How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
When Marcel Proust was asked by a French newspaper how he would spend his last hours on earth if he knew that a great catastrophe was about to end his life, he replied that he would throw himself at the feet of Miss X, go to the Louvre and take a little excursion to India. All that seems a trifle adventurous for a man who seemed to have a hard time making it out of bed, but Alain de Botton’s enormously entertaining book ”How Proust Can Change Your Life” has as its thesis the not-altogether-bizarre idea that ”Remembrance of Things Past” — or, ”In Search of Lost Time,” as Mr. de Botton accurately translates Proust’s title, ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” — is, among other things, an extended answer to the question posed by the newspaper.
Mr. de Botton’s book could have been accurately titled ”Living for the Moment the Marcel Proust Way.” Seen in this light, ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” is a very unusual self-help book. As Mr. de Botton explains, Marcel Proust’s family was into self-help long before there was self-help. A doctor who traveled widely to help arrest the spread of infectious diseases, Proust’s father was a self-made man and an early self-help guru, in the mold of, say, Andrew Weil. He became a chevalier of the Legion of Honor and a physician of international standing, and devotedly used his learning to promote the physical well-being of his fellow man.
Marcel Proust abhorred science; nevertheless, he was motivated, from the start, by a similar altruism. Although I can only picture Proust in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin, he actually ventured to help others by using his literary talents to promote the spiritual health of readers.
How can ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” make you a better person? In lots of ways, says Mr. de Botton. Proust may not help you flatten your stomach or thin your thighs, but his works can assist you in a more subtle manner. From Proust’s work, Mr. de Botton divines nine different means for self-improvement, and devotes a chapter to each. Some of the steps are obvious, as in Chapter 2: ”How to be a Good Friend.” Proust used to tip waiters 200 percent. But some are unexpected, as in Chapter 8: ”How to Be Happy in Love.” He wrote to his friend Andre Gide that had his character Swann actually existed, he could have helped him in his romance with Odette.
My favorite chapter is ”How to Suffer Successfully.” Proust was a world-class sufferer. The details of his life make for painful reading: he endured a series of chronic and painful health problems — asthma, insomnia, cough and dizziness — he had poor eyesight and hypersensitive skin, and was possessed by an irrational fear of mice. He died young, underappreciated and misunderstood. Yet the tone of ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” is anything but long-suffering; ”serene” or ”luminous” would better describe Proust’s work.
Americans, of course, have grown accustomed to the standard victim-recovery cycle of modern self-help books. But Proust’s masterpiece is edifying precisely because he never gets better and he is never tempted to blame others for his problems. Rather, he welcomes suffering as an opportunity for thinking up fresh ideas and for entering into a richer relationship with experience.
For Americans mired in a culture in which ”self-help” is an adjective, a noun and too often an emetic, Mr. de Botton’s book, a self-help manual for the intelligent person, is a welcome departure from the usual bellyaching. ”Our best chance of contentment,” he writes ”lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes and emotional betrayals, and to avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the bores, the time and the weather.” These are the morals of Proust’s tale. (Finally: a self-help program that works!)
”How Proust Can Change Your Life” is witty, funny and tonic — and it provides ample justification for all the college courses that make Proust required reading. Mr. de Botton reminds us that ”A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” like all great literature, isn’t just a means of garnering academic credits or an esthetic height to be scaled. It’s good medicine: it can cure what ails us — but only if we stick with the nine-step program.