How Literature Can Change Your Life

"No doubt friendship, friendship for individuals, is a frivolous thing, and reading is a friendship. But at least it is sincere friendship, and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, makes it disinterested, almost moving. It is as well a friendship unencumbered with the ugliness of other kinds." Marcel Proust, On Reading, 1905. [Sans doute, l’amité, l’amité qui a êgard aux individus, est une chose frivole, et la lecture est une amité. Mais du moins c’est une amité sincere, et le fait qu’elle s’adresse à un mort, à un absent, lui donne quelque chose de désintéressé, de presque touchant.]

Born in Switzerland in 1969, Alain de Botton was educated at Cambridge University and worked afterwards as a writer in London. He married an American and now spends part of his time in Washington, D.C. He is affiliated the Graduate Philosophy Program at London University, and has published The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), a witty romp through intellectual history from Socrates to Nietzsche.

Mr. de Botton (sounds like "the button") has written three works of fiction: On Love: A Novel (1993), The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and the Novel (1994), and Kiss & Tell: A Novel (1995). Few novels have subtitles, and these subtitles alert the prospective reader that the author is also an essayist. The first takes its title and direction from Stendhal’s De l’amour, an obsessive, essayistic exploration of the author’s youthful obsession with a beautiful woman. The last takes the form of a biography of a former girlfriend, complete with photographs. All are wickedly funny. They are novels in the word’s original sense of offering something new.

As its subtitle says, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) is "Not a Novel." It is rather a book about the novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and his great continuous novel in several volumes, A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; English translation, Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-31). Many great writers, including Virginia Woolf and François Mauriac, have written brilliantly on Proust; and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have gone through every available of his life—no easy task with a writer who spent so much time convalescing in bed. Readers feel they know him, even like him. England’s Folio Society surveyed its members and declared Proust’s the greatest novel of the twentieth century, now available in a beautiful five-volume reprint with vintage photographs of Paris (Folio, 2000). This popularity attests, not only to preciseness of Proust’s observation and the sweep of his prose, but to the truth of his axiom, quoted above: good authors make good friends.

Good friends offer good advice, unobtrusively, when we most need it. Mr. de Botton had the wit to recognize that a work of literary criticism can be, not only a guide to an author, but a guide to life. He took the formula of the how-to book—e.g., Change Your Voice, Change Your Life—and suggested how Proust could be a good friend. Strangely enough, Proust had offered his observation on reading by way of introduction to the English writer John Ruskin. In a recent review, de Botton explains how reading resembles love

The book is full of ironies, many of them concerned with the mystery of creation: how a reclusive hypochondriac can touch the lives of ordinary people and help them to live life more abundantly and love the life we live.

In Dr. Kissling’s seminar, we shall listen to passages read by the British actor Samuel West and available on cassette from Audio Partners. You may remember West as the younger Mr. Wilkins in the Merchant-Ivory production of Howards End. Like de Botton, he uses the "received pronunciation" that we think of as "BBC English."

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