How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain De Botton
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
Annotation by Gail Vida Hamburg
There is no better oil to grease the wheels of resistance to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time than a reading of Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. This genre-blurring literary criticism and self help manual is divided into chapters such as: “How to Love Life Today,” “How to Suffer Successfully,” “How To Be Happy In Love,” and “How to Take Your Time,” in which the author explains the gospel according to Proust.
De Botton’s ironical and entertaining elucidation of Proust’s life shows a writer’s condition so extreme, it is grotesque. The underachieving son and brother of doctors, Proust was an invalid, a hypochondriac, and a perpetual child—cloistered in bed for most of his life. “Without pleasures, objectives, activities or ambitions, with the life ahead of me finished and with an awareness of the grief I cause my parents, I have little happiness,” Proust wrote before his thirtieth birthday. De Botton attempts to explain the reason for Proust’s paralysis under the subheading: ‘The Problem of a Jewish Mother.’ “Madame Proust loved her son with an intensity that would have put an ardent lover to shame, an affection that created, or at the very least dramatically aggravated, her eldest son’s disposition to helplessness.” Well into adulthood, Proust was in the habit of giving his mother detailed daily reports about his sleep, his health, and his bowel movements. Maman, ask Papa what it means to feel a burning sensation at the moment of peeing, Proust wrote to his mother. De Botton reports that at the time, “Marcel was thirty one, Maman was fifty three, and Papa was sixty-eight.” Proust himself said after his mother’s death, “My mother wanted to live in order not to leave me in the state of anguish, which she knew I was in without her.”
De Betton writes in Chapter 3 (“How To Take Your Time”), “Whatever the merits of Proust’s work, even a fervent admirer would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features: length. “As Proust’s brother, Robert, put it, ‘The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.’”Another challenge is the length of individual Proustian sentences, “the longest of which, located in the fifth volume, would if arranged along a single line in standard-sized text, run on for a little short of four meters and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times,” writes De Botton. Alfred Humblot, head of a venerable publishing house, responded to Proust’s manuscript thus: “I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” Jacques Madeleine, another important publisher was less kind. “After innumerable griefs at being drowned in unfathomable developments and irritating impatience at never being able to rise to the surface, one doesn’t have a single clue about what this is about. What is the point of all this?”
In “How to Suffer Successfully,” De Botton writes, “Proust tells us that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life, and he proposes that the painful variety is superior.” Elstir, the painter in the novel treats the narrator to an argument in favor of making mistakes: “There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly if he could, expunge it from his memory. Nut he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which the ultimate stage must be reached.”
In Search of Lost Time then was Proust’s therapy, his way of suffering successfully. In it, he turned every moment, from the most mundane to the most extraordinary, into opportunities for extended heightened introspection. In Swann’s Way, an act as simple as drinking tea and eating petites madeleines is described in exacting detail. “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence … I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” After three pages of vivid description about the ecstasy, the agony, the retrieved involuntary memories, the epiphany reached via teacakes, the reader is left with important questions. What kind of madeleine is this? Was the narrator’s mother a drug pusher? Did the recipe survive?
Swann's Way offers two stories, one of Marcel, the boy narrator and his experiences and memories; and the other of Charles Swann, a friend of the boy’s grandparents. The boy is infected with Proust’s many neuroses, from insomnia and hypochondria to a serious Oedipal complex. The boy observes and remembers everything. As the sun forms a halo around the roof tiles of a church steeple, Marcel decides to become a writer and describe what he sees to the best of his ability. The novel then unfolds the story of Swann and Odette, a psychology of obsession. His indifference to her turns into “love” only after a realization that she resembles a woman in a Botticelli painting.
Proust’s enforced solitude surely trained his descriptive powers. For him, everything cried out to be looked at from the inside and always with new language and metaphors. “He sees against the grain, in the sense that what he sees is what we were never taught to see, or what we've always seen without knowing we were seeing, or—to put it more bluntly— what we've always known we were seeing but didn't want to see. He exposes love for the utter selfishness it is, loyalty for self-interest, beauty for bad taste, purity for perversion,” writes Andre Achiman in Proust Regained. In responding to a friend’s cliché ridden manuscript, Proust wrote, ‘There are some fine big landscapes in your novel, but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.’ In his novel, Proust reimagined the moon differently: “Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to “come on” for a while, and so goes “in front” in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.”
Confined as he was to bed—by all accounts getting up only to perform ablutions—hearing the ticking of the clock eat away minutes, hours, days, month, years; how could Proust write about anything but time? The nature of time and the power of memory triggered by associations, are the major themes of his work. In the book, time doesn’t just move forward in a straight line. Instead, it is fluid—it bends, it flows, it is circular, it merges into other moments and experiences. “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed out life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years,” he concludes Swann’s Way.
“My great adventure is really Proust,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, as Mrs. Dalloway waited to be written. “Well—what remains to be written after that? He solidifies what has always escaped …searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.” Proust captured all of it—tossing in bed, yearning for a kiss from Maman, eating madeleines, feeling, suffering, enduring—as if in doing so, he would recover and renew time itself.
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