Here’s my second instalment for the blogging event Paris in July 2014.
You must have heard of this book by a Swiss-born Brit writing about a French novelist called Proust. You probably have read it, and let me guess, were surprised when reading the first chapters? Well, I was. For before reading this book, my knowledge of Alain de Botton, the popular British writer and media personality, mainly came from an art critic’s thoughtful posts on her blog.
Is Botton joking? This book reads like a parody.
First we are introduced to Dr. Proust, Marcel’s father, who was a renowned physician and prolific writer. His thirty-four books had helped the French people from defences against the plague to the correct postures and exercises for the ladies. Botton being an image-driven person does not hesitate to include some of Dr. Proust’s instructional illustrations for his female readers such as how to jump off walls, or balance on one foot.
Not your definition of parody? How about this chapter on ‘How to Suffer Successfully’. Proust is well known for his physical ailments, having had to lie in bed most of the time when he wrote the longest novel ever written, In Search of Lost Time. Botton exhaustively lists down the various trials Proust had to live with throughout his life:
- The Problem of a Jewish Mother
- Awkward Desires
- Dating Problems
- A Lack of Career in the Theatre
- The Incomprehension of Friends
- At 31, His Own Assessment
- Sensitive Skin
- Noise from Neighbours
… Should I go on? And oh, he does include Death.
I know, that’s what Botton does, bring the extraordinary into the ordinary realm of common readers, and by so doing, explaining Proust to us lowly creatures. And of course, it would help if you have at least read the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, for many of his examples are taken from there, so you would feel a resonance, or disagree with Botton’s interpretation, when he talks about Francoise, Swann, Albertine, Combray, or Balbec.
Do I get anything out of it? Plenty. I’ve lots of highlighted passages and my own handwritten notes on the margins. When Botton gets serious between the lines, he leaves me with some useful tips:
So if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines, and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect. (p.106)
For one thing, express your own feelings and ideas instead of saying ‘nice’, or describing the setting sun as ‘a ball of fire’. I love this little passage Botton quotes from Proust about the novelist’s description of his ‘lunar experience’:
Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, stout display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself. (p.98 of Botton’s, but no mention of where this is from Proust’s)
The key of course is not so much of trying to use a new language to describe a common scene or object, but to be able to look at them from a distinctively new perspective to begin with. How can we invent new lenses to see the world? Towards this end, Botton has failed to go further. So we’re told to avoid clichés, but not how. If you sense my ambivalence, you’re right.
In order to avoid clichés himself, Botton has resorted to hyperboles. The title of the book is a ready example. The 200 page book comprises of nine short chapters, each can be a book in itself. So you can expect the oversimplification of the ideas. Further, with no citing of sources for the Proust quotes, the critical reader could be left unsatisfied; it feels like Botton has jumped to generalizations and found expressions of his own thoughts from one or two excerpts of Proust’s. Makes one feel that Proust could just be a selling point.
However, this is an entertaining read, like a self-help manual with instructional tidbits and amusing images. The book is a mixed bag of common-sense wisdom, with a ‘moral’ at the end of each chapter. Throughout, it is obvious that Botton could well find it not as easy as he tells his readers to do… to be original and not say what others have said before. Here are some of his main points:
- Live life today
- Read books to form your own ideas
- Suffering makes you strong
- Find art and beauty in the ordinary
- Avoid clichés like the plague
- A time to pick up a book, a time to put it down
- Win friends by your praises
- but pour your honest criticisms of them into a work of fiction (now that’s a novel idea).
Is there anything new under the sun?
Speaking of the sun, take this to the beach. It would make one breezy read.
Lastly, following Botton’s (actually Proust’s) advice on reading:
We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so. (P. 195) Reading… is only an incitement…
So I’d say the moral is: read Proust yourself. Don’t let Botton tell you what Proust can do for you.
That’s just the prodding I need to press on to In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III.
Paris in July 2014 on Ripple Effects:
Related (Proust) Posts on Ripple Effects: