Book Summary: How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

Quick Summary: How Proust Can Change Your Life, a unique blend of literary self-help and Proust biography, was published in 1997 and demonstrates how Proust offers advice for almost any conceivable problem you might have, regardless of era.

If you’ve never heard of French author Marcel Proust, this book summary is a great place to start. If you’ve been meaning to read Proust for a long time, this summary might be just what you need. Even if you have no intention of ever reading Proust, you can benefit from the wonderful life lessons contained in Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, which was first published in 1913.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Lesson 1: Reading slowly helps us savor life

There’s a good reason why so few people read Proust despite the fact that many are happy to plow through other canonical classics like Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. It’s long. The Penguin Clothbound Classics edition is, in total, 3,444 pages long.

Not many of the 3,444 sentences are short and to the point. In fact, in volume 5, there’s a sentence so long it could wrap around the base of a wine bottle 17 times. In Search of Lost Time even inspired a Monty Python sketch: “All-England Summarize Proust Competition.” In the sketch, each contestant has 15 seconds to summarize all seven volumes – a comically impossible task.

But here’s the thing: the reason most people cite for not reading Proust is exactly the reason you should try reading Proust. Because it is so incredibly long, you should read In Search of Lost Time.

In today’s fast-paced society, efficiency and effectiveness are valued more than thoughtful reflection. We listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed, strive to answer emails within seconds, and read the news in tweets of 280 characters or fewer. Rather than reading books, we read Blinks. We know we should slow down, at least some of the time – but slowing down is hard.

Proust forces his reader to slow down. After all, it’s hard to speed-read a sentence that could wrap around a wine bottle 17 times. Proust allows for complexity, ambiguity, and nuance by favoring length.

He was especially irritated by the newspaper’s “news in brief” section, where stories like “disgruntled wife murders husband” and “factory worker electrocuted on the job” were summarized in a sentence or two. Never did he find all the answers he was looking for in them.

These fragments, in Proust’s view, reduced people to caricatures, masked their motivations, and prevented the reader from empathizing with them.

Every character in In Search of Lost Time, no matter how minor, is fully realized and complex, providing Proust with an antidote to the troubling news stories of his day. Seeing how empathetically Proust treats his characters can teach us to be more empathetic ourselves.

Another explanation The novel In Search of Lost Time is so lengthy because in it Proust tries to capture the essence of living.

without resorting to any tired metaphors or cliches.

The Impressionists were a group of French artists who rose to prominence during the same era that Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time. Today, Claude Monet’s splotchy paintings of water and sky are considered masterpieces. During that time period, they were universally despised. The criticism circulated that they were unrealistic. Those sloppy blobs of blue and pink oil paint did not even come close to depicting a lily pond.

Elstir, the protagonist of Proust’s novel, is a fictional Impressionist painter, and this is no accident. Proust had a deep understanding of the Impressionists and their work.

The Impressionists weren’t out to create a photo-accurate depiction of a water garden. They were aiming to capture the viewer’s impression of the lily pond rather than the pond’s precise physical features. This is what Proust hoped to accomplish with his writing.

He avoided cliches because he didn’t want to sound like a broken record. He didn’t want to rush through his writing and use cliches like “the silvery moon” just to move the story along. In its place, he offers this description of the moon:

An actress who does not have to “come on” for a while and thus goes “in front” in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background so as not to draw attention to herself, is represented by a white moon that occasionally creeps up like a little cloud in the afternoon sky.

In the same vein as the Impressionists, Proust encourages us to reevaluate the everyday sights and sounds around us, such as the moonlight in the afternoon. Proust had no problem with using a few more words here and there if that’s what it took.

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Lesson 2: Love should not be taken for granted

In In Search of Lost Time, the narrator spends much of his time wandering the countryside, going to dinner parties, and trying to fall asleep. The novel is notable for its long first chapter, in which he describes his insomnia. However, despite reading thousands of pages, he never finds true love. Some of the other couples in the book are less than ideal.

One of the worst marriages in literature is described in detail, that of Charles Swann, who is superficially in love, and his unfaithful wife Odette. Aside from the fact that he was gay at a time and place when homosexuality was socially unacceptable, we know very little about Proust’s love life.

