Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
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 ego?) to Chloe: her generosity, her self-deprecation, her throw-away charm, expressed through the way she talks. The dialogue is convincing and engaging.
But the plot is not the whole story by any means. The chapters have headings like ‘Romantic Fatalism’, ‘Romantic Terrorism’, ‘Intermittences of the Heart’. The book is a psycho-philosophical treatise on love, the paragraphs numbered and ironically illustrated with diagrams; the first one is a mathematical calculation of the chances of Chloe and the narrator being seated side by side on the plane, the last a graph of her orgasmic contractions. There are quotations from and references to Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, Groucho Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Stendhal, Goethe, Freud, Barthes, and finally Dr Peggy Nearly, a Californian psychoanalyst whose do-it-yourself manual, The Bleeding Heart, was published in 1987. Botton invents a consultation between Dr Nearly and Madame Bovary in which the good doctor urges Flaubert's heroine to choose more suitable lovers and
to make an effort to look inside yourself, to go over your childhood, then perhaps you'll learn that you don't deserve all this pain. It's only because you grew up in a dysfunctional family.
Emma isn't interested: she just wants Rodolphe back; and for the third week running she hasn't got the money for Dr Nearly's fee.
The narrator's self-analysis throughout the book is a lot more subtle than Dr Nearly's offerings, and he develops it into magisterial generalisations. The result is something like La Rochefoucauld's maxims crossed with Adolphe, with jokes and against a background of luggage reclaim areas and breakfast cereal packets. The narrator writes his suicide note at the kitchen table ‘with only the shivering of the fridge for company’. The desolation of it! Ingeniously pinpointed mundane details stop the novel from getting too abstract. It is witty, funny, sophisticated, neatly tied up, and full of wise and illuminating insights. With so many illustrious names dropped, it is difficult to tell whether the insights are original or not: but they are certainly organised into a very entertaining read. For people who mind about that kind of thing, Essays in Love is also quite unusually optimistic.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604
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 every anecdote and trenchant word ever uttered about l'amour.
Now, in a smart and ironic first novel, also entitled On Love, Alain de Botton picks up the torch, so to speak, more or less where Stendhal left off. De Botton's On Love reads as if Stendhal had lived into the '90s, survived modern critical theory (as he clearly has), thought it was funny (as he likely would have), but retained a novelist's sympathy for the impulse—which he shared—to deconstruct and to dissect in search of some higher understanding.
Divided into titled chapters (“Romantic Fatalism,” “The Subtext of Seduction,” “False Notes,” “Romantic Terrorism” and so on) and brief, numbered sections separated by space breaks, de Botton's novel is a mock and serious philosophical inquiry into the grand passion that Stendhal compared to the Milky Way, “a bright mass made up of thousands of little stars, each of which is often itself a nebula.” What launches the novel's obsessive, self-conscious and rather sweetly cerebral narrator on his own astral explorations is an intense and ill-starred love affair with a woman named Chloe.
He and Chloe meet on a shuttle from Paris to London and have a flirty conversation over the airplane safety diagram card. They dine in restaurants with names like Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Lao Tzu, seduce each other, make love, fall in love, partly combine their busy London lives (he is an architect, she a graphic designer) into a sort of third life with a history of its own and recurrent leitmotifs based on shared experience (a corpse they discover in the street, a stranger who passes Chloe a mash note in a bagel shop). They go on lovers' holidays that are at first ecstatic, then markedly less idyllic as their passion falters, until their romance crashes and burns on a flight from Paris, slyly written as the evil twin of the flight on which they met.
One of the novel's nervy jokes is how perfectly ordinary, how unexceptional, all this is. (The course of this affair would doggedly follow the parabola we can imagine the narrator drawing along with the visual aids—diagrams and charts—that he scatters throughout the text.) De Botton is well aware of this. And the narrator knows it, too. But that doesn't keep him from making his textbook-case romance the center of his life, and the improbable springboard for his metaphysical triple flips. So each mini-step forward or setback in his love moves him to microscopic analysis or flights of heroic abstraction.
At moments he succumbs with almost giddy abandon to passages of loony post-structuralist rhetoric, sheer bombast and quasi-academic absurdity. Fearing that Chloe has begun to fake orgasm, he plots a logarithmic measure of the sincerity of her response:
It was at first hard for me to imagine an untruth lasting 3.2 seconds fitted into a sequence of eight 0.8-second contractions, the first and last two (3.2s) of which were genuine. It was easier to imagine a complete truth, or a complete lie, but the idea of a truth-lie-truth pattern seemed perverse and unnecessary.
