent describing the narrator’s anguish when he fears his mother will not come upstairs to kiss him goodnight. The author’s relationship with Madame Proust was no less intense.  Proust lived with his mother until her death when he was thirty-four, and her overbearing  involvement in his life was reciprocated in his dependency.  Who knows what effect the relationship had on his life, or his work? Maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Or maybe it had no effect at all.  Maybe it was just a reflection of the heightened sensitivity of a unique artist with an uncanny ability to observe life and infuse his depiction of people, places and events with transcendent luminosity.