Mrs Alexandra Treseder, French teacher at WHS, examines the value of reading Proust’s famously long novel.
Reacquainting myself with some of my favourite books during lockdown provided me with a sense of perspective and stability. One work that particularly resonated with me was Alain de Botton’s ‘How Proust can change your life’. It’s a book that I first came across whilst studying the first part of Proust’s À la recherche du Temps Perdu at university, and I have returned to it several times since to recapture some of the philosophical wisdom it encapsulates. As Oliver Munday stated in a recent article for The Atlantic: ‘Proust’s work has many qualities that might recommend it for pandemic reading: the author’s concern with the protean nature of time, the transportive exploration of memory and the past, or simply the pleasure of immersing oneself in the richly detailed life of another’.
De Botton points out that readers can be put off by the sheer length of Proust’s massive text. His sentences are long enough to wrap around a wine bottle 17 times, and his description of getting to sleep is a seemingly never-ending 30 pages. However, my argument is that it is worth the effort, due to Proust’s rich and beautiful insights into universal themes such as the power of involuntary memory, how to fully appreciate one’s life and how to acquire wisdom.
Proust is most famous for his olfactory experience of dipping a madeleine into some lime-flower tea. This conjures up a whole world from his childhood, bringing back to him precious memories which he thought had been lost: ‘dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…’(no sooner had the warm lime-flower tea, mixed with the crumbs, touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped…At once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me…).
Like much of his life, the narrator’s childhood had become vague in his mind – he did not remember it with any particular interest. However, through the sensation of the madeleine, a cake which he had not tasted since childhood and which remained unaltered by later associations, he was involuntarily reintroduced to a stream of rich and charming memories of his holidays in the town of Combray with his aunt Léonie. This incident cheers the narrator, as it helps him understand that it is not his life that has been mundane, only the vague perception of it that he possessed in memory. From this event he learns to be grateful for what he has and look for beauty in everyday situations. He makes the point that living mindfully leads to more meaningful, lasting and enriching experiences. In short, it helps us to begin truly appreciating our lives.
Proust’s belief is that we only become inquisitive when distressed, thereby highlighting that making mistakes is a crucial part of our route to acquiring knowledge (something that we have long recognised at Wimbledon High). He makes this point through his fictional painter Elstir: ‘On ne reçoit pas la sagesse, il faut la découvrir soi-même, après un trajet que personne ne peut faire pour nous’ (we cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves, by a journey which no one can undertake for us). De Botton adds that it is normal if we stay ignorant when things are going well, since it is only when we are confronted with difficulties that we have the incentive to tackle difficult truths and learn from them. As Proust expressed: ‘le bonheur est salutaire pour le corps, mais c’est le chagrin qui développe les forces de l’esprit’ (happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind). We should not regret our errors or try to completely expunge them from our memory. Instead, we should embrace them as a necessary part of our lives, helping us to develop character and wisdom.
Bearing all this in mind, I believe that reading Proust can absolutely change your life for the better. I have to confess that I haven’t yet finished the novel that is double the length of War and Peace, but I am enjoying it every step of the way and taking my time over it, as Proust himself would recommend. With his philosophies dealing with every part of the human experience, I believe that Proust’s reflections on how to live throughout his chef d’œuvre remain as thought-provoking and valuable as ever.
De Botton, How Proust can change your life, 1998
De Botton, Status Anxiety, 2004
De Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, 2000
Munday, Oliver, ‘How I came to love my epic quarantine project’, The Atlantic, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/11/reading-proust-in-search-of-lost-time-during-pandemic/616850/
Proust, À la recherche du Temps Perdu, 1913-1927