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.
I think it is, though the reason it works well seems a quite old-fashioned one. If you have been excited by a long chess match, you don’t just read the short news story of the result in the paper; you can take any amount of analysis and discussion with friends.
If yo u have been thrilled by Proust, even George D Painter’s biography is not enough to satisfy your hunger; Alain de Botton’s book is like an enlightened chat in the pub with a fellow enthusiast.
As in any proper pub-talk, violent disagreement is essential. So when de Botton discusses Proust’s habit of relating figures in paintings to people he knew, and goes on to say how much Albertine reminds him of his girlfriend Kate – he even prints a picture of her to prove it – one is entitled to say, ‘Oi! De Botton! No! ‘
But when he quotes the wonderful passage in which Proust describes Albertine’s nasal way of speaking, one is so enchanted that one can almost forgive him for comparing Gilberte to a bird he met on a skiing holiday.
In ‘How to Suffer Successfully’, he gossips away agreeably about Proust’s health. While George Painter in his description of Proust’s first asthma attack in the garden at Auteuil produced a piece of writing that is a perfect simulacrum of some of the finest in Proust himself (or at least in Scott-Moncrieff), de Botton reminds us that Marcel’s younger brother Robert was the author of The Surgery of the Female Genitalia and was so famous for his prostatectomies that they became known in France as proustatectomies. What a falling-off was there, from. Painter to de Botton? Yes, but it’s a different kind of venture.
De Botton navigates the dangers of his chosen form with great skill. This is largely because he has that old but quite rare literary gift of decorum; his lucid and unpretentious style is able to accommodate both precise literary points and conversational banter without any undue sense of strain. Occasionally, in fact, he underrates his own precision. Where Proust would make a point at length, then amplify at even greater length by analogy or metaphor, de Botton sometimes merely repeats himself in different words. Although this is quite a short book, and an easy one to read, it could have been even shorter.
This is not a serious drawback, however. A measure of how well the book works is that it becomes more enjoyable as it goes on; de Botton has charm as well as wit, and one’s initial reservations gradually evaporate – until the Acknowledgements, that is. Here, in the current style, apocalyptic gratitude jostles self-promotion, as in an Oscar speech by Sally Field. This is not just embarrassing, it is self-defeating: the ‘sharp-eyed’ proofreaders are thanked by name, so we know who’s responsible for twice passing ‘who’ for ‘whom’ and various other minor slips.
The best chapter is called ‘How to Open Your Eyes’, and this comes close to the heart of the whole Proustian process.
There is nothing exactly new in it, but it is good to marvel again at the techniques by which Proust’s contemplation of the surfaces of things was able, in conjunction with certain operations of memory and imagination, to release from them a deeper but generally imperceptible reality. This leads to a witty conclusion about what Proust called the dangers of artistic idolatry – in which the admirer of Vermeer spends too much time looking at Delft or when Proustians linger at Illiers-Combray, whereas, de Botton points out, ‘the essence of Proust’s aesthetic position was contained in the deceptively simple yet momentous assertion that “a picture’s beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it.” ‘
The larky form of this book may well irritate some solemn people, and that would be a pity. A la recherche du temps perdu is in most ways a comic novel and it is certainly robust enough to withstand any amount of good-humoured gossip and re-examination. It might be said that it is unclear what the purpose of de Botton’s book is, or who, in an unlovely phrase, it is ‘aimed at’. However, it is a very enjoyable book; that is raison d’etre enough; and despite its post-Harry Enfield trappings, it manifestly belongs to a tradition which even thirty years ago people would have identified without difficulty: belles-lettres.