There is a certain, unspoken list of writers and philosophers whose work is deemed a necessary read in academic circles, Proust being one of them. Luckily I was assigned to read this one for a French cultural studies course, glad to finally be able to learn more about what specifically makes Proust so noteworthy.
“How Proust Can Change Your Life” isn’t exactly what its title promises, instead coming across more like a “Proust 101” or “How-To” guide in some sense. It’s accessible and interesting, in some places more than others, yet it didn’t manage to convince me why Proust would change my life. Each of the chapters is a “How To”, focusing on things such as love or learning to appreciate the simple aspects of the everyday life. They were wonderful in summing up what Proust said on these things, but left threads hanging when it comes to swaying the reader so that they’d run to pick up and read the actual books by Proust himself.
In the beginning, the book wasn’t sure what exactly it was itself. There was an overload of biographical information that was supplemented with some very hit-and-miss jokes that are either suited for a different aged audience, or they simply aren’t that good. Further in this becomes easy to ignore, mostly because it no longer poses such a problem. It’s easy to engage with Proust’s ideology and subscribe to the very same Proustian slogan Botton proposes at one point: n’allez pas trop vite. Near the end of the book however the problem returns, and much more persistently, now muddling the writing and removing that bounce to the words. The lack of a conclusion was much more glaring and awkward than the lack of an intro. It left the chapters hanging like individual sections that didn’t carry a united thought throughout, more focused on chewing up bits of theory and ideology and tossing them back out with some biography and unhelpful humour thrown in.
Definitely a good intro to Proust, as it manages to make most of the book enjoyable and easy to engage with. The beginning and end however are the two major weaknesses, and the lack of some kind of bookend ultimately leaves the title as an unconvincing thesis that lacks convincing evidence.