Alternately, he is capable of keen observation, flashes of genuine lyricism, acuity and depth:
However happy we may be with our partner, our love for them necessarily prevents us … from starting other romantic liaisons. But why should this constrain us if we truly loved them? Why should we feel this as a loss unless our love for them has already begun to wane? The answer perhaps lies in the uncomfortable thought that in resolving our need to love, we may not always succeed in resolving our need to long.
The great minds of the past—Saint Theresa of Avila, Darwin, Freud, the Oracle at Delphi—are quoted and consulted, as if for second opinions on the state of his love for Chloe.
What lends On Love its sprightliness is the satisfying way in which these philosophical test-balloons are repeatedly sent up and almost immediately punctured by little pellets of reality: here, the phenomenally banal events that mark this love affair's milestones. Deflated, theory collapses into fiction, into elegantly taut and deftly paced comic scenes. So, intent on seduction, the narrator resolves to obliterate his personality and remake himself in the image of someone Chloe might love. “My idea of what she wanted from a lover could have been compared to a tight-fitting suit and my true self to a fat man, so that the evening was a process resembling a fat man's trying to fit into a suit that is too small for him.”
The problem is, he doesn't know enough about Chloe to know what she might want, until at last Chloe reveals a fondness for chocolate cake and he orders the sweet dessert—to which he is allergic. A meditation on the reality of Chloe's apparent perfection ends abruptly when she refers to a Bach cantata as “impossible yodeling.” A dream of perfect union with one's Platonic “other half” ends when Chloe brings home a new pair of truly hideous shoes, “a platformed sole rising sharply up to a heel with the breadth of a flat shoe but as tall as a stiletto,” and a “faintly rococo collar, decorated with a bow and stars and framed by a piece of chunky ribbon.” In the midst of a convoluted meditation on the differences between political terrorism—Japanese Red Army members mowing down airplane passengers—and romantic terrorism—“a gamut of tricks (sulking, jealousy, guilt) that attempts to force the partner to return love, by blowing up (in fits of tears, rage or otherwise) in front of the loved one”—these lovers have a hilarious, grimly quotidian squabble in which each accuses the other of having locked their hotel key in the room.
It is a tricky novel, but to de Botton's credit the tricks are never cloying, and they are almost always amusing, not least because we sense the writer's own exhilaration in being able to make them work. This, of course, is quite different from watching a writer show off. Unusual things do work in this book; somehow de Botton is able to draw Chloe's character sharply even through the myopic lens of her self-obsessed lover, to make us sympathize with him and with her, and at the same time understand why she can't stand him, forever. (What woman would want to stay with a man who could so drastically doubt his love simply because he thinks that she has bought an awful pair of new shoes?)
It is a tricky thing to construct a novel on the framework of a plot that is, by design, ordinary and predictable. But it is precisely because we know it all so well—that first blush of attraction, that last quarrel about the keys—that the novel is so credible and so funny. And de Botton plays a daring game with how seriously we are meant to take this: we are mostly willing to agree that this romance is a matter of life and death, even though the narrator never loses his ironic distance or his self-conscious rationality, not even in the midst of sex or a half-serious suicide attempt. We come to feel, as he does, that his love is a matter of consequence, even though we are told from the start, “Until one is actually dead (and then it must be considered impossible) it is difficult to consider anyone as the love of one's life.”
The book's success has much to do with its beautifully modeled sentences, its wry humor, its unwavering deadpan respect for its reader's intelligence. A wonderful chapter, titled “Marxism,” takes its text from “the old joke made by the Marx who laughed about not deigning to belong to a club that would accept someone like him” and, blithely assuming we will understand that this Marx is Groucho, not Karl, goes on to discuss this Marxism, a theory that addresses the problem of continuing to love someone even though that person loves us. Only very rarely does de Botton's nerve slip, as it does near the end, when he anxiously makes certain that we know precisely how far all this hard mental labor has finally gotten his narrator:
Love taught the analytic mind a certain humility, the reason that no matter how hard it struggled to reach immobile certainties (numbering its conclusions and embedding them in neat series) analysis could never be anything but flawed—and therefore never stray far from the ironic.
