#3 How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Updated: Jan 25
Who is this Book for?
Romantics, Scholars, Literary buffs.
Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” has been heralded a masterpiece and considered by many as the most important novel of the 20th century. It’s more than a bit long at over 1,250,000 words ( twice the length of War and Peace). I just, somehow, downloaded all 7 books on Kindle for $1.39. ( don’t ask me how? I saw the opportunity so I did. :-) ) Opening it up I see that it is 2427 pages long! This should keep me busy for a while; I figure 5 pages a day and I’ll be done next year!! Lol. I heard that you should only read no more than 10 pages a day and really, you should, read one or two pages and then, in a journal, spin off into your own world from the effect of reading those one or two pages. Anyway, I had no inkling about Proust before now ( pronounced Proost) and because of this book I am thoroughly intrigued.
This blog entries book #3 of 22 How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton has turned out to be very informative. The book gives an apt description of the man himself and also explains a few of his belief sets. In his chapters, the author tends to try to answer how to see the world through Proust’s eyes in regards to various matters. Such as how to read for yourself, how to take time, how to suffer successfully, how to express your emotions, how to be a good friend, how to open your eyes, be happy in love, put books down. It was not an easy, breeze through read but it was very interesting to read and now has me fascinated with Marcel Proust’s epic “In Search of Lost Time” and so I am grateful for having read it. I give it a 7.8 out of 10 for likability and wisdom.
My 4 big takeaways from the book are:
(note: much of what is written below is Alain de Botton’s words as collected from the his book.)
1) Like Proust, we should learn to see the world through the artists eyes and not our own.
He writes about Monet and Chardin. When some of his not so rich friends were thinking that they weren't good enough for not living on the same level as the rich people - i.e. they were missing out, he would take them to the Louvre and show them the still life’s of Chardin and remind them that there is beauty in everything. With Monet’s impressionistic paintings, that the critics called childish, Proust found that “Monet freed himself from traditional, and in someways limited, representations of the subject matter in order to attend more closely to some, uncorrupted impressions of the scene. He's attempting to paint something of what we actually see when we look around, rather than what we know and see. To paint a visual impression before it has been overruled by what he knows.”
2) It is through the act of suffering that we truly can knowledge about ourselves in the world. His suggestion is that “we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer therefore we think. Painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, and effort which no one can spare us. Happiness is good for the body but it is grief which develops the strength of the mind. We would be better off being unhappy than content. Only when we are plunged into grief do we have the incentive to confront difficult truths. How can we learn to suffer more successfully?”
3) His writing with the “utmost sensibility and with the utmost tenacity” practically derailed Virginia Woolf. She, after reading Proust, practically was ready to give it all up but, of course, she carried on and wrote many famous books not the least being Mrs. Dalloway. P.s. I just watched Mrs. Dalloway the movie on Amazon Prime - a great movie, highly recommend it.
An example of his Proust’s writing: He had a hard time with clichés. After his friend gave him his new book to review, Proust would chastise him for writing cliches like “the moon shone discreetly” and instead offered to him, “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 attract attention to herself.” Ok, I guess I can dig a little deeper when writing my song lyrics. :-)
4) The Proustian effect - that of having a smell, taste or sound dredge up a long-lost memory. Here's an example of his writing when he explains what happens when the narrator in his book tasted a cookie? or something in his tea: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent on the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the kids details of life had become indifferent to me, it's disaster innocuous, it's brevity illusionary… I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”
Here are some notes that I made for myself to remind me about the book.
Overall, it wasn't a breezy book to read but much of that I see as the author and Proust being kindred spirits and Proust’s intellect rubbing off on the author.
The central theme of the novel is the search for the causes behind the dissipation and loss of time. Far from a memoir it is practical universal application story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life. Therefore it helps us learn to adjust our priorities.
One idea he had: If the world was to end tomorrow, our moments today would be heightened and our laziness to acknowledge it would cease. We would reevaluate our priorities.
“The Search of Lost Time” has over 1,250,000 words. There were seven volumes (books) 1-7
His approach to looking at paintings; he would look at them and see people in his life depicted in the paintings.