If that is so, then perhaps Proust has nothing to teach us about love. Perhaps not right off the bat. Indirectly, however, he speaks extensively on the subject, beginning with his narrator’s first encounter with Gilberte. The narrator and protagonist, Marcel, sees Gilberte playing on the Champs Élysées when he is a young boy. This immediately arouses his curiosity.

He dreams of being her friend and drinking tea with her with great affection. Then suddenly all his fantasies come true. Marcel is invited to afternoon tea by Gilberte. After being completely fascinated for the first fifteen minutes, Marcel begins to realize that while Gilberte is wonderful, the Gilberte of his imagination was even more wonderful when she poured tea and cut cakes.

What exactly are we supposed to take away from this? In general, real people fall short of our expectations. It is also difficult to love someone with constant fervor and appreciation over a long period of time. In contrast, the idea that our romantic partners should or even could show us constant and passionate appreciation is naive to say the least.

According to Proust, familiarity has the power to cool even the hottest passions. This theme runs like a thread through Proust’s life and work. When he describes the development of the telephone in his writings, Proust comments on how quickly a once remarkable innovation can become an ordinary part of daily life.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell created the first practical telephone. A supernatural instrument whose wonder we once stood in awe of and which we now use without hesitation to call our tailor or order an ice cream,” is how Proust describes the telephone in 1907.

In Proust’s universe, everything from love to the telephone loses its luster with use and age. What, you can not find true love?

You would be wrong.

It’s no secret that Proust’s health was poor. To put it mildly, not good. His physical problems included asthma, gastrointestinal problems, and an extreme fear of mice. For this reason, he spent a lot of time in bed. During one particularly long bed rest, he found himself thinking about the biblical character Noah. Perhaps being cut off from the world made him feel like Noah on the ark. In the beginning, Proust feels sorry for Noah because he is so far from the mainland.

Later, however, Proust concludes that Noah, surrounded by water, must appreciate the dry land more than anything else. He must have a very vivid image of the bushes, mountains, and trees in his homeland, so that he actually sees them more clearly in the ark than he ever could on land. Proust believes that Noah has an unusually strong attachment to his home.

In his account of Noah, Proust argues that even the most mundane familiar things can take on new meaning when they are suddenly snatched from us. Of course, in a long-term relationship, it is not possible to do as Noah did and spend forty days and nights apart on a boat.

But you can build your own ark if you want to. Proust’s need for companionship was only intensified after he had been ill for a few days. When one separates from one’s partner, even if only for a short time, like a night or a day without contact, one can experience him all over again.

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Lesson 3: By seeing the world through the eyes of an artist, we can find beauty in the ordinary

In an essay that was never published, Proust describes a depressed young man who lives with his parents in Paris. There’s a plate of leftovers on the table. His mom knits quietly in the nook. A cat sleeps curled up on a shelf.

The young man’s gloom stems from his aesthete tendencies; he is captivated by beautiful things, such as works of art, delicious cuisine, and breathtaking scenery. But he can’t afford to indulge in fine art, gourmet cuisine, or exotic travel destinations. How can he help the young man get over his discontent?

The Louvre is highly recommended by Proust. But not as a way to relive the paintings of Venetian canals and Greek temples. He suggests that the man look up paintings by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Chardin’s focus was not on global issues but rather mundane household matters. Working class people, housewives, and middle-class families were frequent subjects of his art. His still life paintings depict everyday objects like loaves of bread, fruit, fish, coffee pots, and salt cellars.

Why would Proust have the young man, who yearned for a world beyond his reach, observe such mundane scenes? Since Chardin depicted the environment where the young man lived in his paintings. And he made it look truly fantastic.

Although art can present us with fantastic vistas, Proust argues that it serves a more important function when it brings the magic of everyday life to light. When art makes the ordinary seem magical, it prompts us to pause and reflect on the good fortune we’ve been given. Proust concludes the essay by telling the young man, “When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself, “This is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.

In In Search of Lost Time, we meet Marcel, the book’s narrator, and another young man who is sad and lonely. He, like the young man in the essay, is bored and dissatisfied with his bourgeois lifestyle at home.

When his mother brings him a tray of afternoon tea, however, his mood abruptly shifts. A now-famous pastry sits on the tray. In this case, the seashell inspiration can be seen in the form of a sponge cake with fluted edges. It’s a madeleine, duh. When Marcel takes a bite, everything will change for him.

