Alain de Botton Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.