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Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life


If you haven’t heard of the French author Marcel Proust, this post is the perfect introduction. If you’ve been meaning to read Proust, this post may give you the extra push you’ve been needing. And if you have no intention of ever reading Proust – well, you can still benefit from the delightful life lessons to be learned from Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, first published in 1913.

Our guide on this journey is British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, a quirky blend of literary self-help and biography of Proust, published in 1997. It shows how Proust offers guidance to almost every conceivable problem you may have, no matter what time you’re living.

Read Proust. Because, as you’re about to find out, he’s not just a literary master – he can really change your life.

Reading is therapeutic.

Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time follows its narrator, also named Marcel, as he remembers his life, from early childhood to imminent death, in aristocratic nineteenth-century France. Critics and readers alike have hailed it as a work of genius. But the critic whose approval Proust most desired died four years before the first volume was published in 1913. That critic was his father, Dr. Adrien Proust.

Adrien Proust was a physician and a medical professor. Like his son, his literary output was prodigious, though the 34 books the elder Proust wrote were on dry, medical topics like disease transmission.

The younger Proust often worried that he was a disappointment to his father. Marcel tried and failed to settle on a respectable career. He lasted barely two weeks working in a solicitor’s office. He eschewed a diplomatic career because he couldn’t bear to leave Paris. He quit his post at a library because the books were too dusty. The truth was, all Marcel wanted to do – much to Adrien’s chagrin – was written.

What’s more, the younger Proust thought literature was just as important, in its own way, as medicine. Marcel believed reading fiction had a therapeutic power. Dr. Proust would almost certainly have dismissed his son’s claim. A novel can offer escapism on a long train ride. It can’t diagnose a case of tuberculosis or perform an appendectomy. But Dr. Proust couldn’t be more wrong.

So, what does Alain de Botton say are some of the therapeutic benefits of reading Proust?

Reading Proust will help you feel at home in works of art. When Proust looked at paintings, he didn’t stop at admiring their composition or the artist’s use of color – he habitually matched the people on the canvas with people from his own life. A friend recalled him studying a portrait of an elderly man by the Renaissance painter Ghirlandaio, painted in 1480, and remarking on its likeness to a well-known contemporary aristocrat, the Marquis de Lau. Whether he was reading the latest novel or gazing at a four-hundred-year-old painting, Proust felt at home in works of art, because he was alive to the ways in which they paralleled his own life.

When you immerse yourself in Proust, you might begin to develop this habit, too. In Search of Lost Time is populated with the aristocrats, artists, socialites, workers, and peasants of Belle Époque France. At first, their manners might seem remote, their concerns irrelevant to you. But persist, and you will soon find points of resonance between their lives and yours. Persist long enough, and you will learn to see these resonances in other artworks, too. A whole world of culture, from Homer’s ancient epic poems to cutting-edge contemporary performance art, will throw its doors open to you.

Reading Proust will also make you less lonely. In the same way that an intense engagement with In Search of Lost Time will allow you to perceive similarities between your world and Proust’s, you will learn to find comfort in the experiences you share with his characters. Every day, we’re liable to experience emotions and impulses that range from the exquisite to the excruciating. How many of the people around us are privy to the full range of our feelings? How attuned are we to the emotions and thoughts of those around us? If you are simmering with resentment over a long-ago fight, or are occasionally gripped, out of the blue, with a keen awareness of your own mortality, do you express these feelings to your colleagues? Your neighbors? Your dentist? Likely not. This can leave you feeling alone and isolated – as though you are the only person who has ever felt or behaved in this specific way. The beauty of the novel is that it, potentially, offers a window into the deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings of a whole spectrum of characters. In Search of Lost Time realizes that potential on a grand scale. If you’ve ever felt alone in a thought or a feeling, in the pages of Proust you are certain to meet someone who has shared it.

Finally, when you read Proust, you will learn more about yourself. Proust himself expressed this idea simplest and best when he wrote, In reality, every reader is when he is reading, reading his own self. To meet yourself, try picking up the first volume of Proust and meeting Marcel on its pages.

Slowing down our reading teaches us to savor life.

