Alain de Botton Essay - Critical Essays

Botton, Alain de


Alain de Botton 1969-

Swiss-born British novelist, critic, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of de Botton's career through 2003.

De Botton is recognized as a distinctive postmodern voice in contemporary British literature. He has garnered critical and popular acclaim for fiction and nonfiction writings that utilize cultural allusions, literary criticism, philosophy, self-help jargon, travel literature, and other elements to explore relationships and offer guidance for living in the modern world. Critics view de Botton's application of philosophy and literary classics to circumstances within contemporary life as an attempt to make complex ideas more accessible, popular, and relevant to his readers.

Biographical Information

De Botton was born on December 20, 1969, in Zurich, Switzerland. He attended Gonville College and Cambridge University in England, where he studied philosophy. He has worked as a television reviewer for the New Statesman and as a journalist for the Sunday Telegraph. He published his first novel, Essays in Love, in England in 1993; it was released in the United States a year later as On Love. The book attracted wide critical attention and earned him a reputation as an engaging and witty young author. He continues to write fiction, essays, and nonfiction, drawing on his interest in philosophy, literature, and travel, and serves as director of the graduate philosophy program at London University.

Major Works

Essays in Love chronicles the doomed love affair of a nameless male narrator and a woman named Chloe. De Botton blends quotations from and allusions to the works of a myriad of prominent philosophers and authors—for example, Stendhal, Plato, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud—with self-help jargon, diagrams, graphs, and a numbering system for the paragraphs of the novel that is reminiscent of the style of a philosophical treatise. The Romantic Movement (1994) follows the same thematic and structural pattern as his previous novel and is a straightforward love story between a young man and woman, presented with philosophical commentary. In his 1995 novel Kiss & Tell, de Botton employs a first-person narrator to relate the story of a man who attempts to prove that he is not narcissistic by writing the biography of an ordinary young woman named Isabel. How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) is regarded as part literary criticism and part self-help book. The work gleans inspirational and self-help passages from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and applies them to problems of contemporary life. De Botton takes a similar approach in The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), which focuses on the ideas of such philosophers as Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The book pairs the work of each philosopher with a particular personal problem, with the aim of providing insight into and solutions for issues such as unpopularity and despair. The Art of Travel (2002) draws on de Botton's personal vision and experiences as well as on the travels of such figures as Gustave Flaubert, Edward Hopper, and William Wordsworth to reflect on the nature, purpose, and benefits of travel.

Critical Reception

De Botton's incorporating of ideas, excerpts, and personae from literature and philosophy into his works has garnered a mixed critical reception. Most commentators have considered his work erudite, witty, and often illuminating, pointing out his use of humor and irony, his respect for his readers' intelligence, and his ability to portray complex ideas effectively. Other reviewers have derided his attempt to make philosophy more accessible, perceiving his approach as overly simplistic and accusing him of “dumbing down” philosophical thought in his effort to make it entertaining and pertinent to his readers. Moreover, such detractors have found his narrative devices tiresome and contrived and his humor uneven. In spite of these comments, de Botton is a popular author whom most reviewers have recognized as an intelligent and engaging voice within British literature.

Principal Works

Essays in Love (novel) 1993; published as On Love, 1994

The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and the Novel (novel) 1994

Kiss & Tell (novel) 1995

How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (literary criticism) 1997

The Consolations of Philosophy (nonfiction) 2000

The Art of Travel (essays) 2002


Gabriele Annan (review date 30 October 1993)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “The Proper Study of Mankind Is Books.” Spectator 271, no. 8625 (30 October 1993): 41.

[In the following positive review, Annan finds Essays in Love to be “witty, funny, [and] sophisticated,” and asserts the book is full of insightful observations.]

On a BA flight from Paris to London the narrator picks up Chloe who happens to be sitting in the next seat. He takes her out to dinner, they go to bed together, fall in love and begin a serious affair. After a while Chloe loses interest. On the BA flight back from a weekend in Paris, she confesses that she has slept with the narrator's American friend Will. The narrator is devastated. Chloe follows Will to California. The narrator botches a suicide attempt (vitamin C instead of sleeping pills) and falls into a long depression from which he emerges three pages from the end while sitting next to Rachel at a dinner party. The following week and in the last paragraph, Rachel accepts his invitation to dine.

That's the whole plot [of Essays in Love] and it holds one's attention. The characters live: the narrator, introvert, analytical, fastidious, alarmingly well-read and indefinably old-fashioned; and Chloe, modern, extrovert, relaxed, relentlessly unsentimental. He loves the films of Eric Rohmer, she hates them. The author is very good at getting across what it is that attracts the hero (his alter...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Francine Prose (review date 27 December 1993)

SOURCE: Prose, Francine. “Habits of the Heart.” New Republic 209, no. 26 (27 December 1993): 38-9.

