Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: How Proust can Change Your Life

There are some authors who can take complex ideas and create new depths of understanding with their analysis. And when they can do that while making me laugh, even better. Alain de Botton is the witty and talented author of numerous books including my new all-time favourite How Proust can Change Your Life which was first published in 1997.

Cover of How Proust can Change Your Life

This combination literary analysis and self-help book made me chuckle more than once. Alain de Botton dips into Marcel Proust's life, letters, conversations and books to create a self-help book that is actually life-changing and hilarious. The chapters are divided as follows:
1. How to love life today
2. How to read for yourself
3. How to take your time
4. How to suffer successfully
5. How to express your emotions
6. How to be a good friend
7. How to open your eyes
8. How to be happy in love
9. How to put books down

I'd picked up this book recently, not because of the title but because I recognized the author's name. I had very much enjoyed one of his more recent books  The Architecture of Happiness which was beautifully written. With the recent stresses I've been shouldering of late, there have been days when I just want to crawl under the covers and not come out! On the one day that I was able to actually do that, I took this book with me and it wasn't very long before I was in full belly laugh mode.

Before I read this book, I was under the impression that Proust was a literary giant from the get go. In fact, he was anything but. He was fired from his non-paying post at the Mazarine library after repeatedly failing to report for work. His own family considered him a failure (his father and brother were doctors) and he had to self publish his first book. And even though he was often ill with asthma, he lived life in a grand style, entertaining his friends lavishly. There is much to be learned from Marcel Proust and you don't have to read his books, journals and letters to become wise in a Proustian fashion because the author of How Proust can Change Your Life does it for you in the span of 197 pages.

One of the most hilarious parts is the chapter How to be a Good Friend. The author reveals that while Proust had a great many friends, including several who wrote books about their friendship with Proust (Maurice Duplay, Fernand Gregh and Marie Nordlinger), Proust actually had a more pragmatic and sometimes caustic view of friendship.

There is one incident in particular with his "friend" Fernand Gregh that reveals much. The two were old school chums and Gregh had an "influential position" with the literary paper La Revue de Paris. After Proust published his first collection of stories, Gregh did not review Proust's writing in La Revue. Instead Gregh wrote about "the illustrations, the preface, and the piano pieces that had come with the book and that Proust had had nothing to do with, and then added sarcastic jibes about the connections Proust had used in order to get his work published." And then only a few weeks later, Gregh sent Proust his own book The House of Childhood, "a collection of poems in the light of which Anna de Noailles's work could truly have been compared to Baudelaire's." Instead of taking his revenge, Proust actually wrote Gregh a generous letter of congratulations. "'What I have read struck me as really beautiful, ' Proust told Fernand. 'I know you were hard on my book. But that no doubt was because you thought it bad. For the same reason, finding yours good, I am glad to tell you so and to tell others.' " (pg.129).  The punch line of the story is that among the papers found after Proust's death was a note that Proust had written to Gregh before the one he actually sent. "It contained a far nastier, far less acceptable, but far truer message." (pg.129). The lesson of this story is that the truth about our friends is better suited to a private journal or unsent letter than sharing it with those that inspired such writing!

If you don't have the time, inclination or patience to read Proust's greatest works, or just want an intellectual laugh, spend an afternoon with Alain de Botton and you will be wiser for having done so (and probably have a few more friends to show for it)!

Title: How Proust can Change Your Life
Author: Alain de Botton
Publisher: Vintage International Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1998. USA
Category: Non-fiction; Marcel Proust, Humour, Literary, Self-help
Number of Pages: 197
Price: US $14, Canada $17.99 paperback