Proust says while we are reading we are reading ourselves

Dr. Dosti Regmi 

The book “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain De Botton shows how a great novel can be nothing less than life-transforming. It can be a companion to read Michel Proust’s masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time”, a seven- volume novel published in 1913 that also has its narrator named Marcel who remembers his life from early childhood to imminent death in aristocratic 19th century France.

Reading is therapeutic. Proust says while we are reading we are reading ourselves. We habitually match the characters with people from our own life. A piece of literature is alive by the ways in which it parallels our own life. At first, the character’s manners might seem remote and their concerns irrelevant to us but we will soon find points of resonance between their lives and ours and be drawn to them. Reading Proust will also make us less lonely. We find comfort in the experiences we share with the characters. If we’re simmering with resentment over a long-ago fight or are occasionally gripped out of the blue with a keen awareness of our own mortality do we express these feelings to friends, likely not. This can leave us feeling alone and isolated as though we are the only person who has ever felt or behaved in this specific way.

Reading this long book teaches us to slow down as well.  These days we prize speed and efficiency over slow contemplation. We listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed, TikToks of 15 seconds, YouTube reels of 60 seconds, we strive to answer emails within seconds and we read the news in tweets of 280 characters or fewer. The news in a brief section of the newspaper has stories summed up in a sentence or two. In the novel, even the most minor characters are richly drawn and multifaceted and call upon exercising our own empathic muscles. It renders life with complete freshness free from cliched descriptions. It resonates with the impressionist painting that was making waves in the French art world at his time. Those blotchy canvases of lakes and harbors and sunrises by artists like Claude Monet. Proust does not want to use tried clichés. He does not want to write phrases like “the silvery moon” in a rush to get to the next plot point. Instead, he describes the moon as, “Sometimes in the afternoon sky the moon would pass white as a cloud, furtive, lusterless, like an actress who does not have to perform yet and who, from the audience, in street clothes, watches the other actors for a moment, making herself inconspicuous, not wanting anyone to pay attention to her.” Like the impressionists, Proust wants us to think in new ways about things we see and experience.

If you feel that the novel is very long, be inspired to stop reading in between. Virginia Woolf famously paused her reading of “In Search of Lost Time” to write her novel called “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Proust describes insomnia in a different light. For him, insomnia reminds the meaningfulness and luxury of sleep that we often take for granted. He has his theory for never finding his lasting love. As a boy Marcel, the narrator is fascinated with an aristocratic lady and he dreams of her in loving detail, of becoming her friend, of having tea in her apartment. Ultimately his dreams become reality. She invites him to afternoon tea. He spends the first 15 minutes entranced but as she pours tea and slices cake, he is struck by the growing realization that while she was wonderful, the lady of his imagination was more wonderful still. The lesson is: that people in reality rarely live up to our idealized versions of them. Moreover, it’s difficult to appreciate someone wholly or love them with unvarying intensity over a sustained period. Conversely, any expectations we have that our romantic partners should consistently and passionately appreciate us are certainly unrealistic. Even the exciting things quickly turn mundane. This idea is a recurring motif in Proust’s life and work. We have seen how quickly something can move from a dazzling invention to an everyday object. When it was first invented, the telephone was a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we should stand amazed. But now, we employ it without thinking to summon our tailor or order a pizza. In Proust’s world, everything from love to telephones loses its magic with familiarity and time. But even something which has become tediously familiar becomes precious when we are deprived of it. A day or two ill in bed is good because it sharpens our appetite to go out and see friends.

Looking at the world through an artist’s perspective helps us see beauty in the ordinary. In the chapter titled “How to open your eyes?”, he describes a melancholic young man sitting at his simple breakfast table. The only comfort he finds is in the imaginary ideas of beauty depicted in the great masterpieces of the Louvre, materializing fancy palaces, rich princes, and the like. The author tells the young man to follow him to another section of the Louvre where the pictures of Chardin are. There he would see the beauty in still life at home and in everyday activities like peeling turnips. French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s subject matter isn’t grand but domestic. He painted workers, housewives, and middle-class families. His still-life canvases are simple arrangements of things like bread, fruits, fish, coffee pots and salt cellars

Art invites us to take a second look at our own lives and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.  His madeleine with tea is an ordinary breakfast offered to him by his mother. But all at once he is transported back to the tastes, sights, and sounds of his childhood. It is like a time travel machine that takes him to his childhood. Now his childhood in his mental vacation strikes him as a far more idyllic period. The dull moment takes to the enchanting recollection. The memory transcends the time and overcomes it. We encounter our own version of the madeleine every day that takes to our beautiful past.

But the anticipations on what we plan can surely fail us. This is just like the prototypical Instagram versus reality situation and the Paris syndrome where tourists are disappointed when the romantic Paris falls short of their expectations and hype. Yet, the pictures and impressionist paintings can help us savor them even more. Proust knows that ordinary life can be magical. A humble madeleine can be as exquisite as a three-course meal. We all have unexpected madeleine equivalents in our lives that will jolt us into a new appreciation of our lives.

It’s simple yet profound. No intellectual snobbery is needed to feel it. We all humans feel it. There is no intellectuality required here. It’s not that only literary and intellectual minds can connect to each other in these matters. When Proust was asked whether he considered his friends his intellectual peers he retorted,” I do my intellectual work within myself and once with other people it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent as long as they’re kind.” when Proust met James Joyce, the two men found very little to say to each other.