Friday, August 26, 2016

How Important Is Marcel Proust, Really?

This morning my inbox had an email with more book recommendations from Amazon. Like a lot of modern marketers they do a pretty good job of hitting the sweet spot as regards potential interests. That is, based on what we have been looking at they've fine tuned our personal profiles to a degree that many folk find scary. The first recommendation was Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.

I'm trying to figure out what prompted this. Yesterday I was looking at someone's bookshelf and noticed he had a fat copy of Swann's Way, but unless there was an Amazon drone in the room they would never know I was looking at that book. It caught my eye because I have a two-volume Remembrance of Things Past on my own shelf, abutting Tolstoy's War & Peace. I've read about thirty pages of each.

De Botton's book looks interesting though. One reviewer, who calls him-or-herself brassawe, wrote:

I have tackled only "Swann's Way" from the seven volumes of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," formerly translated as "Remembrance of Things Past." You need not have read Proust to thoroughly enjoy this concise 197-page book in nine chapters. When you finish it, however, you will be seriously contemplating having a go at Proust's masterpiece in its entirety.
Consider the chapter titles. The fourth is "How to Suffer Successfully." The seventh is "How to Open Your Eyes." The eighth is "How to be Happy in Love." The last, and my favorite, is "How to Put Books Down." The author draws on the ideas and characters found in Proust's masterpiece and renders Proust's response to these issues. All of this is very wittily done. The whole thing is leavened with fascinating biographical tidbits concerning this strange, brilliant man, Marcel Proust.

Other reviewers share similar sentiments. Steve Balk offers this concise commentary:

Who can deny the craftsmanship of one who can dissect the complexities of Proust and serve up a multi course feast of insights. Beautifully woven as both an introduction to Proust and as a utility knife for shaping one's wisdom.

It's no surprise to find people intimidated by Proust. His opus, In Search of Lost Time, weighs in at no less than 4215 pages. I doubt it will be your "Book of the Month" recommendation for your book club, though perhaps one of it's sections could theoretically be suggested.

As for important fat books with lots of pages, I've read some (Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Ulysses) and stumbled at others (War & Peace, Remembrance of Things Past.) If you have the inclination, here's a website with 25 Big Novels That Are Worth Your Time.

Not all the reviews of De Botton's book are dripping with adulation. One reviewer calls it "a rather tedious book" and another states simply, "Disappointed in De Botton." And who knows, maybe Amazon pegged me as someone who would be interested because the title sounds pretentious.

The Applied Sentience website shares the point of view of De Botton's critics in an essay titled, "Proust Can't Change Your Life: A Review of Allain De Botton's 'Proust Can Change Your Life." Harold Mesa's scathing review is itself a good read. Early on he states, "Be prepared to be under-whelmed and uninspired." A little further on he sums up the book this way:

The book is built around the idea of simultaneously being a literary biography and a self-help manual. In terms of the latter, it is an abject failure. It is neither uplifting nor particularly helpful and simply shows inexplicably how Proust was able to survive past the age of twenty. In fact, the life story of Proust and his upbringing just reiterate the nature of how certain class privileges beget success per se and how irrelevant his work may be.

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In closing, a few Proust quotes, something to mull on for the day.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
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“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.”
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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
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“Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade. ”
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“There is no one, no matter how wise he is, who has not in his youth said things or done things that are so unpleasant to recall in later life that he would expunge them entirely from his memory if that were possible.”
“It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for.” ― Marcel Proust

Meantime, life goes on all around you. And yes, hold on to that patch of sky.

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