Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of a Better Self

Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of a Better Self

Article excerpt


by Alain de Botton Picador, 12.99, pp. 215

Lurking in the world of letters there must somewhere be someone who could write a kindly introduction to Proust's In Search of Lost Time, whereby the reader would be taken by the hand and led gently through the text, skipping a paragraph here, a page or two there, until he or she, like all true admirers of Proust, is swept into the maelstrom of his great circular novel, fearful of ever again missing one word. For there are those, both welleducated and well-read, who still, after numerous attempts, fail to be captivated and thus, missing out on one of life's great pleasures, never manage to progress beyond the first or perhaps the second volume.

Might Alain de Botton's new book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, fulfil this function? Alas, that is not its purpose.

De Botton's intentions are somewhat different. He, I suppose, presumes that his readers will already be familiar with the master's work and so he sees it as his job, through an appreciation of the novel and some biographical sketches of Proust himself, to interpret for us how, if we properly understand In Search of Lost Time, we will be able to improve our spiritual quality of life.

With this in mind, he divides the book into chapters with headings such as `How to be a Good Friend', `How to Express Your Emotions' and `How to Suffer Successfully' and then extrapolates from the behaviour of the characters in Proust's novel and from other various writings (with no references given), how Proust, albeit unhappy himself, would have advised us to behave in order to be happy.

At intervals throughout the book, the reader may well wonder what audience de Botton sees himself as addressing. It is hard to imagine that an intelligent person who has read Proust - or indeed who hasn't -- really needs to be told that dukes are not better than dustmen - or, come to that, duchesses than dustwomen; nor that it is possible to seek beauty in the modern world, beyond the confines of a Carpaccio or a Veronese.

Of whom, outside Form 5a, can de Botton ask, `Why do we kiss people?' and reply:

At one level, merely to generate the pleasurable sensation of rubbing an area of nerve endings against a corresponding strip of soft, fleshy, moist skin tissue. . .

This reviewer was, unfortunately, intensely irritated by many aspects of de Botton's thesis, finding it superficial, often contrived and at times patronising. …

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