“It is unfortunately easier to lose a lover than complete In Search of Lost Time.” How funny but true!
Devoting the year 2009 to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was one of my most rewarding undertakings as a reader. It is, indeed, easier to lose a lover, but basking in Proust is what I imagine having synesthesia would be like. The first volume alone led to an artistic rebirth; but by the end of all seven volumes I realized that it had instilled something so delicately through its entirety — empathy.
De Botton does not mention empathy but touches on how “experiences of fictional characters afford us a hugely expanded picture of human behavior” and nods toward artists “by whom our eyes are opened.” This is De Botton’s dissection of Proust, the colossal work, and its effects on the reader. For those who have not read Proust, it can serve as an introduction; and for those who have read Proust, a confirmation of the common reader’s exact thoughts, albeit expressed meticulously in a superior and delightful way.
There are two main things that stood out out for me:
The ending. It sings about the strength of the written word right from the beginning; and this makes the closing of the book unanticipated because it transitions into a gentle admonition for readers: “It is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so.” It warns against artistic idolatry and adds this Proustian reminder: “Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”
The view on escapism. Perhaps it is mainly the term that bothers me that I have always been uneasy with the idea of literature or any art form as a means of escapism. So when de Botton points out that escapism was not Proust’s way of handling the novel, it spoke to me and I felt understood without having to explain myself. He does not say escapism is a bad thing, but elucidates how Proust’s opinion is more attuned to art’s potential to affect our lives rather than distract us from it.
Although it is easier said than done, I think this is also a beautiful and subtle nudge for us to try our utmost to live lives we do not feel the need to escape from.