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Marcel Proust, like his fellow modernist icons, Kafka and Joyce, produced a literature which is entirely personal, devoid of the kind of universality which had, up until their time, characterized the Western Canon.  If it is a coincidence, it is a revelatory one, that the key moment in Swann's Way, if not in all of In Search of Lost Time, comes with a perversion of the Communion.  A bite of madeleine and a sip of tea sends Proust's narrator/Proust reeling back through the years, turns him entirely inwards, and inundates him with personal memories and feelings.  During this reverie, Proust's older self essentially communes with his younger self, or selves.  Here we have the individual, whole unto himself, needing only his own feelings and memories to find those things which give his life meaning.

This stands thousands of years of the Judeo-Christian tradition on its head.  It has been the dream of Western man, and a noble one, that we might rise beyond purely personal concerns and achieve something together as a species, achieve one day a kind of godhood ourselves.  In no small part, it is this shared dream, and its requirement of communality, which has led us to create the liberal protestant capitalist democratic institutions which have made possible social progress over the past several centuries.  Though these institutions vindicate individual rights, they are focussed on the ways in which men can co-exist and work together.  Each in its own way is premised on the Golden Rule : Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  Each of us, as individuals, will reap the benefit of the general adherence to this stricture, but it is primarily concerned with how we behave towards others.  Similarly, during the Communion we turn not inwards but outwards, remembering the sacrifice that Christ made, taking our sinfulness upon himself, that we might approach closer to God.

It is unsurprising then that the 20th Century, with Proust (and Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Joyce) leading the intellectual way, saw the near collapse of Judeo-Christian tradition and Western institutions and a descent into barbarism, as people acted out the ideas of the vanguard, with every man seeking only his own self interest.  What is surprising is that so many chose to listen to the utter blather of such men.  And none of those men, bizarre as they generally were, made a more unlikely prophet than Proust.

A truly curious conceit animates the cult of Proust, the belief that the very characteristics which made Marcel Proust so completely aberrant, also made him uniquely perceptive about the human condition. Here's how de Botton puts it :

    The magnitude of Proust's misfortunes should not be allowed to cast doubt on the validity of his
    ideas.

    ...

    Though philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater
    wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy. The stubborn
    recurrence of misery means that the development of a workable approach to it must surely outstrip
    the value of any utopian quest for happiness. Proust, a veteran of grief, knew as much.

Meanwhile, here's as good a one sentence description of Proust as I could find :

    A mother's boy who never really grew up, a part-genuine, part-imaginary invalid totally incapable
    of looking after himself, a reluctant homosexual who may never have known genuine fulfillment, he
    spent his early manhood in Parisian high society and then retired, hermit-like, to his famous
    cork-lined room, where he turned day into night and night into day.
        -John Weightman, Books Unlimited review of  How Proust Can Change Your Life

Okay, so that would make him a gay, hypochondriacal, mama-loving, French, recluse.  And it necessarily raises the question : what does someone who was little more than a bundle of neuroses--someone who seemingly incorporated most of the pathologies of a 20th Century which we generally consider to have been a blood soaked disaster--have to tell us about life in general ?

Alain de Botton believes Proust has quite a bit to tell us, and he tries mightily to make Proust seem pertinent to our lives.  In effect, de Botton reads In Search of Lost Time as a huge self help manual.  This is often very funny, and is presumably intended to be ironic, but is ultimately unconvincing.  The many stories he tells about Proust and about contemporary reaction to his writing are quite amusing, but he can never quite get us convincingly past that first big hurdle : Proust was simply too screwed up for us to accept that he has much to say to us.  Having successfully turned inward himself, he found nothing but himself, and an unpleasant self at that.  The resulting fiction is necessarily idiosyncratic and personal, rather than universal.  In the end, all Proust really had to say was what it was like to be Proust, which does not seem to have been a particularly enjoyable experience.  Combine that with the fact that he said it in the most stultifyingly boring fashion and at interminable length and there's just no compelling reason to read him.

Each chapter of de Botton's book is based on something he maintains Proust can teach us, and the final chapter is called "How to Put Books Down." One has to assume that this is intentionally humorous on de Botton's part, because there may be no other author who has forced as many readers to put his book's down as Proust.  They are truly unreadable, as the comments of even his friends and family acknowledge.  If, like me, you feel some obligation to at least familiarize yourself with Proust's work, do yourself a huge favor and read How Proust Can Change Your Life instead of the original novels.  Despite its ostensible intent, it will cure you of any desire to pick up a Proustian tome in the first place.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Literary Criticism
Alain de Botton Links:
-ESSAY: Culture Of Discontent: As a society we have access to more wealth and material goods than at any time in history, so why are we so miserable? Author Alain de Botton investigates the modern phenomenon he calls Ôstatus anxietyÕ (Alain de Botton , 29 February 2004, Sunday Herald)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Alain de Botton (Author's Website)
    -BOOKMARKS : Alain de Botton (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -EXCERPT : from How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain de Botton
    -ESSAY : Love and Reading (Alain de Botton, Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "alain de botton" (booksunlimited uk)
    -ESSAY : Which are the most overrated authors, or books, of the past 1,000 years? Continuing our series, the novelist and critic Alain de Botton nominates Crime and Punishment (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -ESSAY : Best of friends, worst of  friends : Marcel Proust?s work was one of the towering achievements of the 20th century. As a new film based on Time Regained opens, Alain de Botton examines a new volume of his letters  (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Marcel Proust: A Biography by Jean-Yves Tadié (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Translation of  Memories: Recollections of the Young Proust from the Letters of Marie Nordlinger by P. F. Prestwich (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Year of Reading  Proust: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of John Ruskin: No Wealth  But Life by John Batchelor (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino (Alain de Botton, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Identity by Milan Kundera  (Alain de Botton,  booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Only Love by Erich Segal   (Alain de Botton,  booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Chasing Cézanne by Peter Mayle  (Alain de Botton,  booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure by Paul Auster  (Alain de Botton,  booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of PARIS TO THE MOON By Adam Gopnik (Alain de Botton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Tuesdays with Morrie An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson. By Mitch Albom (Alain de Botton, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : PST Interviews Alain de Botton (Proust Said That)
    -INTERVIEW : A Conversation with Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy (Bold Type)
    -Alain de Botton (Bold Type)
    -PROFILE : ALAIN DE BOTTON (Samir Raafat,  Egyptian Mail, Saturday, July 17, 1997)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Frank Gannon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (David Futrelle, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (John Weightman, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (JULIE K.L. DAM, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Scott Morris, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (John Sturrock, Electronic Mail & Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton  (Patrick Hughes, SF Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Amy Kiernan, Humanitas)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (John Updike, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life By Alain de Botton (Sebastian Faulks, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton  (Benito Rakower,  Washington Post)
    -REVIEW :  of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Joseph Miller, Literascape)
    -REVIEW : of How Proust... (Catstep Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy By Alain de Botton (Jonathan Lear, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Ann Wroe, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  (Virginia Vitzthum, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  ( Sienna Powers, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  (Richard Seltzer)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  (RAIMOND GAITA, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton  (Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT Sex, Shopping and the Novel. By Alain de Botton (1995) ( Lisa Zeidner, NY Times Book Review)

MARCEL PROUST :
    -See Brothers Judd's Proust links
 

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : Mallomar memories : Biting into one is all about love and loss and family and ... Oh, who are we kidding: They just taste so good! (King Kaufman, Salon)
    -ESSAY: LOST IN TRANSLATION: PROUST AND SCOTT MONCRIEFF (William C. Carter, Public Domain Review)

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