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100 Things Guys Need to Know1001 Solution-Focused Questions101 Ways to Meditate17 Lies That Are Holding You Back29 Gifts8 Keys to Stress ManagementA Layman's Guide to Managing FearA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA User Guide to the GF/CF Diet for Autism, Asperger Syndrome and AD/HDADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your LifeAddiction and ChangeAddiction Recovery ToolsADHD Grown UpAdolescent DepressionAdvanced Sexual TechniquesAfter SuicideAfter the Ecstasy, the LaundryAge-Proof Your MindAnswers for AristotleAnxiety, Phobias, and PanicAre You Fully Charged?Authentic HappinessAwakening Self-EsteemBe Honest--You're Not That Into Him EitherBeating the BluesBecoming OrgasmicBeen There, Done That? 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The subtitle of this small book ,"Not a Novel", slyly hints at the authors sophistication and playfulness. A more naïve being might ask why a "how to" title, with its suggestion of the self-improvement genre, needs to be followed by such a disclaimer. After all, no book promising our betterment could possibly be a piece of fiction; it must contain reliable truths, or we are lost! But have I fallen into de Botton's trap, assuming that 'change' means improvement, whereas he may simply mean 'difference'? Anyway, I can assure the reader that How Proust Can Change Your Life is not shelved among the self-help books; you will find it where it belongs, in the literature section of your bookstore (I checked).
De Botton actually undermines his chosen title, as much of his text points out the unavoidable discrepancy between the life and the work of a writer. Each chapter, with titles such as "How to Love Life Today, How to Suffer Successfully, How to Be a Good Friend", illustrates how Proust failed to apply the wisdom embodied in his fiction to his own life. This would be a trite theme, if it were not for de Botton's ability to transcend the facts of one particular, flawed life to discuss the nature of the artistic imagination and the way in which its truths would cause social disaster, should the writer try to live them. The other point de Botton makes is that reading great fiction can indeed change our life, not by offering psychological pointers, but by expressing things we only half know: "The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life; it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own, but could not have formulated on our own" (page 28; de Botton's stress). De Botton's observations are rarely original, but with his wonderful writing style, he creates the illusion of novelty, and we forgive him for taking us back to the aesthetics of an earlier age.
How Proust Can Change Your Life is a rather chatty literary essay, whose primary function is to express the author's profound admiration for Proust, reader-centered disguise notwithstanding. This disguise helps De Botton avoid being tiresomely adulatory (he lets Virginia Woolf lavish praise for him, as if to say, "you don't have to take it from me..."). While pretending to be writing a guidebook for self-enlightenment, de Botton rather cleverly deflects the attention of his readers away from himself, and, ultimately, even away from the person Marcel Proust, and toward Prousts Remembrance of Things Past. He comes across as a careful, but strangely old-fashioned reader. No hints of modern depth psychology are to be found, but instead an acceptance of Proust's own view of humanity, couched in psychological terms current in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. De Botton finds Proust's life and character endlessly fascinating. As one would expect from an admirer, he tends to treat his subject's faults very generously. For example (and this affects the work as much as the life) the lover Proust is horribly immature, virtually adolescent. De Botton notes Proust's narrow view of love, but refrains from criticism, or any hint that arrested development in such a crucial domain might invalidate Proust's credentials as a life-changer. Of course, Proust never claimed to have such credentials in any case.
I think de Botton would agree that, in the final analysis, Proust can change one's life only if one enters his fictional world. The elegant texture, fascinating biographical tidbits and entertaining tone of How Proust Can Change Your Life will lead more readers to Remembrance of Things Past than would any straitlaced, theory-laden study of its three thousand pages or their author. And if we take de Botton's title very literally, we can expect Proust's novel to make a difference.
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