Pessimism the Proustian way

How Proust Can Change Your Life
April 25, 1997

In 1912 Marcel Proust sent the manuscript of Swann's Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, together with recommendation letters from his influential friends, to various reputable publishers in Paris. They all rejected it. "I fail to see why a chap needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep'', was one reader's comment, while Andre Gide turned it down for Gallimard saying that it was "the story of a little boy who can't go to sleep". Yet when the novel was published the following year, paid for by Proust himself, many critics and writers in France and abroad hailed it as a masterpiece, comparing its author to Shakespeare, Stendhal, Balzac. Others, equally numerous and distinguished, criticised it vigorously. A French critic recently suggested that a parlour game could be devised in which the participants would guess the reaction of literary luminaries to Proust's masterpiece to illustrate the evolution of contemporary sensibility.

Q: Who wrote "No study of this desert of loneliness and recrimination that human beings call love has been stated and developed with such satanic lack of scruples"?

A: Samuel Beckett, in his 1931 essay on Proust.

Q: Who said that Proust had exhausted the possibilities of the traditional narrative novel?

A: Nathalie Sarraute, the founder of the Noveau Roman - you might say "apr s Proust, le deluge".

Proust won the Prix Goncourt in 1919 for A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, the second volume of A la Recherche, and died three years later, still writing and correcting the last pages of its fourth and final volume, Time Regained. Today Proust's monumental book is considered the emblematic novel of our time, yet there are still many who find him hard going, to say the least.

Part of the controversy was about Proust's style - "No one knows less syntax than me'', he admitted. Elaborate long sentences, sometimes running to several pages, bristling with subordinate clauses and accompanied by flotillas of punctuation marks daunted the readers. Proust's devotees find in this rambling prose the mark of a subtle, tentative mind: this is how an intelligent person thinks. For Proust a sceptic's life is too short to be spent in the mazes he creates.

Proust's father was an eminent doctor and surgeon who spent his life trying to improve the standards of public health. He wrote 34 books, many of them keep-fit self-help manuals. "Ah! Celeste, if I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick!'', Proust confided to his maid. Alain de Botton's delightful reflection on Proust proves that he can. In nine delicious chapters "Doctor" de Botton gives as many "consultations" to Proust's readers. He discusses their symptoms, diagnoses their illness, and prescribes the remedies he has found in Proust's work.

In "How to read for yourself" he agrees with Proust that "In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself." As well as making us feel less alone, this enables us to recognise the pattern of our own behaviour and perhaps alter it to our advantage.

In "How to take your time" he recounts the meeting of Harold Nicolson and Proust in 1919 at the Ritz. Nicolson was in Paris with the British delegation attending the Peace Conference following the Great War. "Proust asked me questions", Nicolson wrote in his diary, "Will I please describe the committee's work. I say 'Well, we generally meet at 10.00...' 'Mais non, mais non, vous allez trop vite. Recommencez... Precisez, mon cher, precisez'. So I tell him everything..."

N'allez pas trop vite may sum up Proust's enterprise, suggests de Botton, and that the advantage of not going too fast is that the "world has a chance of becoming more interesting... more importantly, going by slowly may entail greater sympathy."

According to Leon Daudet, "Proust was born without a skin''. He was delicate, suffered from asthma - which eventually killed him - and a host of other physical and psychological ailments. He had an unusual aptitude for misery. In "How to suffer successfully" de Botton goes through Proust's endless problems: "The problem of a Jewish mother", of "awkward desires" - the discovery of his homosexuality - of "Romantic pessimism". But he used his infirmities in the service of his art: "Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn... Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind... Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart." De Botton suggests that for Proust "Suffering is a precondition of insight... We suffer, therefore we are", and concludes that in reading Proust we can recognise our afflictions and understand them better.

Proust had a great number of friends who spoke of his generosity, courtesy, goodness, modesty. "He was the best of listeners", wrote one. "He took an interest in you instead of making you interested in him." Even the egregious anti-Semite Daudet succumbed to his charm. Yet he did not believe in friendship: "Friendship does not exist... It is a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irredeemably alone." Perhaps because he found the desire for affection incompatible with truthfulness, which is a precondition of real friendship, he preferred books: "In reading friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to." Nevertheless he proposed that "the scorners of friendship can...be the finest friends in the world", and de Botton believes that we can learn from him "How to be a good friend" because "these scorners approach the bond with more realistic expectations".

No one surpasses Proust in describing the torments of unrequited love, the pangs of jealousy, the minute shifts of feelings. Yet he did not believe in love. "Love is an incurable disease," he wrote. "In love, there is permanent suffering." De Botton suggests that Proust's "Romantic pessimism was at least partly founded on the combination of an intense need for love and tragi-comic clumsiness in securing it". His love life consisted of a series of "crushes" on young men who did not return his feelings. For a while he was fairly happy with Alfred Agostinelli, a taxi-driver who moved into his house with his wife, but he soon died in a plane crash. Thereafter nothing but pessimistic pronouncements: "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'." Jealousy and uncertainty can keep the fire of passion aflame for a while, but habit dulls and extinguishes it in the long run.

In his final chapter, "How to put books down", de Botton warns of the dangers of artistic "idolatry". Reading Proust can silence us, as it nearly did Virginia Woolf: "Well - what remains to be written after that?" she wondered. Or you may spend too long in Illier-Combray instead of reading him. Proust has once again the answer: "It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books... that for the author they may be called 'Conclusions' but for the reader 'Incitements'... that our wisdom begins when that of the author leaves off." And de Botton concludes that "Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside". But this concise, witty and charming study deserves to be placed on the shelf beside In Search of Lost Time. Proust aficionados will relish its brilliance, while Proust sceptics will be encouraged to have another go.

Shusha Guppy is London editor, The Paris Review.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Author - Alain de Botton
ISBN - 0 330 34762 4
Publisher - Picador
Price - £12.99
Pages - 215

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