Proust's Letters and Life

May 15, 2013 | By Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton © Vincent Starr

Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life.'  He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries. Alain also started and helps to run a school in London called The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education. Alain's latest book is titled Religion for Atheists and is published in the Netherlands, Italy, Korea, Turkey and Brazil in 2011 and in the UK, US and other territories in 2012.

Alain started writing at a young age. His first book, Essays in Love [titled On Love in the US], was published when he was twenty-three.


Admirers of Proust have to overcome an anxiety before embarking on any study of his life; an awareness that Proust himself wouldn't have been very happy to hear that we are focusing on it.

Few writers have insisted more forcefully that we should concentrate on the work, not the life. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, he famously took issue with Sainte-Beuve's thesis that the private lives of writers should be studied for the light they can shed on literature. He argued that what artists reveal of themselves through their letters or at dinner parties is a superficial social self, which in no way gives us the key to their greatness, and may indeed distract us from it: "What one gives to sociability...is not the deep self which is only to be found by disregarding other people and the self that knows other people."

He even suggested that all good writers should be disappointing in the flesh. "It's true that there are people who are superior to their books, but that's because their books are not Books." Something has gone wrong for a writer, implied Proust, if his letters to his friends and his dinner time chats are more interesting than his works.

But studying a writer's life in no way precludes us from also taking an interest in the work. (We should note in passing that Proust happened to be an avid reader of the biographies and letters of the writers he loved).

We should also feel less guilty about disregarding Proust's advice, because his own letters help to flesh out the very thesis proposed in Contre Sainte-Beuve. It is striking how different the Proust we meet in these letters is from the one we know from his novel. We actively feel the divide between the social and the private self which Proust had sketched out for us in his essay. There are no extended reflections here, there are surprisingly few psychological analyses, Proust does not discuss art in depth nor tell a lot of jokes. What he chiefly does is to try to seduce whoever he is writing to into giving him what he wants, which is almost always affection of some kind.

Proust had always suffered from unusually strong doubts about his own chances of being liked ("Oh! Making a nuisance of myself, that has always been my nightmare"). He had, one might say, an exaggerated notion of how 'friendly' he needed to be in order to have any friends. At the same time, he craved affection ("My only consolation when I am really sad is to love and to be loved"). Under the title of "thoughts that spoil friendship," he confessed to a range of anxieties familiar to any emotional paranoiac: "What did they think of us?" "Were we not tactless?" "Did they like us?" as well as, "the fear of being forgotten in favour of someone else." It is these anxieties we find behind many of these letters.

Proust's overwhelming priority in almost every encounter and letter was to ensure that he would be liked, remembered and thought well of. "Not only did he dizzy his hosts and hostesses with verbal compliments, but he ruined himself on flowers and ingenious gifts," reported his friend Jacques-Emile Blanche, giving a taste of what this priority involved. His immense psychological insight was often wholly directed towards identifying the appropriate word, smile or flower to win others over. And it worked. He excelled at the art of making friends, he acquired an enormous number, they loved his company, were devoted to him and wrote a pile of adulatory books after his death with titles like My friend Marcel Proust (a volume by Marcel Duplay), My friendship with Marcel Proust (by Fernand Gregh) and Letters to a friend (by Marie Nordlinger). The accounts of these friends tell us:

- That he was generous;

"I can still see him, wrapped in his fur coat, even in springtime, sitting at a table in Larue's restaurant, and I can still see the gesture of his delicate hand as he tried to make you let him order the most extravagant supper, accepting the headwaiter's biased suggestions, offering you champagne, exotic fruits and grapes on their vine-plant which he had noticed on the way in... He told you there was no better way of proving your friendship than by accepting." Georges de Lauris

- That he was munificent;

"In restaurants, and everywhere where there was a chance, Marcel would give enormous tips. This was the case even in the slightest railway station buffet where he would never return." Georges de Lauris

- That he liked to add a 200% service charge;

"If a dinner cost him ten francs, he would add twenty francs for the waiter."

