A review of “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton

Original review is here

In the city where I live, there are multiple charity shops, many of which I frequent. One of them keeps a basket outside filled with books, and one can purchase a book for forty pence or three for a pound. I always browse this basket, because it is filled with ratty paperbacks, that get rattier and rattier as they spend their lives in a metal basket being shuffled and reshuffled, and I love, love, love fucked up old paperbacks. So imagine my (surprise/joy/apprehension/fear/loathing/curiosity) when I was last pawing through the basket, only to see, poking out somewhere near the bottom, a book with a picture of Marcel Proust on the cover. At first (surprised) to see Proust peering at me from the depths of a bargain bin, I quickly realised that it was a copy of this book, by Alain de Botton. Its pages had curled in to each other, but it looked reasonable, and forty pence to sate a curiosity is a much cheaper price than I’d normally pay.

I do not, would not, and have not read self-help books. I do read literary criticism. This book is both, kind of, and the aforementioned curiosity I felt was with regards to Proust rather than de Botton, who I am sure is a fine fellow personally, but has always struck me as a particularly platitudinous career advisor more than anything else.

So, what does the career advisor (a fine and honourable profession, I might add, when done with care, tact and enthusiasm) have to say with regards to Proust? Largely, that Proust was often sad and in ill-health, as we often are, being mere mortals, and that reading Proust may be a way for us to “read ourselves” (what does that mean?), and to see ourselves and the world through the eyes of another. This is nothing new to anyone who has studied or thought about literature (or life) past a secondary school level, and Proust’s formulations of his own thought, which are quoted at some length in this volume, tend to ring truer, and stick faster, than de Botton’s own re-formulations and explications. All the same, it was a quick, enjoyable read, and it went down easy, though I would venture to say I will remember Proust’s words, before de Botton’s.

But then, what did I expect? Proust is Proust and de Botton is de Botton, and de Botton’s intention is to help us read Proust. For this purpose, I am beyond certain that there are better books (if I knew about them I would tell you what they were) about Proust. And then, of course, you could just bloody read Proust, couldn’t you?

Two examples of de Botton’s own inventiveness stand out in my memory, one underlining a point in a mixed triumph, and the other attempting a coup that falls far short.

The first example finds de Botton quoting the longest Proustian sentence. It snakes and circles around and across the page. It did make me laugh, something that I cannot talk myself out of. I do wish, however, that I could just have read the sentence without having to twist the book around around. I can get behind messing with the reader’s expectations, but this was a bit much, as fun as it was.

The other example is the closing sentence, which jolts back the curtain and shows you de Botton, the man behind the magic, hedging his own bet against eternity. Was he attempting to latch his name to a better one, twinning his work with Proust’s? Was he just trying to have some fun? Was he proving a point?

“Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”

I read this, closed the book, and threw it, not so hard as to damage it, but hard enough that I hoped de Botton felt it.


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