How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

Here’s my second instalment for the blogging event Paris in July 2014.

Paris In July 2014

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You must have heard of this book by a Swiss-born Brit writing about a French novelist called Proust. You probably have read it, and let me guess, were surprised when reading the first chapters? Well, I was. For before reading this book, my knowledge of Alain de Botton, the popular British writer and media personality, mainly came from an art critic’s thoughtful posts on her blog.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Is Botton joking? This book reads like a parody.

First we are introduced to Dr. Proust, Marcel’s father, who was a renowned physician and prolific writer. His thirty-four books had helped the French people from defences against the plague to the correct postures and exercises for the ladies. Botton being an image-driven person does not hesitate to include some of Dr. Proust’s instructional illustrations for his female readers such as how to jump off walls, or balance on one foot.

Not your definition of parody? How about this chapter on ‘How to Suffer Successfully’. Proust is well known for his physical ailments, having had to lie in bed most of the time when he wrote the longest novel ever written, In Search of Lost Time. Botton exhaustively lists down the various trials Proust had to live with throughout his life:

  • The Problem of a Jewish Mother
  • Awkward Desires
  • Dating Problems
  • A Lack of Career in the Theatre
  • The Incomprehension of Friends
  • At 31, His Own Assessment
  • Asthma
  • Diet
  • Digestion
  • Underpants
  • Sensitive Skin
  • Mice
  • Cold
  • Coughing
  • Noise from Neighbours

… Should I go on? And oh, he does include Death.

I know, that’s what Botton does, bring the extraordinary into the ordinary realm of common readers, and by so doing, explaining Proust to us lowly creatures. And of course, it would help if you have at least read the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, for many of his examples are taken from there, so you would feel a resonance, or disagree with Botton’s interpretation, when he talks about Francoise, Swann, Albertine, Combray, or Balbec.

Do I get anything out of it? Plenty. I’ve lots of highlighted passages and my own handwritten notes on the margins. When Botton gets serious between the lines, he leaves me with some useful tips:

So if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines, and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect. (p.106)

For one thing, express your own feelings and ideas instead of saying ‘nice’, or describing the setting sun as ‘a ball of fire’. I love this little passage Botton quotes from Proust about the novelist’s description of his ‘lunar experience’:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, stout 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. (p.98 of Botton’s, but no mention of where this is from Proust’s)

The key of course is not so much of trying to use a new language to describe a common scene or object, but to be able to look at them from a distinctively new perspective to begin with. How can we invent new lenses to see the world? Towards this end, Botton has failed to go further. So we’re told to avoid clichés, but not how. If you sense my ambivalence, you’re right.

In order to avoid clichés himself, Botton has resorted to hyperboles. The title of the book is a ready example. The 200 page book comprises of nine short chapters, each can be a book in itself. So you can expect the oversimplification of the ideas. Further, with no citing of sources for the Proust quotes, the critical reader could be left unsatisfied; it feels like Botton has jumped to generalizations and found expressions of his own thoughts from one or two excerpts of Proust’s. Makes one feel that Proust could just be a selling point.

However, this is an entertaining read, like a self-help manual with instructional tidbits and amusing images. The book is a mixed bag of common-sense wisdom, with a ‘moral’ at the end of each chapter. Throughout, it is obvious that Botton could well find it not as easy as he tells his readers to do… to be original and not say what others have said before. Here are some of his main points:

  • Live life today
  • Read books to form your own ideas
  • Suffering makes you strong
  • Find art and beauty in the ordinary
  • Avoid clichés like the plague
  • A time to pick up a book, a time to put it down
  • Win friends by your praises
  • but pour your honest criticisms of them into a work of fiction (now that’s a novel idea).

Is there anything new under the sun?

Speaking of the sun, take this to the beach. It would make one breezy read.

Lastly, following Botton’s (actually Proust’s) advice on reading:

We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so. (P. 195) Reading… is only an incitement…

 

So I’d say the moral is: read Proust yourself. Don’t let Botton tell you what Proust can do for you.

That’s just the prodding I need to press on to In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III.

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Paris in July 2014 on Ripple Effects:

Haute Cuisine Movie Review

CLICK HERE, HERE and HERE to see what others have posted.

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Related (Proust) Posts on Ripple Effects:

Proust Read-Along: Swann’s Way Part 1, Combray

The Swann and Gatsby Foil

Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Out of the Budding Grove

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton”

  1. Well done for reading the first two Proust’s – I still have vol 1 on my Classics Club list…for one day 🙂

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    1. Brona,

      As you can see from the links at the bottom of this post, it was with others that I ventured into the world of Proust’s. Yes, two read-alongs for the first two volumes.

