For anyone who ever wondered what Marcel Proust had in mind when he wrote the one-and-a-quarter-million words of In Search of Lost Time (while bedridden no less), Alain de Botton has the answer. For, in this stylish, erudite and frequently hilarious book, de Botton dips deeply into Proust’s life and work - his fiction, letters, and conversations – and distils from them that rare self-help manual: one that is actually helpful.
Here, tendered in prose almost as luminous as its subject’s, is advice on cultivating friendships, suffering successfully, recognising love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on the first date. And here, too, is a generously perceptive literary biography that suggests that the master is as relevant today as he was in fin de siècle Paris.
©1997 Alain de Botton (P)2010 Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
A nice petite primer on Proust. It travels similar ground as Bakewell's How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage, and even Wright's The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. These books are not quite biography, not quite self help, but books that use the respective author's life/work/time as a peep stone into our own world.
Don't be distracted by De Botton's hyperbolic title. Neither he nor Proust is claiming any special power to change your life, but what they are trying to do is simply write something that will be read, perhaps appreciated. In the end they might even hope to deliver something that will be give their readers hints of how to live, how to love, how to suffer, and how to slow down and SEE the world.
I thought this book might be dry and boring, but the exact opposite is true. I have a new-found appreciation for Proust. Very thought-provoking in an enjoyable way.
Former Prosecutor, Acting Magistrate (Western Cape) & Head of Training of Prosecutors (Justice College, Pretoria)— Republic of South Africa
This audiobook is entitled “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain De Botton, is in one part and runs for 5 hours, 6 minutes.
I find this audiobook tedious and hard to digest. Having initially skimmed through the titles of the respective chapters, this forewarned (or perhaps prejudiced) me that what would follow might not be to my liking. Taken together, the headings struck me as an over-ambitious venture, contrived, convoluted and laden with affectation. When I eventually listened to the actual contents of the book itself, my suspicions were confirmed.
So, here are these headings of the chapters:
Chapter 1: How to Love Life Today; Chapter 2: How to Read for Yourself; Chapter 3: How to Take Your Time; Chapter 4: How to Suffer Successfully; Chapter 5: How to Express Your Emotions; Chapter 6: How to Be a Good Friend; Chapter 7: How to Open Your Eyes; Chapter 8: How to be Happy in Love; Chapter 9: How to Put Books Down
I myself, having read the novel (after a fashion, for only a few persons can honestly be heard to say that they’ve really read it although they might have done just that) find it difficult to relate any of these headings to what I’ve managed to make myself understand of Proust’s work. Potentially the most boring and impenetrable novel to read, it was surprisingly less taxing on my patience and concentration than listening at times to this audiobook — in my attempt to make sense of it.
In Chapter 2, De Botton introduces what I regard as an unfortunate element of subjectivity into his work. He recognises in some of Proust’s characters (for example, Albertine, Madame Guermantes) certain persons of his own acquaintance. He gives us their names — one of whom, despite her likeness to Proust’s character, has never read Proust and, in any event, prefers George Elliot. I myself of course don’t know these acquaintances of De Botton and I can therefore not identify them in the respective characters in Proust’s work. I also fail to recognise any of my own acquaintances in Proust.
Granted, as De Botton points out, Proust was of the opinion that, in reality the reader is, while he’s reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is therefore merely a kind of optical instrument which the writer offers to the reader to discern that, without this book, the reader would perhaps never have had inner experience of. Consequently, Proust held, recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.
I’ll concede that to me this information is very informative and helpful. I do not have an in depth knowledge of Proust or his work. I would have been unaware of Proust’s sentiments if I hadn't heard them from Alain De Botton. He gave me more insight into the mind of Proust and goes a long way toward clarifying the manner in which Proust perceives his reader.
However, to the narrator of the novel, characters come and go — he has scant regard for those he falls in and out of love with, or for those aristocrats whose banquets he frequents, or for his closest of his friends, or even, at least in one instance, for his beloved grandmother, when he fumes at her for wanting to have a photograph taken of herself. I don’t think that Proust wanted us to remember his characters as such, or that he wanted us to see in them reflections of those dear us, or wanted them to assist us in Regaining Lost Time. In this regard, Proust (through the narrator) is more interested in the abstract, the inanimate: i.e., the taste of a madeleine cookie and the sound of a teaspoon against a plate. In my opinion, characterisation does not fulfil such a central role in this novel so as to project the characteristics of any of the personae onto those of any acquaintance of the reader.
I find Chapter 3 informative, only because it gives me as a novice to Proust, what I regard as a basic insight into Proust’s novel. And besides, one can never have enough of this basic information, given the complexity of the work. So, I I’ve enjoyed the simplistic approach adopted in the bulk of this chapter, whereby the nitty-gritty of the difficulties associated in approaching Proust is revealed.
Alain De Botton comments that whatever the merits of Proust’s work, even a fervent admire would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features — its length. We learn that even Proust’s own brother, Robert, lamented that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have had the opportunity to read this work. De Botton comments that this reader faces another challenge — the length of individual sentences which are snake-like constructions. The very longest is located in the 5th volume and would, if arranged along a single line in standard sized text, run for a little short of 4 m and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine 17 times.
In 1913 the head of an esteemed publishing house, upon being asked to consider Proust’s manuscript for publication, remarked: “My dear friend, I may be dense . . . but I fail to see why a chap needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” A reader for another publishing house remarked, at the end of 712 pages of the manuscript, that “one doesn’t have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading? Impossible to know anything about it. Impossible to say anything about it.” All other publishers went along with such sentiments and eventually Proust was forced to pay for the publication of his work himself.
The other chapters of this audiobook, oscillate with varying degrees of success, between attempting to give us further insight into the life and work of Proust: on the one hand, Marcel Proust the brilliant novelist, and on the other, Marcel Proust the dilettante artist in general, critic, philosopher and even psychologist. To boot De Botton would have us believe that Proust is apparently instructing us on “How to . . . Love Life Today, to Read for Yourself, Take Your Time, Suffer Successfully, Express Your Emotions, Be a Good Friend, Open Your Eyes, be Happy in Love and Put Books Down”.
Insofar as Alain De Botton purports to enlighten me on “How To” achieve any of the above goals, I regard his attempt as unsuccessful. However, his giving me more basic insight into the life and work of Marcel Proust, I find helpful.
PS: I have recently reviewed another Audible book also dealing, inter alia, with Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. This audiobook, entitled “The Modern Scholar: Giants of French Literature — Balzac, Flaubert, Proust and Camus” by Prof. Katherine Elkins, is worth acquiring.
I own both the print and audio versions of this book and as a Proust fan, I enjoyed reading both. I like Nicholas Bell's lively rendition of the text very much but, as a French native speaker, I regret that he didn't research the pronunciation of French last names (or chose not to bother with it) before embarking on the project. It is weird to hear the 'n' and the 's' pronounced in "Guermantes" for instance or the 'p' pronounced in "Loup". It is a bit as if in a French audio version of Bill Clinton's biography, his name was pronounced the French way, with the "in" and the "on" treated as nasal vowels. Not a biggie but it bothered me, maybe because Proust's writing is so musical, even in English, and because the reading is so good otherwise...
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