Fernand Gregh

- That he was not merely exorbitant;

"The legend of Proust's generosity should not develop to the detriment of that of his goodness." Paul Morand                                                                                                                

- That he didn't talk only about himself;

"He was the best of listeners. Even in his intimate circle his constant care to be modest and polite prevented him from pushing himself forward and from imposing subjects of conversation. These he found in others' thoughts. Sometimes he spoke about sport and motor-cars and showed a touching desire for information. He took an interest in you, instead of trying to make you interested in himself." Georges de Lauris

- That he was curious;

"Marcel was passionately interested in his friends. Never have I seen less egoism, or egotism... He wanted to distract you. He was happy to see others laughing and he laughed." Georges de Lauris

- That he didn't forget what was important;

"Never, right up to the end, neither his frenzied work, nor his suffering made him forget his friends - because he certainly never put all his poetry into his books, he put as much into his life."  Walter Berry                                                                                  

- That he was modest;

"What modesty! You apologised for everything: for being present, for speaking, for being quiet, for thinking, for expressing your dazzlingly meandering thoughts, even for lavishing your incomparable praise." Anna de Noailles           

- That he was a great talker;

"One can never say it enough: Proust's conversation was dazzling, bewitching."

Marcel Plantevignes                                                   

- That one never got bored at his house;

"During dinner, he would carry his plate over to each guest; he would eat soup next to one, the fish, or half a fish besides another, and so on until the end of a meal; one can imagine that by the fruit, he had gone all the way around. It was testimony of kindness, of good will towards everyone, because he would have been distraught that anyone would have wanted to complain; and he thought both to make a gesture of individual politeness and to assure, with his usual perspicacity, that everyone was in an agreeable mood. Indeed, the results were excellent, and one never got bored at his house."

Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld                        

Given such generous verdicts, it may be surprising to find that Proust held some extremely caustic views about friendship, in fact, to find that he had an unusually limited conception of the value of his, or indeed, of anyone's friendships. Despite the dazzling conversation and dinner parties, he believed;

- That he could just as well have befriended a settee;

"The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)."                                                                                                

- That talking is a futile activity;

"Conversation, which is friendship's mode of expression, is a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute."                     

- That friendship is a shallow effort;

"...directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self."

- And that friendship is in the end no more than;

"...a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone."

It doesn't mean he was callous. It doesn't mean he was a misanthrope. It doesn't mean he never had an urge to see friends (an urge he described as a, "craving to see people which attacks both men and women and inspires a longing to throw himself out of the window in the patient who has been shut away from his family and friends in an isolation clinic.")

The dark thoughts on friendship taken from his novel reflect his sense that he could not fully be himself with other people, or rather he couldn't be himself and have the affection he needed. The reason was that he was far too perceptive about other people for his own good. None of his friends ever quite seemed to match his incredible demands for loyalty and kindness. When Proust met a palm-reader in 1918, the woman was said to have taken a glance at his hand, looked at his face for a moment, then remarked simply, "What do you want from me, Monsieur? It should be you reading my character." But this miraculous understanding of others did not lead to cheerful conclusions. "I feel infinite sadness at seeing how few people are genuinely kind," he said, and judged in his novel that most people had something rather wrong with them.

"The most perfect person in the world has a certain defect which shocks us or makes us angry. One man is of rare intelligence, sees everything from the loftiest viewpoint, never speaks ill of anyone, but will pocket and forget letters of supreme importance which he himself asked you to let him post for you, and so makes you miss a vital engagement without offering you any excuse, with a smile, because he prides himself upon never knowing the time. Another is so refined, so gentle, so delicate in his conduct that he never says anything to you about yourself that you would not be glad to hear, but you feel that he suppresses, that he keeps buried in his heart, where they turn sour, other, quite different opinions."

Proust's friend Lucien Daudet felt that he possessed;

"an unenviable power of divination, he discovered all the pettiness, often hidden, of the human heart, and it horrified him: the most insignificant lies, the mental reservations, the secrecies, the fake disinterestedness, the kind word which has an ulterior motive, the truth which has been slightly deformed for convenience, in short, all the things which worry us in love, sadden us in friendship and make our dealings with others banal were for Proust a subject of constant surprise, sadness or irony."