On books. “One cannot read a novel without ascribing to the heroine the traits of the one we love.” “The experiences of fictional characters afford us a hugely expanded picture of human behaviour.”
“The value of a novel is not limited to depiction of emotions and peoples to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe far better then we would have been able to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as a our own but could not have formulated on our own. The book will have sensitized us stimulating our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.”
His assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of the subject matter and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter and hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in a famous painting.
For example when reading the train timetable and looking deeper into the aspects the times and locations for pick ups his imagination would run wild.
"In love, there is permanent suffering. Those who love and those who are happy or not the same.”
He goes to sleep at seven in the morning and wakes up at 4-5 in the afternoon. He gets colds, coughs all the time, doesn't like to travel, sensitive to altitude, has sensitive skin, wears his underpants to bed in a certain way, only eats once a day, has terrible digestion, has asthma. Works all night and sleeps all day. Works from his bed. At 30 he says he is “without pleasures, objectives and activities or ambitions, with the life ahead of me finished and with an awareness of the grief I caused my parents, I have a little happiness.” He has an unwillingness to get out of bed, a noise sensitivity from the neighbours, disbelief in others when they insinuate that he is not sick and thinks he's going to die all the time.
From this sickly state of mind he professes that we don't really learn anything properly until we experience a problem, until there is pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped. For instance, a little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep.
Through philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom could seem to lie in pursuing ways to properly and productively be unhappy.
The stubborn reoccurrence of misery means that one should development a workable approach to it.
“The whole art of living is to “make use” of the individuals through whom we suffer.“
“Grief, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart. “
"The finest thing about betrayal and jealousy: it's ability to generate the intellectual motivation necessary to investigate the hidden signs of others.”
Proust warns us when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture chambers or skeletons.
“There are many significant things to learn about people by looking at what annoys them the most. “
Wanting to sound like a good person has his temptations. There are inherited habits of speech guaranteed to make a person sound authoritarian, intelligent, worldly, grateful or deeply moved. But Proust really didn't like this. He thought every writer should be obliged to create his own language as a violinist is obliged to create its own tone, they should write well only on condition that they're original and that they create their own language.
On love. The feeling of love can have an extraordinary number of origins, some more valid than others.
Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have been at work, and it is the task of ours to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us. The moral? That real life can be a stranger substance than cliché life.
As it turns out, he was a very good at being a friend too many people.
They said of him, “He was a paragon of companionship, and embodiment of friendships every virtue.” “He was generous and he told his friends that there was no better way of proving your friendship than by accepting.” “He would always tip generously 200% at restaurants.” “He was always curious, he took an interest in you instead of trying to make you interested in him.” “Never have I seen a less ego or egotism.” “He always wanted to amuse you." “He apologized for almost everything.” “His conversation is dazzling.”
But at the same time in private he had a different view a friendship. Despite the dazzling conversation and dinner partners he believed, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our heart we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that he's alive bracket.)”
He says “A friend is no more than a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irredeemably alone. “
He met up with James Joyce who wrote Ulysses and between the two of them they didn't talk at all even though their novels were among the most profound and sustained utterances both men were capable of and viewed as a forum in which to express their deepest selves. I guess they used their writing to express themselves and not conversation.
“A book is the product of another self to the one we display in our habits, and society, in our vices.”
It is written that “His psychological insight was so great that it had threatened to put a palm reader out of her job, and could be wholly directed towards identifying the appropriate word, smile, or flour to win others over.” And I guess it worked. A lot of people wrote whole books about the friendship that they once had with Marcel Proust.
He thought for sure that "conversation required an application of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. “ He valued friendship for mostly the warmth and affection as opposed to the intellectual friendships. “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 are kind, sincere.”
“Friendship doesn't exist and love is a trap. it only reveals it's up to us by making us suffer.”
In the act of reading books he feels, “Friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with a book. If we spend an evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to. We laugh at so-and-so has to say only so far as we find it funny; when he bores us we are not afraid to look bored, and once we have definitely had enough of him and put him back in his place as abruptly as if he had neither genius nor celebrity.” In other words when we put down the book.
He thought the “pursuit of affection” and the “pursuit of truth” fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible.