      Like

  2. I often wish that someone would just read Proust for me & then tell me all about it…So maybe this is the book for me. However I have great admiration for you plowing ahead & reading it yourself as it should be done. Thanks for stoping by my blog & leaving a nice comment. I am happy to discover your space here.

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    1. Sally,

      This is an amusing read, you’ll enjoy it. But Botton is not so much in telling the readers about Proust’s novel but in elaborating his own ideas based on Proust. Glad to have you visit Ripple Effects. Hope to hear from you again. 😉

      Like

  3. Oh I have fond memories of this one. I read it many years ago, was the first Botton I had read and loved the humor. Plus, it got me to read Proust, or at least the first two volumes.

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    1. Stefanie,

      You’re right, it’s been 17 years since it was first published. But it reads like a new publication. I’m just the other way around as your reading experience… I read the first two volumes of Proust’s before coming to Botton. That may explain my ambivalence… as you can sense in my post. Nevertheless, this is an interesting approach, albeit I feel Botton sort of talks down to his readers a little.

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  4. How I regret, kick myself, wish it were otherwise, that I did not finish Vol. 2 with you last year. If you are ever up for Volume 3, after August when I read Murakami’s latest release, I promise to join you.

    Love the passages you highlighted here, along with the main points, which all seem essential to me.

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    1. Bellezza,

      Well it’s just the other way round. I’d like to go on with the next volume, will order it soon, but I’m such a slow reader that it may take me half a year to finish it. Plus I’ve got other reading going on as well. So, if you don’t mind a snail pace read-along, I’d be glad to do Vol. 3 with you. Maybe some time in the late summer or fall.

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  5. Not my usual cup of tea, but your review makes me think of a friend who might really enjoy this. It’s on the shopping list now. You write such inviting reviews. Your previous Paris in July Post made me watch Haute Cousine this week too! (which I really enjoyed too).

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    1. Thanks Tamara, glad you’d enjoyed Haute Cuisine. This book actually is light and entertaining, not as ‘Proustian’ as you might think. 😉

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  6. Inclusion in this great post much appreciated 🙂

    I wonder, maybe we could form a group of readers who strive, readers who really make an effort to try to like de Botton, but doesn’t quite succeed?

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    1. Sigrun,

      It’s my pleasure having the chance to intro. Sub Rosa to my readers. As for Botton, this is just my first first-hand experience, and I was quite surprised. I know one thing though, I’d be heading to another volume of Proust’s before another one of Botton’s. 😉

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  7. What a fine look at this book. OK — truth time. I’ve not read Proust. But I confess, I do like the cheeky way you describe Botton’s writing about him. It certainly appears to have its flaws, but it does sound rather fun. And I like fun — seems like I read enough heavy lately! And I really appreciate your insightful look at content — especially as one who HAS read Proust. Nice!

    Like

    1. Thanks, Jeanie. Go for it I’d say; after all, it’s only 214 pages. Won’t take up too much of your time, and, I think you’ll like the visuals in there. As for light entertainment, I’m writing up a post on two delightful French films to wrap up Paris in July next week. You’ll enjoy them too. 😉

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  8. I tried to enjoy Botton. I truly did. I began with a different book – one about travel, I believe – and hated it. So, I thought I would try this one. I thought it pedantic and boring, and I didn’t just set it aside, I took it in a box to Half-Price Books and disposed of it.

    Before I’ll read one lick of Botton again, I’ll pick up Proust. Actually, before I’d pick up Botton, I’d read the back of the corn flake box.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

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    1. Linda,

      Wow, you’ve quite a story of disillusionment with Botton. Maybe you and Sigrun can start that group of recovering, ex-bottom readers. 😉 My feelings aren’t as strong as yours, but I do feel this book falls into the exact mode he’s preaching against, clichéd and generalized. As this is the first Botton I’ve read, I don’t rule out giving the guy a second chance. I just might check out his Religion for Atheists. The man sure loves sensationalism as a sales pitch.

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  9. I haven’t read this book by Botton, so I am pleased to read a review of it. I did read Architecture of Happiness, which was very stimulating, and then The Art of Travel, which I mostly loved for how it stirred up so much response that I had to write a whole series of blog posts about it. But in all of that engagement I guess I wore myself out with him.

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    1. Joanna,

      This is my first time reading Botton, and I’m afraid it’ll be a long while before I come back to him again. So many books, so little time. 😉

      Like

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