One can't blame de Botton for stating the obvious, and not just because he's a first novelist. Some might suggest that this is not the ideal moment in literary history in which to stake everything on the reading public's intelligence, on its awareness of subtlety, even on its ability to read. One hopes that On Love will find its readers, the ones who get the joke, who understand that fiction can be funny and serious, who don't mistrust irony as an elitist trick; who can, without prompting, distinguish Groucho from Karl.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695
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 fashionable literary theorists and postmodernists: Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtin, Lacan, and Heidegger.
The restaurant was of no help, for its romantic setting made love too conspicuous, hence insincere. The romantic weakened the bond between authorial intent and language, the signifieds kept threatening infidelity.
Intimacy did not destroy the self/other slash.
Is it really her I love, I thought to myself as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, or simply an idea that collects itself around her mouth, her eyes, her face? In extending her expression to her whole character, was I not perhaps guilty of mistaken metonymy?
The “ordinary” couple are young, professional class, semi-affluent—she is a graphic designer on a fashion magazine and he, the narrator, is an architect—and, the “I” character contends, it is difficult for them to have a story.
Chloe and I were moderns, inner-monologuers rather than adventurers. The world had been largely stripped of capacities for romantic struggle. The parents didn't care, the jungle had been tamed, society hid its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.
Indeed they do not achieve much of a story. Their self-doubts and quarrels, and even their intimacies, are made deliberately to run to type, and all the life and adventure is reserved for the mock-philosophic commentary. The rigidity of the author's Cartesian or Wittgensteinian form invites some neat deadpan devices, like the reemployment of the same sentences, with a few changed epithets, to render both the scene where love dawns and where it gloomily grinds to its end.
I was [Chloe and I were] sitting in the economy section of a British Airways jet making its way [our way back] from Paris to London. We had recently crossed the Normandy coast, where a blanket of winter cloud had given way to an uninterrupted view of brilliant blue waters [dark waters below]. … There was something comforting [threatening] about the flight, the dull background throb of the engines, the hushed gray interior, the candy smiles of the airline employees. A trolley carrying a selection of drinks and snacks was making its way down the aisle and, though I was neither [both] hungry nor [and] thirsty, it filled me with the vague anticipation [nausea] that meals may elicit in aircraft.
How shall one classify this novel? One is tempted at first to suppose its genre is philistinism: the vindictive philistinism of the campus novel (a tiresome genre) or of “Tom-Stoppardism”—a matter of getting your own back on culture “knowingly” (much as Gilbert and Sullivan, so “knowingly,” got their own back on grand opera).
But actually, I think what may be involved is something else altogether. One has always vaguely puzzled over the habit of Augustan authors, Addison and Steele and their contemporaries, of bedecking their writing with quotations from Virgil and Horace and Lucan and Ovid. What puzzles is that more analysis has not been made of this all important socio-cultural sign. For the most part, Spectator- and Tatler-type quotations serve no intellectual use at all, proving no more than (if they prove so much) that the classical world also had views on a given subject. Their function is wholly social and “connotative,” in Barthes's sense, and they are, for a writer of this period, as indispensable as a wig. Both the educational system and the promotion system are geared to this feature of the printed book or essay. In how many anecdotes does a poor boy rise from the plough to become bishop or prime minister because some benevolent clergyman or squire overhears him repeat a Latin tag. Even the gender system is supported by it. (When Fielding's Amelia recites a line from Virgil, her landlady faints from terror.)
This, I think, is the model for de Botton's dealings with Heidegger, Lacan, and the deconstructionists. He is making a genial unspoken joke to the effect that these, their theories and the tags from them, now constitute a social orthodoxy as Horace and Virgil did for the Augustans. They are a shibboleth for a now very large “quality” paper-reading, university-educated club or in-group, the cultured many. He knows these thinkers well enough to quote them accurately and appositely, but he is not pretending, any more than Addison and Steele really pretended, to put them to more than ornamental use. When he gives us a diagram, in the Barthesian or Lacanian style, he is careful to make it quite childish (for instance a row of regular teeth, and another row with a gap in them, like Chloe's, to illustrate the difference between the Platonic and the Kantian aesthetic). Fun with the structuralists and poststructuralists, and the actual look of their books, keeps him going in a sustained, rather engaging, and certainly wonderfully slick exercise in facetiousness. It is one in which he is depending, like other facetious writers in the past, on making the reader exclaim, enjoyably, “How true!”