In Search of Lost time has been characterized an unusually long, unsent letter.
Having described artists as creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention, the novel gave Proust the chance to mention them all.
He was a big fan of Chardin's paintings: the apples, little things around the house, still life’s and he would recommend someone who was thinking they were devalued by going to look at these famous paintings. When you walk around the kitchen, you will say to yourself, this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin. There was no good reason to be envious of any condition beside your own, that a hovel was as nice as a villa and an emerald no better than a chipped plate. … The play of light on the spoon, fibrous softness of the tablecloth, the velvety skin of a peach, or the pinky stones of an old man skin, qualities that can inspire our impressions of beauty. It’s a certain way of looking, as opposed to a mirror process of acquiring and processing. Examples of this were the awareness of light falling across Central Square in mid afternoon, the smell of aunt Leons's bedroom, the moistness of the air on the banks of the river, the sound of the garden bell, the aroma of fresh asparagus for lunch details that suggest it would be more accurate to describe “the Madeline" as provoking a moment of appreciation rather than recollection. The whiteness of the cotton dress, the reflection of the sea in the hall of the yacht, or the contrast between the colour of the jockeys coat and his face.
He gives an example of how someone looked at Rembrandts famous painting The Philosopher and he says, “a philosopher whose interest is of course understated, subtle, calm… It all amounts to an intimate, democratic, unsnobbish vision of the good life, one safely within reach of someone earning a bourgeois salary and devoid of anything luxurious, imposing, or aristocratic. “
He himself was quite high class as he went to the Ritz all the time and he used elaborate names in his addresses and he went to many, many parties but as he said “in the end I realized that the snobbish longing to associate with those is rank and should, it seems, be a banded in favour of a gracious accommodation to our lot.”
Prost’s maid was uneducated; she couldn't read and thought that Napoleon Bonaparte were two different people but she was “full of extraordinary gifts”. He would say, “the ability to identify emperors and spell proximately is not in itself enough to establish the existence of something as hard to define as intelligence.”
He recognized that it was quick to get used to things and it was difficult to maintain an appreciative relationship with anything or anyone that was always around.
Interesting analogy with Noah and the Ark. Noah was 600 years old and once he got in his Arc, not being able to see any of the landscape anymore, he only had only his memories to rely on.
From this point of view Noah would naturally have begun to focus on the memory of bushes, trees, mountains and therefore for the first time in 600 year life began to see them properly.
“It would help us to pay more attention to things, lovers in particular.”
Proust understood the benefits of delay.
“There's no doubt that a persons charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as no, this evening I should be free.”
“Poverty, more generous than opulence, gives women far more than the clothes that cannot afford to buy: the desire for the clothes which creates a genuine, detailed, thorough knowledge of them.”
And Jealousy in a relationship as a good thing.
“What are the secrets to a long lasting relationship? Infidelity. Not the act itself, but the threat of it. And injection of jealousy is the only thing capable of rescuing a relationship ruined by habit. “
“When you come to love with a woman, you will soon see everything of what made you love her though it is true that standard elements can be reunited by jealousy. Afraid of losing her, we forget all others. Sure of keeping her, we compare her to those others whom at once we prefer to her.”
“When two people part is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.”
Regarding books: “What they can do is bring back to life from the deadness caused by bad habits and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”
“There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself then by trying to re-create it in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.”
“We should read other peoples books in order to learn what we feel: it is our thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer's thoughts and help us to do so the author offerings may be called conclusions but for the reader incitements. The author leads off and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires. “
“Reading is on the threshold of a spiritual life, it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”
Because books are so good at helping us to become aware of certain things we feel, Proust recognizes the ease with which we could be tempted to leave the entire task of interpreting our lives to these objects.
Reading Prost nearly silenced Virginia Woolf. “Take a post after dinner and put him down. This is the worst time of all. It makes me suicidal. All seems insipid and worthless. One has to put the book down and gasp.” “The thing about Prost is this combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. For years I've been putting off finishing but now thinking I may die in one of these years. I returned and let my own scribble do what it likes.” Of course she goes on to be successful writer.
Marcel Proust caught a cold and died when he was 51.