Friday, 21 September 2012

Thoughts on How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
I admit that I've never read anything by Proust, which makes this book an unusual choice. I've also never read anything by Alain de Botton, the famous Swiss philosopher. Despite all of these lapses in my literary knowledge, I really did enjoy reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, probably because I love reading about how literature can impact living.


Marcel Proust (seated), Robert de Flers (left) and Lucien
Daudet (right), ca. 1894.
It's an easy book to read as a starter to Proust and Alain de Botton. The author gives an illustration of Proust's character, and goes on to make some psychological and philosophical queries. Proust had an excessively close relationship with his mother; until her death it was always a relationship of mother and young boy. De Botton describes how Proust felt he could only enjoy his mother's affection when he was ill, leading me to consider two possibilities.

Firstly, did this relationship influence Marcel's hypochondria? It may be said that he was truly ill, however. For one, he doesn't strike me as a person who gained satisfaction from illness, rather that he felt it was expected of him in order to gain the human warmth he valued so highly.

Secondly, does his mother's preoccupation with his health point towards Münchausen syndrome? She sounds very much like my aunt, who is always convinced that herself and her children have health issues. I was surprised how different Marcel's brother (Robert) was to him: de Botton describes him as "indestructible", a doctor who survived falling from a bicycle under a coal wagon, working as a doctor in horrendous conditions during World War I, and a grave car crash. Shortly after each of these events, Robert Proust would be back on the road to an active life. I wonder if Robert grew up more distanced from his mother than Marcel.

A novelist that I've been reading a lot recently, Elizabeth von Arnim, places great importance on fresh air, something that Proust certain lacked as a result of his asthma. He's famed for spending the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete In Search of Lost Time.

One of my favourite elements of de Botton's text is his retelling of Proust's meeting with James Joyce. Perhaps "meeting" is an inaccurate word due to the brevity of the encounter, however. The pair met at a party in Paris, seventy-one years before the day of my birthday in 1922. The conversation they had seemed to consist entirely of "non" answers, yet somehow Joyce ended up travelling in the same taxi as Proust afterwards. Joyce began smoking,which was terrible news for Proust's asthma, but Marcel still instructed the taxi driver to drop Joyce home after him. De Botton speculates how fascinating it could have been if Proust had read Ulysses, or formed common ground with Joyce, but the original meeting nonetheless interests me. It seems so... spectacularly awkward. I'd have to say that I'd prefer meeting Joyce to Proust.

I best enjoy novels that help me reflect on, and make sense of, life. Perhaps this means that In Search of Lost Time is the novel - a very large one at that - for me to read next. It's a work that keeps popping up in Book III of 1Q84, which I still haven't finished! As I've read and enjoyed almighty works such as War and Peace and Ulysses, hopefully I can manage Proust's pièce de résistance, despite how much the prospect scares me.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about Proust, and this sounds very interesting. How can I resist reading about a literary giant with mommy issues? :-)

Violet said...

I'm a bit of a Proust freak. :) He was a chronic asthmatic and really suffered due to his illness. It must have been terrifying to be asthmatic before the advent of drugs to treat the condition, hence his concern about his health. He did have a close relationship with his mother and a lot of that was due to his physical frailty. They were also a close Jewish family and Proust was gay and yeah, he was a bit of a Mummy's boy, but also a very interesting character. You should read ISOLT. If you're reading in English I recommend the Modern Library edition, which is much better than some of the older, and newer, translations, I think.

Lucy said...

I bought a Moncrieff & Kilmartin translation of ISOLT VI this morning before reading your comment. After a bit of Googling, it seems that they may have written - or contributed to - the Modern Library edition, but I'm not certain.

I would like to read more about Proust, perhaps after finishing Swann's Way. As you've said, he was a very interesting man. I cannot imagine suffering so greatly, yet, as often happens, it may have been the reason he wrote so well.

Lucy said...

I don't know how I've only just come across his writing and research about his character. I'm glad I finally have, however.

Sharon Henning said...

I'm just becoming aware of Proust myself. I've got him on my TBR pile. It'll be a while before I get to him though.

tolstoytherapy said...

I've been reading Swann's Way for so long now... I'm still only halfway! I seem to enjoy it whilst I'm reading it, but it's so hard to pick up at times. The writing is so well-done though, I must say. Like you, I'll give it time and I'm sure I'll come round to him.

tolstoytherapy said...

I bought a Moncrieff & Kilmartin translation of ISOLT VI this morning before reading your comment. After a bit of Googling, it seems that they may have written - or contributed to - the Modern Library edition, but I'm not certain.

I would like to read more about Proust, perhaps after finishing Swann's Way. As you've said, he was a very interesting man. I cannot imagine suffering so greatly, yet, as often happens, it may have been the reason he wrote so well.

tolstoytherapy said...

I don't know how I've only just come across his writing and research about his character. I'm glad I finally have, however.