The flavor isn’t the reason. Even more decadent and elaborate than the humble madeleine could be found on the shelves of Parisian patisseries at the turn of the twentieth century.

In fact, it’s because it tastes just like the madeleines Marcel’s Aunt Leonie used to make for him when he visited her in Combray as a kid. It’s as if the sights, smells, and sounds of his youth have been revived in an instant. And so, thousands upon thousands of pages of Marcel’s reflections and recollections ensue.

Nonetheless, the madeleine evokes more than just Marcel’s youth. It accomplishes a more potent effect. A few minutes ago, as Marcel sat thinking about his future, his life seemed meaningless and boring. His childhood seems more ideal than he ever remembered it being now. It was the madeleine that had re-enchanted Marcel’s own memories of his life, making them magical once again.

What if, however, you’re looking to inject some magic back into your daily routine? Should you hold off until you find your own personal madeleine? Possibly, but you may have to wait a while.

In another part of the book, adolescent Marcel goes to a beach town. Before his arrival, he can hardly contain his excitement. He creates an evocative scene in his mind, complete with dramatic cliffs, a foreboding ocean, and ominous clouds.

In a classic case of Instagram vs. reality, he arrives in a seaside town expecting something more picturesque than what he actually finds. Marcel’s vacation is in jeopardy because he has such a large discrepancy between his expectations and the reality of the town.

Luckily he meets Elstir – remember him? He’s the fictional Impressionist artist. Elstir extends an invitation to Marcel to visit his studio. There, Marcel marvels at Elstir’s depictions of fishing boats shrouded in dawn clouds, and village women sitting like mermaids on seaside rocks. Elstir has found the beauty in the surroundings. Looking at Elstir’s perspective, Marcel begins to perceive that beauty too.

Proust knows that ordinary life can be magical; a humble madeleine can be as exquisite as a three-course meal in Paris’s best restaurant. However, here’s the rub.

He isn’t anticipating that you’ll suddenly begin to see the good in everything. He doesn’t even think it’s possible that you’ll be given a madeleine (or the equivalent) that will make you suddenly appreciate your life.

The study of artists who have made it their mission to bring out the extraordinary in the everyday is, however, something he thinks can help you develop this sense of appreciation. These include artists such as Chardin and Elstir as well as writers such as Proust.

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Lesson 4: There is advice for nearly every occasion in Proust’s works

Ready for more of Proust’s wisdom? The good news is that he’d a wide range of perspectives. I’ll leave you now with some more of Marcel Proust’s life wisdom.

For some of us, unfortunately, insomnia is unavoidable. But it’s not entirely without benefit. What Proust gives us to take away is this: A brief bout of insomnia can help illuminate the importance of sleep and increase our appreciation for it.

With a little creative thinking, almost anything can become an interesting read. Proust reportedly preferred the timetable of French regional trains as bedtime reading and didn’t get around to reading Dostoevsky or Dickens until his twenties. It was said of him that he found this pamphlet as stimulating as any novel about life in the French countryside.

Avoid acting like an intellectual snob. Even if you find that you and another person have similar tastes in Tolstoy, that doesn’t necessarily make you fast friends. When Proust and James Joyce finally met, they barely exchanged a few words. I do my intellectual work within myself, and once I’m with other people, it’s more or less unimportant to me whether they’re intelligent, as long as they’re nice,” Proust said when asked if he considered his friends intellectual peers.

It’s a time-honored way to win over a romantic partner. Proust once said, “No, I’ll not be free tonight,” and that’s more likely than any other statement.

With one simple trick, you can maximize the success of any dinner party you host. Between bites of his soup and the last mouthfuls of his fish, Proust traded places with the other guests at the table. You could tell he’d traveled the world by the fruit, a friend recalled.

The medical system, including doctors and hospitals, is a necessary evil. According to Proust, it would be the height of folly to believe in medicine, and it would be even more foolish to believe that it doesn’t work.

To be liked and to influence others, one must be liked and respected. Follow in Proust’s footsteps and raise more questions than you answer. His friends remember him quizzing them about everything from politics to the proper way to change a tire. A close friend of his once described him as “the best listener.”

Besides, books exist when all else fails. I present to you Proust: reading has a strange way of restoring the innocence of friendship. Books don’t have the fake friendliness of social media. Having dinner and a drink with these friends is a choice motivated by genuine desire.

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