How Proust Can Change Your Life

On the rememberence of things present

| March/April 1998

He was a neurotic mama's boy who lived with his mother until her death (when he was 34) and spent most of his waking hours under the covers, propped against pillows. His skin was too sensitive for soap. He was asthmatic and perpetually constipated. He wrote a 3,000-plus-page novel that at one point devotes 17 pages to a description of the narrator turning over in bed.

He was Marcel Proust and—believe it or not—he can help you lead a happier life. That, at any rate, is the conviction of a handful of contemporary Proustophiles. For them, his monumental novel Remembrance of Things Past (published in French between 1913 and 1927) is 'a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life,' as novelist Alain de Botton writes in How Proust Can Change Your Life (Pantheon, 1997).

Come again? How is this gargantuan, glacially paced story of a young man's emotional coming of age in cliquish Parisian high society, three times the length of War and Peace and written by one of the great pillow-huggers of all time, supposed to get you up and at 'em?

By the sheer power and aptness of Proust's observation of life, says de Botton. For example: Both in Remembrance and in his own warm and supportive relations with his friends, Proust offered instruction in the art of paying close attention to what's at hand as medicine for the dread so many of us feel that life is passing us by.

'The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust's therapeutic conception,' writes de Botton. 'It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.' The obsessive description for which Proust is famous is a kind of dedicated mindfulness, honoring humble things—like the insipid taste of a madeleine biscuit steeped in tea, which starts the whole Remembrance rolling—instead of the pipe dreams that betray us (and many of Proust's characters) into half-lives of wishing and hoping.

'He's been read as somebody who was obsessed with his own concerns,' says Phyllis Rose, a literature professor at Wesleyan University and author of a memoir, The Year of Reading Proust (Scribner, 1997), which looks to Proust for wisdom about everyday life. 'But most of what he writes is very outer-directed. He makes sense of how people behave in groups. After reading him, you develop a sort of X-ray vision about your own relationships.'

Walter Hawn
7/20/2009 4:38:29 PM

I won't be back to visit. The G*Dmed popup pelted me once too often

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