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How Proust Can Change Your Life

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Unhappiness seems to be the human condition. There are few things people seem more committed to, or so writes Alan de Botton. He begins his book on Proust with the observation that we seem dedicated to the task of suffering.

Reasons for upset abound. The frailty of our bodies, the fickleness of love, and the insincerity of social life. Or the compromises of friendship and the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such ills, we might expect that we await no event with greater anticipation than the moment of our extinction.

Were we to internalize the fact that we only have this life in which to engage the world we might fight back against our sorrow. And we might dare to tease the boredom out of each day with a challenge to the senses and the intellect.




Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his novel À la recherche du temps perduIn Search of Lost Time. A monumental and difficult to read book published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. He suffered from ill health and failed relationships all is life, spending his last three years confined to his bedroom. Sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel, he died of pneumonia in 1922 aged 51.

Four months before he did so a Parisian newspaper asked what you would do with your last hour should you know the world will end. Proust responded with the following:

“I think that life would seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it–our life–hides from us made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them.

“But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”


A guide


Feeling attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was not life itself which we had lost the taste for.  It was a version of it. That our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything bad in being human. Once we surrender our belief in our own immortality we realise there are a host of untried possibilities. All lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly undesirable, eternal existence.

If acknowledgment mortality encourages you to re-evaluate our priorities what should they be? We might only have been living half a life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. 

De Botton thinks Proust can be a guide. 

How Proust Can Change Your Life explores how Proust’s work and life can help to adjust our priorities before it’s too late. Touching on Proust’s thoughts on holiday vacations, managing relationships, and receiving genuine praise. As well as how to be a good host, recognize love, and understand why sleeping with someone on a first date is a bad idea. 

We don’t have to read Proust to lead a good life says de Botton. But perhaps we can learn something from him.


This essay draws Alan de Botton’s book How Proust can Change Your Life. To learn more click here.

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