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.’
Proust changed Rose’s life, but he absolutely transformed the world of P. Segal, a San Francisco writer, caterer, bohemian diva, and publisher of Proust Said That, a fanzine and Web site (www.proust.com) with readers and contributors all over the world. In 1993 she co-founded the Proust Support Group to help would-be Remembrance readers in San Francisco make it to the end of the book. By the time she had scaled the Proustian mountain herself, she says, ‘I found that just about every time some friend of mine made an observation about life or love, I would reply with, ‘You know, Proust said that.”
Hence the zine, which mixes Proustian minutiae (madeleine recipes, recent mentions of Proust in the media) with scholarly assessments, fan letters, and Segal’s own exuberant accounts of her yearly Proust Wakes (where she serves some one hundred dedicated Proustites food mentioned in the novel, plus plenty of Pernod) and her trips to Marcel-related sites near and far.
‘I don’t know of anyone who is as obsessed with Proust as I am,’ says P. (who insists on keeping her first name hidden behind its Proustian initial), ‘but I know hundreds of people who care about Proust, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what he has to say to us now. We’ve had the women’s movement and the men’s movement, and we’re more confused than ever about relations between the sexes. The time has come to look at humanity as a whole–and that’s just what Proust does.’