The Beatrice Interview

Alain de Botton

"Proust gives us a language to look at certain things with we didn't even think was possible before."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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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 interpretive work?

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'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 concern.

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 vein?

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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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
David Denby | Complete Interview Index | Paisley Rekdal

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