[In the following review, Prose finds parallels between de Botton's On Love and Stendhal's On Love, and judges de Botton's work as sharp, funny, and well written.]

In the preface to his treatise On Love, Stendhal breezily takes off running past those indolent earlier writers who dropped out of the game after cataloging only “400 or 500 of the successive emotions, so difficult to recognize, which go to make up this passion.” Stendhal way overshot the 500 mark in his own effort to categorize and to analyze, to qualify and to refine, to collect...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

P. N. Furbank (review date 13 January 1994)

SOURCE: Furbank, P. N. “Marshmallowing.” New York Review of Books (13 January 1994): 35.

[In the following review, Furbank discusses the genre and unifying thematic concerns of On Love.]

On Love is a first novel by a young writer living in London who has had the bright idea of tracing the course of an “ordinary” love affair—initial conflagration, ecstasies, domesticities, break-up, suicide attempt, beginning of new cycle, with new lover—breaking it up into numbered paragraphs (as in Wittgenstein's Tractatus) and enclosing it in a dense network of cultural allusions. Dante Flaubert, and Proust are at hand, but more pervasively the currently...

(The entire section is 1695 words.)

Maria Januzzi (review date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Januzzi, Maria. Review of On Love by Alain de Botton. Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 2 (summer 1994): 224-25.

[In the following review, Januzzi contends that On Love is an inconsistent novel.]

“Trop penser me font amours—love makes me think too much,” sings a fifteenth-century troubadour in Roland Barthes's Fragments of a Lover's Discourse. Or, as the narrator of Alain de Botton's first novel [On Love] claims, “The philosopher in the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub.” In telling the story of his failed love affair with a woman named Chloe, the narrator quotes or alludes to Plato,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Tom Hiney (review date 27 August 1994)

SOURCE: Hiney, Tom. “The Mechanics of Love in the Nineties.” Spectator 273, no. 8668 (27 August 1994): 35-6.

[In the following mixed review of The Romantic Movement, Hiney asserts that de Botton “eschews any story line or character-drawing in favour of presenting the author as a sociological raconteur.”]

It seems that we have more to thank Douglas Coupland for than we first imagined. Not only did he give us the now completely redundant expression ‘Generation X’, but also a new format for the post-Postmodernist novel. Characterised by short chapters, regular digressions from the ‘plot’ and lots of ironic cartoons, ‘Novelisation X’ eschews any...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 29 June 1995)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Summer Reading: A Time for Fiction and Fantasy.” Christian Science Monitor (29 June 1995): B1, B4.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin lauds The Romantic Movement as witty, intelligent, and insightful.]

Summer, it's been said, is the season of romance, and not only the moon-June kind of romance promised by popular song lyrics, but also that category of literature including everything from verse narratives of medieval troubadours and Shakespeare's Cymbeline to Melville's Omoo and Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables.

For those who may remember the archetypal literary criticism of Northrop Frye, every...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Philip Glazebrook (review date 9 September 1995)

SOURCE: Glazebrook, Philip. “Portrait of a Lady and Little Else.” Spectator 275, no. 8722 (9 September 1995): 41-2.

[In the following review, Glazebrook explores the genre of Kiss and Tell, maintaining that “all deviations from the conventional forms in fiction are attempts to side-step some of the difficulties of novel-writing,” claiming de Botton both gains and loses certain elements by using a biographical method in this book.]

This engaging and delightful book [Kiss & Tell] is the history of a love affair told by the boy in the form of a biography of the girl. She, Isabel, is middle-class, middle twenties, a London girl with an office job....

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Teresa Waugh (review date 19 April 1997)

SOURCE: Waugh, Teresa. “In Search of a Better Self.” Spectator 278, no. 8803 (19 April 1997): 38.

[In the following mixed review, Waugh derides How Proust Can Change Your Life, contending the work contains a contrived and patronizing tone, although she concludes the book paints a vivid picture of Marcel Proust.]

Lurking in the world of letters there must somewhere be someone who could write a kindly introduction to Proust's In Search of Lost Time, whereby the reader would be taken by the hand and led gently through the text, skipping a paragraph here, a page or two there, until he or she, like all true admirers of Proust, is swept into the maelstrom...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Graham Robb (review date 25 April 1997)

SOURCE: Robb, Graham. “Marcel the Moralist.” Times Literary Supplement (25 April 1997): 36.

