Proust Can’t Change Your Life: A Review of Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life”

In Search of Lost Time Vol 1

“In Search of Lost Times” Volume 1  (Click to See More)

Marcel Proust is commonly known as a consummate genius for his magnum opus: In Search of Lost Time. This novel is among the best examples of involuntary memory and a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Consequently, the book by Mr. Alain de Botton endeavors to focus on the life of the author and thereby see what lessons we can glean from his experiences and his quest to complete his momentous oeuvre. However, what the author accomplishes is to suck the life of a transcendent work and cast doubt on the validity or importance that it may represent.

Be prepared to be under-whelmed and uninspired. This book is wholly uninteresting and a waste of your time. With that disclaimer in mind, understand that this review probably contains spoilers.

How Proust Can Save Your Life

Proust can save your life… if you avoid doing what he did, that is. (Click to See the Book)

We are witness to the quotidian life of Proust—the hypochondriac, family ne’er-do-well who spends his days in bed and seems to contribute nothing to his family, life, or the world around him. It is from this point, that the author builds his argument. Namely, that in this desolate and seemingly desperate position, Proust manages to conjure up the mental wherewithal to compose the seven-volume novel that has immortalized him in the parthenon of literary greats.

This idealized picture of Proust, however, is a fallacy. What we see in Proust is a consummate aberration—the representative of the leisure class whose most-troubled child can still truly rise to greatness.

We are not witness to the great, often frantic workings of a true genius but rather a well-educated member of the French elite who has enough time to delicately compose his thoughts. This is not meant to serve as a critique of Proust’s work but rather the exposition of his life that de Botton provides us. “N’allez pas trop vite” (Don’t go too fast) the author declares as the typical Proustian idea. As if the long, drawn-out experience of writing his novel, or interacting with friends, or responding to correspondence, or living in the general sickly state Proust finds himself in is a thing to admire.

The book is built around the idea of simultaneously being a literary biography and a self-help manual. In terms of the latter, it is an abject failure. It is neither uplifting nor particularly helpful and simply shows inexplicably how Proust was able to survive past the age of twenty. In fact, the life story of Proust and his upbringing just reiterate the nature of how certain class privileges beget success per se and how irrelevant his work may be.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

Marcel Proust (1871-1922).  If I could find a portrait of Proust’s father, I would put it up here instead.

Proust had a famous father, who was a well-respected doctor and a successful author in his own right. He had the best education that a young lad could have had. He has every natural advantage that being a member of the French elite conveyed at that time. However, he existed in his own bubble of suffering, of self-imposed isolation, of leisure, and of highly-connected friendships. He was a good friend and was often very jovial at the few dinner parties he managed to attend amongst other social affairs. However, these facts do not redeem his character as one worthy of praise or as an example of how to lead your life. He is the anti-thesis of what a successful individual should endeavor to be and de Botton’s book reads like a turgid fan-fiction of someone, namely the author, who had read In Search of Lost Time one time too many. In the end, I am not convince there is anything in the life of Marcel Proust to emulate, and he is simply a rich, privileged man-child who had the mental capacity to apply his total lack of responsibilities and great education toward a rambling novel whose luster is now tarnished in light of this irrelevant and trite self-help biography.

Unless the author’s point was to show his readers what not to do and how not to live our lives and to convince us to embrace the anti-thesis of every word he wrote, do not bother with this book. This is either the most epic satire of all time or the embodiment of our collectively misplaced Eurocentric fetishism and its resulting rotting of our hearts and minds. The only insight I gained from this work was my own search for the lost time spent reading this superficial garbage.

Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Harold Alexander MesaHarold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things.  He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.

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