Alain de Botton's fourth book, How Proust Can Change Your
Life, is emphatically described as "not a novel." Instead, it's a group of
essays that consider Marcel Proust, the famed author of In Search of Lost
Time (or, as it was formerly translated in English, The Remembrance of
Things Past), with an eye towards such themes as "How to Love Life Today"
and "How to Suffer Successfully." But then, de Botton's earlier novels always
had a degree of intellectual playfulness to them, along the lines of Julian
Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot or A History of the World in 10 1/2
Chapters. "I've gone from having written essayistic novels to writing
novelistic essays," he reflects over breakfast one morning. "It's a question of
where the emphasis lies. This is nonfiction in the sense that there's nothing
made up in it, apart from the imaginary conversation between Proust and
Joyce." The inventiveness lies in de Botton's interpretation of the historical
facts and the writing--an interpretation that convincingly explains what one
of the classics of modern literature says to us about our own lives.
RH: Have you always been interested in analytical or
ADB: Yes, I have, and that's in part what drew me to Proust. He, himself,
was very analytical. I suppose that what I like to do, both in my previous
novels and in this book, is to try to draw out the relevance of certain ideas, to
take certain everyday things and go into them more deeply. Proust does this in
his writing; I was able to follow him where he went and at the same time make
points of my own.
RH: I find the "self-help" aspects of the book interesting.
There are, after all, so many self-help manuals and guidebooks out
there, and at the same time, one of the arguments frequently made
for "great literature" is that it is supposed to make you a better
person having read it.
ADB: The self-help books are considered trashy but claim very openly to
be able to change your life, while the "Great Books," their value is...it's almost
rude to ask about that. It's like asking someone how much money they make.
It's considered rather base to say, "What is the point of Shakespeare? Or
Dante? Or Proust?"
My book starts from a skeptical point of view, not quite cynical, just, "What is
so great about this guy Proust?" I knew, writing the book, that I was on his
side, but I didn't take it for granted that the reader would be. I thought my
task was to make the case for Proust, especially to a rather skeptical person
who hadn't read Proust, and saw no reason to be interested in the man unless
there were reasons given, good reasons.
RH: He is, after all, one of the truly daunting authors . . . I
mean, you've got this seven-volume work to face.
AdB: He's got a terrible image. He's considered very nineteenth-
century, very difficult to read. I think that, yes, he's long, but he's not really
difficult. His ideas are rich and subtle, but he's not difficult in the way that,
say, Nietzsche is difficult, and even Nietzsche has prose that is easy in
comparison to some philosophers.
One imagines that Proust died very long ago, but he really was of this century;
he lived until 1922. He wrote about telephones and planes and cars. Also, he
was a real modernist innovator, rather like Joyce. He pushed the boundaries
of the novel and made it into something slightly different.
We live in an age when things have to justify themselves quite quickly or in
quite practical terms, and I think literature, great literature, can have that
done to it. It's just the way that the academic framework encloses great works,
creates a rather deadening effect around them.
RH: They analyze the text, but don't necessarily consider the
relevance to a reader's life or situation.
ADB: Exactly. Relevance is a good word. It was a key word for me
because I really did want to make Proust relevant--I think he can be relevant.
One of my great struggles writing the book was to try to find a grid for the
ideas, an argumentative chain that makes this book different from others that
have similar things to say bout Proust. One always finds discussions of "Proust
and Time" or "Proust and Love," "Proust and Whatever," but it tends to be often
in an irrelevant way, or in a non-relevant way, where there's not that
RH: As you were building up the case for Proust, what did you
consider to be your key arguments?
ADB: What tends to happen after you've read Proust is that you go
through life and there'll be lots of situations when you're led to say, "God,
that's so Proustian." I think that's because Proust sensitizes us to certain
things that go on. I guess all novelists do that; all writers, but Proust in
particular gives us a language to look at certain things with, a language we
didn't even think was possible before. It's like a friend mentioning an
emotion you've actually felt, but never knew could be described that way.
Suddenly you get to know yourself better and you get to know the world better.
The final chapter talks about how we shouldn't take books too seriously.
Rather, we should have limits about how we read-who's important? I felt that I
had been very impressed by Proust, but I sensed the danger of being
overimpressed by a writer to the extent that you start to think that you should
give up writing. So it was very nice to hear Proust talk about his situation with
Ruskin's books, to hear a truly great writer making a point that... I mean, if
someone else had told me, "Don't take books too seriously," I would have
thought . .
RH: "But I'm a writer!" (laughs)
ADB: Exactly. Or "What's their agenda?" Maybe they just don't like
books. But for to hear it from Proust, who so obviously did love literature and
devote his life to it... I think that's very impressive. His life was such a disaster
and so unwise, but his voice is very wise. The things that he says, for instance,
about suffering, I found very interesting, the way that he urges us to focus on
how to suffer better rather than how to be happy. Life is suffering, and so
what we should try to do is make the best of our suffering, learn from our
suffering. That seems a very valid point.
RH: Did you ever feel overwhelmed by your subject?
ADB: Definitely. It was a very difficult book to write because of that
reason. Twenty-five volumes of letters, the seven volumes of the novel, and so
many huge critical studies, books about Proust, et cetera. I had to remind
myself, "In the end, I've got to stick to what I feel about this book. I have no
responsibility to cover everything about Proust."
RH: Do you want to continue in this novelistic essay
ADB: I think my next book will be in that vein. It will be nonfiction, but
with novelistic touches--or perhaps not novelistic as much as playful, more
personal, more relevant.
RH: But it's not a full shift from having been a novelist who's
now a nonfiction writer?
ADB: When I was a novelist, I would be happy to have been called a
writer rather than a . . . that is, I see myself as a writer rather than as a
novelist or whatever. The Proust book comes out of the same part of me as the
novel. I don't see maybe that much of a marked change. But I am interested in
bouncing off other writers in a more formal way at the moment. There's just a
kind of freedom in looking at someone's thought and then coming to find
one's own self in relation to that thought.
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