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.”

Firstly, a confession: I’ve never read anything by Marcel Proust before. 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 both Proust and 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 Proust’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 Proust’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 Proust 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 it might scare me.

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.