There’s a reason people don’t read Proust – even people who’ll happily make their way through other canonically classic novels like Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. It’s long. The Penguin Clothbound Classics edition is, in total, 3,444 pages long. And those 3,444 pages aren’t exactly filled with short, snappy sentences. In fact, in volume 5, there’s a sentence so long it could wrap around the base of a wine bottle 17 times. In Search of Lost Time even inspired a Monty Python sketch: “All-England Summarize Proust Competition.” In the sketch, each contestant has 15 seconds to summarize all seven volumes – a comically impossible task.

But here’s the thing: the reason most people cite for not reading Proust is exactly the reason you should try reading Proust. You should read In Search of Lost Time because it’s really, really, really, really long.

These days we prize speed and efficiency over slow contemplation. We listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed, strive to answer emails within seconds, and read the news in tweets of 280 characters or fewer. Rather than reading books, we read Blinks. We know we should slow down, at least some of the time – but slowing down is hard.

Proust forces his reader to slow down. After all, it’s hard to speed-read a sentence that could wrap around a wine bottle 17 times. By favoring length, Proust creates space for nuance, shades of gray, contradictions, and complications. He was famously irritated by the news-in-brief section of the newspaper, where stories were summed up in a sentence or two: disgruntled wife murders husband; factory worker electrocuted on the job. They never contained enough information to satisfy him. These snippets flattened real people into stereotypes, obscured their motivations, and – worst of all, in Proust’s eyes – discouraged empathy in the reader.

In Search of Lost Time is a corrective to the news items that so bothered Proust: even the most minor characters are richly drawn and multifaceted. Encountering the empathy with which Proust treats his characters is a lesson in exercising our own empathic muscles.

There’s another reason In Search of Lost Time is so long – within its pages, Proust tries to render life with complete freshness, free from clichéd description.

Around the same time, as Proust was writing In Search of Lost Time, a group of artists known as the Impressionists was making waves in the French art world. These days, we recognize blotchy canvases of lakes and harbors and sunrises by artists like Claude Monet as masterpieces. At the time, they were widely reviled. They weren’t realistic and ran the complaint. Those blurry blue and pink daubs of oil paint were hardly an accurate representation of a lily pond.

But Proust knew just what the Impressionists were doing – it’s no coincidence that one of his novel’s most sympathetic characters, Elstir, is a fictional Impressionist painter. The Impressionists weren’t trying to capture a photorealistic image of a lily pond. They were trying to capture a way of seeing that lily pond, one that was true to the viewer’s experience, if not to the pond’s exact contours. And Proust was trying to do just the same in his literary work. He didn’t want to use tired clichés. He didn’t want to write phrases like “the silvery moon” in a rush to get to the next plot point. Instead, he describes the moon like this:

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 draw attention to herself.

Like the Impressionists, Proust wants us to think in new ways about things we see and experience, things like that late afternoon moon. If it took a few extra words here and there, well, Proust was okay with that.

Proust reminds us to not take love for granted.

The narrator of In Search of Lost Time spends a lot of time strolling the countryside, attending dinner parties, and trying to get to sleep. In fact, the novel famously opens with a meandering 17-page description of his struggle with insomnia. But in the thousands of pages of the novel, he never finds lasting love. Other relationships depicted in the book aren’t exactly aspirational. A lot of ink is spilled describing one of literature’s nastiest marriages, that between the shallow-in-love Charles Swann and his philandering wife Odette. As for Proust himself, apart from the fact that he was gay in a time and place where homosexuality was deemed socially unacceptable, we know very little of his romantic life.

Does that mean Proust has nothing to teach about love? Perhaps not directly. Indirectly, on the other hand, he has plenty to say on the topic, beginning with his narrator’s early encounter with Gilberte. As a boy, Marcel the narrator spies Gilberte playing in the Champs Élysées. He is instantly fascinated. He dreams in loving detail of becoming her friend, of having tea in her apartment. And then his dreams become reality. Gilberte invites Marcel to afternoon tea. Marcel spends the first fifteen minutes entranced but, as Gilberte pours tea and slices cake, Marcel is struck by the growing realization that, while Gilberte is wonderful, the Gilberte of his imagination was more wonderful still.