It was because Proust was both unusually honest and unusually affectionate, that he felt keenly the divide between his private and social selves, so keenly that he came to judge that social life and art were fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible. This real self would go into the novel, the social self into the letters and the dinner parties.

Admirers of Proust have to overcome an anxiety before embarking on any study of his life; an awareness that Proust himself wouldn't have been very happy to hear that we are focusing on it.

Few writers have insisted more forcefully that we should concentrate on the work, not the life. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, he famously took issue with Sainte-Beuve's thesis that the private lives of writers should be studied for the light they can shed on literature. He argued that what artists reveal of themselves through their letters or at dinner parties is a superficial social self, which in no way gives us the key to their greatness, and may indeed distract us from it: "What one gives to sociability...is not the deep self which is only to be found by disregarding other people and the self that knows other people."

He even suggested that all good writers should be disappointing in the flesh. "It's true that there are people who are superior to their books, but that's because their books are not Books." Something has gone wrong for a writer, implied Proust, if his letters to his friends and his dinner time chats are more interesting than his works.

But studying a writer's life in no way precludes us from also taking an interest in the work. (We should note in passing that Proust happened to be an avid reader of the biographies and letters of the writers he loved).

We should also feel less guilty about disregarding Proust's advice, because his own letters help to flesh out the very thesis proposed in Contre Sainte-Beuve. It is striking how different the Proust we meet in these letters is from the one we know from his novel. We actively feel the divide between the social and the private self which Proust had sketched out for us in his essay. There are no extended reflections here, there are surprisingly few psychological analyses, Proust does not discuss art in depth nor tell a lot of jokes. What he chiefly does is to try to seduce whoever he is writing to into giving him what he wants, which is almost always affection of some kind.

Proust had always suffered from unusually strong doubts about his own chances of being liked ("Oh! Making a nuisance of myself, that has always been my nightmare"). He had, one might say, an exaggerated notion of how 'friendly' he needed to be in order to have any friends. At the same time, he craved affection ("My only consolation when I am really sad is to love and to be loved"). Under the title of "thoughts that spoil friendship," he confessed to a range of anxieties familiar to any emotional paranoiac: "What did they think of us?" "Were we not tactless?" "Did they like us?" as well as, "the fear of being forgotten in favour of someone else." It is these anxieties we find behind many of these letters.

Proust's overwhelming priority in almost every encounter and letter was to ensure that he would be liked, remembered and thought well of. "Not only did he dizzy his hosts and hostesses with verbal compliments, but he ruined himself on flowers and ingenious gifts," reported his friend Jacques-Emile Blanche, giving a taste of what this priority involved. His immense psychological insight was often wholly directed towards identifying the appropriate word, smile or flower to win others over. And it worked. He excelled at the art of making friends, he acquired an enormous number, they loved his company, were devoted to him and wrote a pile of adulatory books after his death with titles like My friend Marcel Proust (a volume by Marcel Duplay), My friendship with Marcel Proust (by Fernand Gregh) and Letters to a friend (by Marie Nordlinger). The accounts of these friends tell us:

- That he was generous;

"I can still see him, wrapped in his fur coat, even in springtime, sitting at a table in Larue's restaurant, and I can still see the gesture of his delicate hand as he tried to make you let him order the most extravagant supper, accepting the headwaiter's biased suggestions, offering you champagne, exotic fruits and grapes on their vine-plant which he had noticed on the way in... He told you there was no better way of proving your friendship than by accepting." Georges de Lauris

- That he was munificent;

"In restaurants, and everywhere where there was a chance, Marcel would give enormous tips. This was the case even in the slightest railway station buffet where he would never return." Georges de Lauris

- That he liked to add a 200% service charge;

"If a dinner cost him ten francs, he would add twenty francs for the waiter."