[In the following review, Robb discusses How Proust Can Change Your Life and the purported intent of such chapters as “How to Be a Good Friend” and “How to Suffer Successfully.”]

What does a man who spent fourteen miserable years in bed have to teach us about happiness? What life-enhancing precepts can we hope to extract from the works of a mouse-fearing, hot-water-bottle-clutching Mummy's boy who was tormented by indigestion, constipation, a neurotic need for tight underpants and a chronic suspicion of doctors?

Alain de Botton's patchwork...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Benito Rakower (review date 4 May 1997)

SOURCE: Rakower, Benito. “Tea and Empathy.” Washington Post Book World (4 May 1997): 8.

[In the following review, Rakower deems How Proust Can Change Your Life a “brilliant tour de force.”]

Marcel Proust, a perpetual invalid who rarely left his cork-lined room, lived as no sane man could even imagine, while writing a novel that only the most determined readers have been able to finish. Some readers have felt like Mallory and Irving, 500 feet from the summit of Everest, gasping for breath in an increasingly rarefied atmosphere. But despite its enormous difficulty, In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) dominates the literary...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date 22 September 1997)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “The Power of Positive Proust.” The New Leader 80, no. 15 (22 September 1997): 15-16.

[In the following review, Allen argues that although How Proust Can Change Your Life might initially strike readers as a superficial, one-joke story, it is a serious, complex work that offers useful insights.]

Marcel Proust as self-help maven? Alain de Botton's often amusing new book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, is indeed full of chapters with headings like “How to Suffer Successfully” and “How to Express Your Emotions.” He contends that the great modern novelist was at heart one of the earliest proponents of the self-improvement...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Leslie Schenk (review date autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Schenk, Leslie. Review of How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 844-45.

[In the following mixed assessment, Schenk explores stylistic aspects of How Proust Can Change Your Life.]

You would imagine that any author clever enough to think up such a sure-fire title [How Proust Can Change Your Life], destined to make it a best seller in belletristic circles, could do no wrong. Well, he could and did, and so did I, for I bought a copy sight-unseen—that is, without opening the covers, and I suspect myriad Proustians the world over will be doing the same. It has been a long time since George...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Edward Skidelsky (review date 27 March 2000)

SOURCE: Skidelsky, Edward. “Comforting, but Meaningless.” New Statesman (27 March 2000): 53-4.

[In the following negative review, Skidelsky contends that The Consolations of Philosophy fails because “the conception of philosophy that it promotes is a decadent one, and can only mislead readers as to the true nature of the discipline.”]

I don't want to be accused of intellectual snobbery when I say that The Consolations of Philosophy is a very bad book. It is bad not because it makes unsupported generalisations, fails to define its terms, or any of the other conventional academic failings. All these are perfectly legitimate in a work of popular...

(The entire section is 1322 words.)

Paul Ferris (review date 1 April 2000)

SOURCE: Ferris, Paul. “A Guided Tour Round Wisdom.” Spectator 284, no. 8956 (1 April 2000): 53-4.

[In the following review, Ferris examines the major philosophical figures discussed in The Consolations of Philosophy.]

This stroll through the lives and works of half a dozen philosophers [The Consolations of Philosophy] is engagingly done, and as a bonus the publisher promises that the book will help us with ‘some of our most familiar woes’. As I read I did try applying advice to myself and seeing where that got me. Botton does much the same. He is in and out of the book, giving us glimpses of his visits to bookshops, his travels and his love life.


(The entire section is 875 words.)

James Delingpole (review date 8 April 2000)

SOURCE: Delingpole, James. “Alain and Me.” Spectator 284, no. 8957 (8 April 2000): 51.

[In the following review, Delingpole provides a laudatory assessment of de Botton's television series, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.]

If Alain de Botton weren't a friend of mine, I think I would probably hate him. In fact, I know I would hate him because even when he wasn't as disgustingly famous and successful as he is now, I found myself loathing his guts on principle. I hated the fact that he was always on Tatler's 100 most eligible bachelors list; that he'd had two awesomely well-received, nauseatingly precocious novels published by the time he was 25; that he was...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Sylvia Brownrigg (review date 30 April 2000)

SOURCE: Brownrigg, Sylvia. “Dr. Feelgood.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 April 2000): 6.

[In the following review, Brownrigg asserts that de Botton's anti-philosophical approach in The Consolations of Philosophy does not do justice to his subject matter.]

Let's be honest: None of us has enough time to read everything we ought to or even want to. As the stack of books we should read to be culturally literate grows ever higher, competing as it does with CDs everyone seems to be listening to and movies it would be good to have an opinion about, even the weight of the Sunday papers pushes us dangerously close to the question: Can I really fit this in?...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)

Mary Margaret McCabe (review date 23 June 2000)

SOURCE: McCabe, Mary Margaret. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Times Literary Supplement (23 June 2000): 14.

