books: Search for the hero

Michele Roberts relishes some fragments of madeleine; How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Picador, pounds 12.99 Out of Sheer Rage: in the shadow of D H Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, Little, Brown, pounds 16.99
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Reading these books together forces you to believe in opposites. De Botton engages with his subject out of affection, Dyer out of an irritation not quite splendid enough to be called rage. De Botton employs humour and whimsy; Dyer is relentlessly cross and complaining. De Botton sees the good, Dyer the bad. When you stop comparing and put them side by side, you get a self- portrait of the modern male writer thrashing about in ambivalence, torn between the need for literary heroes and the need, having built them up, to punch them down.

Not all male authors, obviously, believe that writing a book involves oedipal struggle, the slaying of the apparently omnipotent father; but following Dyer on his tortured quest to pin down D H Lawrence, you do suspect that you're dealing with the wounding and resurrection of a figure in Dyer's own fantasy. This, of course, was how Lawrence worked. The landscapes he described were simultaneously accounts of his own soul. Dyer is a disciple following is the footsteps of his cher maitre. Enumerating his blisters is part of his traveller's tale.

Alain de Botton gets close to Proust without being overwhelmed. He dances back a pace or two, between rapture and detachment, knows how to flirt with the old man as well as mock and tease him. His book had me frequently laughing out loud, as well as passionately disagreeing with him on occasion, and that's a pleasure to cherish. His work is characterised by lightness of touch and tongue in cheek. In Search of Lost Time, he suggests, can be boiled down to a how-to book: "Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age, it was a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one's life." Reading Proust, according to de Botton, can make us feel very much better.

It began, he tells us, with Proust's father, a good bourgeois who was epate by his son's namby-pamby inability to become a stockbroker, but was himself the bestselling author of 34 volumes, among them Elements of Hygiene, aimed at teenage girls. "Dr Proust proposed regular exercise and included a number of unstrenuous examples - jumping off walls... bopping about... swinging one's arm... and balancing on one foot." He advised on the correct posture for sewing and warned of the dangers of corsets.

Young Marcel confided to his maid Celeste that he wished he could do as much for his own readers. What he did do, his faithful disciple suggests, is show us how to use our reading to recognise and identify people and types and feelings we've either not enountered before or have forgotten. The pleasure of reading include the pleasures of the outer as well as the inner world. "In How to Take Your Time", de Botton shows how Proust could dream up epics from brief press announcements or from adverts for soap: a lesson to stand and stare a little more.

"How to Suffer Successfully" discusses illness, whether hypochondriacal or terminal, as inspiration, and wittily dissects Proust's relationship with his over-attentive mother as well as his taste in underpants and his predilection for constipation. "How To Be A Good Friend" recommends self-denial and total concentration on the other. For young men brought up to be egotistical, this might be sound counsel but, equally, it reads like a recipe for keeping power by concealing it.

Close friendship, based on trust, requires occasional risk-taking and vulnerability. Deluging your friends with bouquets and lunches while acting as their father confessor, which was Proust's practice, won't necessarily make them feel intimate with you. They might just take the orchids and foie gras and run. Proust doubted he was loveable and did not want people to know him too well.

It's hard to keep a straight face when de Botton excitedly informs us that Proust discovered that not just palaces but also kitchens could be places of beauty. Er, yes. All these morsels of wisdom are served up as gracefully as fragments of madeleine cooked in tisane, and, like that famous titbit, they provoke a pleasure no less profound for being transient. That, as de Botton knows, is what Proust would have wished.

Where Proust warned against literary tourism, Geoff Dyer lashes himself into a state of indecision, uncertain whether to write non-fiction or a novel. He ends up embarking on a kind of literary pilgrimage which constantly threatens to end in tears before bedtime. Shadowing Lawrence, he's written the shadow of a book, all the bits and pieces normally excised from conventional critical or biographical works. After a while, the self-absorption and self-pity become irritating.

Luckily, in his baggage Dyer also carries a mocking intelligence. When he's discussing Lawrence's letters, say, or his loathing of academics, he's fiery and brisk. But when he's dragging around Italy moaning about awful foreigners, you want to recommend to him that he reads some Proust and discovers how not to be bored and waste his time and yours.