What’s the lesson here? People, in reality, rarely live up to our idealized versions of them. Moreover, it’s difficult to appreciate someone wholly or love them with unvarying intensity over a sustained period of time. Conversely, any expectations we have that our romantic partners should, or even could, consistently and passionately appreciate us are certainly unrealistic.

Familiarity, Proust argues, can dissipate even the most heated passions. In fact, this idea is a recurring motif in Proust’s life and work. Writing about the advent of the telephone, Proust observes how quickly something can move from a dazzling invention to an everyday object. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. By 1907, Proust described the telephone as: A supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving a thought, to summon our tailor or to order ice cream.

In Proust’s world, everything – from love to telephones – loses its magic with familiarity and time. Does that mean lasting love is out of reach?

Not exactly.

Proust had poor health. Well, that’s putting it mildly. His ailments ranged from asthma and indigestion to a debilitating phobia of mice. As a result, he was often bedridden. Once, when bed-bound, he began to think about Noah, from the biblical story. Perhaps, hidden away from the world, he was feeling a little like Noah adrift on his ark. At first, Proust pities Noah, who is so isolated from the land. But soon, Proust grows to think that Noah, surrounded by water, must appreciate land more than anyone else on earth. He must imagine the bushes and mountains and trees of his homeland so vividly that, in a way, he sees them with far more accuracy in his ark than he ever would have on land. No one, Proust imagines, could love their home more than Noah does.

Through Noah, Proust suggests that even something which has become tediously familiar becomes precious when we are deprived of it. Of course, in a long-term, relationship it’s simply not feasible to, like Noah, sail away from your partner on an ark, and stay away for forty days and nights. But you can create an ark of your own. For Proust, a day or two ill in bed only sharpened his appetite to go out and see friends. Whether it’s a night away or a day spent out of contact, depriving yourself – even momentarily – of your partner affords you a chance to be dazzled by them anew.

Looking at the world from an artist’s perspective helps us see beauty in the ordinary.

In an unpublished essay, Proust imagines a gloomy young man sitting in his parents’ Parisian apartment. The remains of lunch are on the table. His mother knits in one corner. A cat curls on top of a cupboard. The young man is gloomy because he is an aesthete, obsessed with great art, fine food, and inspiring landscapes. Yet he doesn’t have the funds to purchase great art, dine on fine food, or travel to inspiring landscapes. How can the young man overcome this dissatisfaction?

Proust suggests a visit to the Louvre. But not, as you might think, to vicariously experience the Venetian canals or Greek temples depicted on some of the canvases there. Instead, he directs the man to seek out the work of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Chardin’s subject matter wasn’t grand but domestic. He painted workers, housewives, and middle-class families. His still-life canvases are simple arrangements of bread, fruit, fish, coffee pots, and salt cellars.

Why, when the young man longed for a world beyond his reach, would Proust send him to examine these ordinary scenes? Because Chardin painted the world the young man lived in. What’s more, he made it look extraordinary. While art can unfold extraordinary scenes before us, in Proust’s view, it has a more vital role: to surface the magic in ordinary scenes. When art enchants us every day, it invites us to take a second look at our own lives and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Proust signs off the essay by explaining this to the young man: When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.

Another disconsolate young man appears in the pages of In Search of Lost Time: the narrator, Marcel. Like the young man in the essay, he sits at home, bored and unhappy with the monotony of his bourgeois existence. But everything changes when his mother brings him a tray of afternoon tea. On the tray sits a now-famous pastry. It is a sponge cake, fluted like a seashell. It is, of course, a madeleine. Marcel bites into it – and his life changes.

Not because of the taste, exactly. At the turn of the twentieth century, Parisian patisseries offered sweet treats far more indulgent and elaborate than the simple madeleine. Rather, it recalls exactly the madeleines Marcel’s Aunt Leonie used to feed him when he was a child, staying with her in the village of Combray. All at once, he is transported back to the tastes, sights, and sounds of his childhood. Cue thousands of pages of Marcel’s musings and remembrances.