[In the following negative review of The Consolations of Philosophy, McCabe argues that de Botton's attempt to make philosophy practical and more accessible fails.]

Socrates' question, “How best to live?”, might easily be misunderstood. He could have been asking, not what is the best life, but how, given that the best life is what we want, we are to get it. We might equally misunderstand his answer, that the unexamined life is not worth living, as advice about the means—examination, or philosophy—to what is worth having. From here it is a...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Nora Miller (review date winter 2000-2001)

SOURCE: Miller, Nora. Review of The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton. ETC: A Review of General Semantics 57, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 496-98.

[In the following review, Miller maintains that The Consolations of Philosophy provides an invaluable insight into philosophical thought and deems the book enjoyable and worthwhile.]

Alain de Botton believes we should use philosophy in daily living, that ideas from philosophy can provide consolation for a variety of typical human complaints such as inadequacy and unpopularity. In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton backs up his argument with the writings of six well-known philosophers:...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Antioch Review (review date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Review of The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton. Antioch Review 59, no. 3 (summer 2001): 641.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of The Consolations of Philosophy.]

De Botton, enfant terrible of the upper crust literary set in Britain, has produced a mildly entertaining discourse on the usefulness of Western philosophy [The Consolations of Philosophy]. His gentle and unassuming analyses are a mixed lot. For example, Socratic questioning may well help us to rationally test cultural assumptions and norms, but De Botton's one-dimensional portrayal of Socrates provides none of the emotional depth...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Julian Gitzen (essay date October 2001)

SOURCE: Gitzen, Julian. “How to Be Postmodern: The Fiction of Julian Barnes and Alain de Botton.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 30 (October 2001): 45-61.

[In the following essay, Gitzen compares the works of de Botton, particularly How Proust Can Change Your Life, with the fiction of Julian Barnes.]

One of the most inventive English novelists to have emerged in the past decade is Alain de Botton. His stylistic originality is all the more striking in view of his youth (b. 1969). His background and his work notably resemble those of Julian Barnes, who is twenty-three years his senior. In addition to fiction, both writers have produced journalism and criticism....

(The entire section is 6799 words.)

Jan Morris (review date 6 May 2002)

SOURCE: Morris, Jan. “Don't Be Ashamed to Go on a Bus Tour.” New Statesman (6 May 2002): 44-5.

[In the following review, Morris views The Art of Travel as “an elegant and entertaining evocation of all the sensations of travel,” and as a manual for maximizing the travel experience.]

This entirely delightful book [The Art of Travel] has an ambiguous title. Does it refer to the skill of travelling properly, or does it mean the matter of travel as the subject of art? A bit of each, it turns out, but it might better be called The Philosophy of Travel, because I think that's what it is really meant to be.

Most philosophers, in...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)

Annette Kobak (review date 31 May 2002)

SOURCE: Kobak, Annette. “Financial Alarm under the Palms.” Times Literary Supplement (31 May 2002): 32.

[In the following review, Kobak places The Art of Travel within de Botton's literary oeuvre and praises his unconventional approach to his subject matter.]

“Bad art”, Alain de Botton suggests in The Art of Travel, “could be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.” By this criterion, de Botton's own writing is getting to be better and better art. In his last three books, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy and now The Art of Travel, he has shed the sometimes gawky...

(The entire section is 1824 words.)

Liedeke Plate (review date April-June 2003)

SOURCE: Plate, Liedeke. Review of The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 111-12.

[In the following review, Plate compliments de Botton's “light, humorous prose” in The Art of Travel, but feels that the author's comparisons between art and travel are often “contradictory.”]

Prodesse Et Delectare, “to teach and to delight,” could indeed be de Botton's motto. For in The Art of Travel, as in How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), he tackles some of life's Big Questions in light, humorous prose, reflecting on the assumptions...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Further Reading

D'Aquila, Ulysses. Review of How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. Lambda Book Report 6, no. 8 (March 1998): 29.

Provides a review contending that How Proust Can Change Your Life is an engaging and intelligent work, but warns that it should not be seen as a substitute for reading the work of Marcel Proust.

Edmundson, Mark. “Advice for the Lovelorn.” Washington Post Book World (2 July 2000): 8.

Presents a review classifying The Consolations of Philosophy as a self-help book.

Moloney, Daniel P. “Happy Thoughts.” National Review 52, no. 15 (14 August 2000): 69-70.


(The entire section is 141 words.)