Fernand Gregh

- That he was not merely exorbitant;

"The legend of Proust's generosity should not develop to the detriment of that of his goodness." Paul Morand                                                                                                                

- That he didn't talk only about himself;

"He was the best of listeners. Even in his intimate circle his constant care to be modest and polite prevented him from pushing himself forward and from imposing subjects of conversation. These he found in others' thoughts. Sometimes he spoke about sport and motor-cars and showed a touching desire for information. He took an interest in you, instead of trying to make you interested in himself." Georges de Lauris

- That he was curious;

"Marcel was passionately interested in his friends. Never have I seen less egoism, or egotism... He wanted to distract you. He was happy to see others laughing and he laughed." Georges de Lauris

- That he didn't forget what was important;

"Never, right up to the end, neither his frenzied work, nor his suffering made him forget his friends - because he certainly never put all his poetry into his books, he put as much into his life."  Walter Berry                                                                                  

- That he was modest;

"What modesty! You apologised for everything: for being present, for speaking, for being quiet, for thinking, for expressing your dazzlingly meandering thoughts, even for lavishing your incomparable praise." Anna de Noailles           

- That he was a great talker;

"One can never say it enough: Proust's conversation was dazzling, bewitching."

Marcel Plantevignes                                                   

- That one never got bored at his house;

"During dinner, he would carry his plate over to each guest; he would eat soup next to one, the fish, or half a fish besides another, and so on until the end of a meal; one can imagine that by the fruit, he had gone all the way around. It was testimony of kindness, of good will towards everyone, because he would have been distraught that anyone would have wanted to complain; and he thought both to make a gesture of individual politeness and to assure, with his usual perspicacity, that everyone was in an agreeable mood. Indeed, the results were excellent, and one never got bored at his house."

Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld                        

Given such generous verdicts, it may be surprising to find that Proust held some extremely caustic views about friendship, in fact, to find that he had an unusually limited conception of the value of his, or indeed, of anyone's friendships. Despite the dazzling conversation and dinner parties, he believed;

- That he could just as well have befriended a settee;

"The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)."                                                                                                

- That talking is a futile activity;

"Conversation, which is friendship's mode of expression, is a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute."                     

- That friendship is a shallow effort;

"...directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self."

- And that friendship is in the end no more than;

"...a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone."

It doesn't mean he was callous. It doesn't mean he was a misanthrope. It doesn't mean he never had an urge to see friends (an urge he described as a, "craving to see people which attacks both men and women and inspires a longing to throw himself out of the window in the patient who has been shut away from his family and friends in an isolation clinic.")

The dark thoughts on friendship taken from his novel reflect his sense that he could not fully be himself with other people, or rather he couldn't be himself and have the affection he needed. The reason was that he was far too perceptive about other people for his own good. None of his friends ever quite seemed to match his incredible demands for loyalty and kindness. When Proust met a palm-reader in 1918, the woman was said to have taken a glance at his hand, looked at his face for a moment, then remarked simply, "What do you want from me, Monsieur? It should be you reading my character." But this miraculous understanding of others did not lead to cheerful conclusions. "I feel infinite sadness at seeing how few people are genuinely kind," he said, and judged in his novel that most people had something rather wrong with them.

"The most perfect person in the world has a certain defect which shocks us or makes us angry. One man is of rare intelligence, sees everything from the loftiest viewpoint, never speaks ill of anyone, but will pocket and forget letters of supreme importance which he himself asked you to let him post for you, and so makes you miss a vital engagement without offering you any excuse, with a smile, because he prides himself upon never knowing the time. Another is so refined, so gentle, so delicate in his conduct that he never says anything to you about yourself that you would not be glad to hear, but you feel that he suppresses, that he keeps buried in his heart, where they turn sour, other, quite different opinions."

Proust's friend Lucien Daudet felt that he possessed;

"an unenviable power of divination, he discovered all the pettiness, often hidden, of the human heart, and it horrified him: the most insignificant lies, the mental reservations, the secrecies, the fake disinterestedness, the kind word which has an ulterior motive, the truth which has been slightly deformed for convenience, in short, all the things which worry us in love, sadden us in friendship and make our dealings with others banal were for Proust a subject of constant surprise, sadness or irony."

It was because Proust was both unusually honest and unusually affectionate, that he felt keenly the divide between his private and social selves, so keenly that he came to judge that social life and art were fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible. This real self would go into the novel, the social self into the letters and the dinner parties.


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

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