But Madeleine doesn’t just recall Marcel’s childhood. It does something more powerful. Minutes ago, as Marcel sat contemplating his life’s trajectory, his existence had seemed dull and dreary. Now, his childhood strikes him as a far more idyllic period than he remembered. The madeleine had re-enchanted Marcel’s own recollections of his life, transforming it from dull to enchanting.

But what if you want to re-enchant your life? Should you wait until you encounter your own version of the madeleine, whatever that may be? You could – but you might be waiting a while.

At another point in the book, the now-adolescent Marcel visits a seaside resort. Before he arrives, he is all anticipation. He imagines a romantically atmospheric setting: stark cliffs, dark ocean, brooding clouds. He is, in a prototypical Instagram-versus-reality situation, disappointed to find a fairly run-of-the-mill seaside town. The gap between Marcel’s expectations and the town’s reality threatens to ruin his holiday. Luckily he meets Elstir – remembers him? He’s the fictional Impressionist artist. Elstir invites Marcel to his studio. There, Marcel marvels at Elstir’s depictions of fishing boats shrouded in dawn clouds, and village women sitting like mermaids on seaside rocks. Elstir has found beauty in its surroundings. Looking at Elstir’s perspective, Marcel begins to perceive that beauty too.

Proust knows that ordinary life can be magical; a humble madeleine can be as exquisite as a three-course meal in Paris’s best restaurant. But here’s the thing. He doesn’t expect you to one day wake up and spontaneously see beauty all around you. He doesn’t even expect that you will one day be offered a madeleine – or whatever your madeleine equivalent maybe – that will jolt you into a new appreciation of your life. But he does believe you can come by that appreciation through careful study of artists who have made it their life’s project to illuminate the extraordinary within the ordinary. Artists like Chardin, Elstir, and, of course, Proust himself.

Proust has advice for nearly every occasion.

Hungry for more advice from Proust? Luckily, he was liberal with his ideas and opinions. So, I’ll leave you with a few more of Marcel Proust’s instructions for living.

Insomnia is, for some of us, unfortunately unavoidable. But it’s not without its merits. Here’s what Proust offers: A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing light upon that darkness.

With a little imagination, anything makes for good reading material. Proust reached his early twenties without having read Dostoevsky or Dickens – reading gaps which he later redressed – and was known to favor the French regional train timetable as bedtime reading. He was reported to find this pamphlet as evocative as any novel on provincial French life.

Intellectual snobbery is to be avoided. And besides, the fact that you share a favorite Tolstoy novel with someone doesn’t mean they’re good friendship material. In fact, when Proust met James Joyce, the two men found very little to say to each other. And when Proust was asked whether he considered his friends his intellectual peers, he retorted, I do my intellectual work within myself and once with other people, it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent as long as they’re kind.

When it comes to dating, playing hard to get is a failsafe strategy. Proust wrote: There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: No, this evening I shan’t be free.

There’s a simple hack that will ensure you get the most out of any dinner party you host. Proust made a habit of moving around the table with each course, eating his soup while conversing with one guest and finishing his fish while conversing with another. As one friend recalled, One can imagine that by the fruit he had gone all the way around.

Doctors, and the medical establishment in general, are an unfortunate necessity. Proust says: To believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe it were not a greater folly still.

Want to win friends and influence people? Do as Proust did and ask more questions than you answer. Friends remember him drawing out his conversational partners on all kinds of topics, up to and including the correct maintenance of motor cars. He was, says one friend, the best of listeners.

And, when all else fails, there are always books. Here’s Proust: In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend an evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.

Final summary

In Search of Lost Time is not just a literary masterpiece, but a treasury of characters who will expand your empathy, language that will make you see the world afresh, and ideas that remain as relevant today as when they were written. Committing to reading this work, and engaging with Proust’s ideas, will change the ways in which you think, perceive, and live.

And here’s some more actionable advice:

Be inspired to stop reading.

It was Proust’s firmly held belief that reading should be an incitement to living. If that means tossing a book temporarily aside, that’s okay. Has reading Proust inspired you to try something new or return to an old project? Don’t wait until you’ve finished the novel to get started. Instead, act like Virginia Woolf, who famously paused her reading of In Search of Lost Time to write another novel you may have heard of – Mrs. Dalloway.