From the title and the chapter headings, this promises to be a very irritating book indeed: superfluous, semi-biographical criticism of a canonical author dressed up in nudging ‘irreverence’ from the student bar, like Travesties without the drama, or Monty Python twenty-five years too late.
Alain de Botton has written a meditation on aspects of Proust presented in the form of a self-help book, so that the chapter entitled ‘How to Be Happy in Love’, for instance, considers what Proust had to say about the subject in his novel, how his characters fared, how this differs from his personal experience and what moral – both aesthetic and practical – the rest of us can draw from it. The tone is playful; the conclusion is that ‘even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside’.
Why has de Botton chosen this potentially infuriating form to write about an author he clearly admires and about whose life he is well informed? A desire to fool around or a real conviction that this method can yield results a more traditional one could not? Only he can say what his motives were; and only we can say whether the result is a success.