In a way, the best chapter in the book is the one entitled “Marxism,” the Marx in question being not Karl but Groucho. It turns on Groucho's brilliant though well-worn joke that he wouldn't want to join a club that would have him as a member. The narrator's first visit to Chloe's flat turns out miraculously successful. They sleep together (though he had been planning no more than a polite social kiss and exit), and next morning he finds prepared for him a complete feast of a breakfast. It seems to him, causing him panic, that he not only loves but is loved. Upon which he instantly picks a perfectly outrageous quarrel over there being no strawberry jam. There are five other kinds of jam on the table, but no decent jam, no strawberry, and he oafishly leaves the breakfast to get cold while he goes out to buy some.
The (Marxist) principle is clear:
We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent, and witty as we are ugly, stupid, and dull. But what if such a perfect being should one day turn around and decide they will love us back? We can only be somewhat shocked—how can they be as wonderful as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us?
The thought leads the narrator to a survey of the whole theory and tradition of romantic love. Is there something in Albert Camus's theory that we fall in love with people because they look, from the outside, so “whole,” as against our own incoherence and dispersedness? Was Denis de Rougemont right in saying that the most serious obstruction to our passion is the one to be preferred above all others? Or Anatole France, that “it is not customary to love what one has,” “Marxist” logic seems at first sight undefeatable, and the Marxist moment in relations, when it becomes clear that love is reciprocated, ought to be fatal; but in fact, in the short run at least, the novel asserts, self-love can sometimes get the better of self-hatred. “If self-love gains the upper hand, both partners may accept that seeing their love reciprocated is not proof of now low the beloved is, but of how lovable they have themselves turned out to be.”
This chapter is the key to the book in more ways than one. The book's theme throughout is the utterly cliché nature, in these days, of the concept “love.” In one of its best scenes, the narrator and Chloe, wanting to say they love each other and desperately racking their brains for some way that is not pure cliché, at last hit on a solution: noticing the complimentary sweet the waiter has left beside their plate, they agree that they “marshmallow” each other. “And from then on love was, for Chloe and me at least, no longer simply love. It was a sugary, puffy object a few millimeters in diameter that melts deliciously in the mouth.”
It is for something of the same reason, however, that the book does not get very far as a story or novel, if indeed it intends to. For automatic Groucho-esque self-hatred, mechanical irony, is an awkward piece of equipment for a novelist. We read that, after the narrator and Chloe, with “apologies, insults, laughter, and tears,” have got over their breakfast row, “Romeo and Juliet were to be seen together later that afternoon, mushily holding hands in the dark at a four-thirty screening of Love and Death at the National Film Theatre.” Now the tone of that does not seem quite right. Some basic sense of decorum tells us that, at this point, a novelist ought to render the lovers' feelings straight and as they felt them, not translate them into cliches (“Romeo and Juliet,” “mushily holding hands”)—otherwise we are not reading a story. Again, when, after a failed effort at suicide (by mistake he grabs not sleeping pills but effervescent vitamin C tablets), the narrator restores his self-love by defecting from Marx to Jesus, it would be funnier if the tone for a moment became Jesus-like and not Groucho-like. Illusions have to be rendered before there is much point in puncturing them.
De Botton's novel is itself dedicated to a cliché, of the “How true!” type about how little we know ourselves, despite Freud. La Rochefoucauld, Roland Barthes, and Heidegger; but he has worked it up into all sorts of bright jokes and nice silly-clever ploys. This is not the last we shall hear of him.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
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, Montaigne, Goethe, Marx, Proust, Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Denis de Rougemont, and finally, the meta-beloved, Barthes himself. The particulars of the relationship, in the end, are far less vivid than its author's love affair with French literature and literary theory.
The signs and signal-fires of love are (re)read by this narrator, grouped chronologically, numbered within chapters, and sometimes accompanied by diagrams. The diagrams are a disarming touch; they also help flesh out the obsessional character of the narrator, who is an architect. “Desire had transformed me into a decoder of symbols, an interpreter of the landscape,” he says, and he means it. The reader must be willing to grant that a love affair might be reread as a text rather than retold as a history, and prepare to sacrifice light and heat for analysis.
Not that analysis is without its pleasures: the narrator is often a precise, astute commentator on his own situation. Recalling the chameleonic “Not who am I, but who am I for her?” mode of his first dinner with Chloe, he notes that “in the reflexive movement of that question,” his “self could not help but grow tinged with a certain bad faith and inauthenticity.” This is a most delicate anatomy of what happens, what has happened when someone finds himself eating an allergen to impress a date. The progress of love is also economically described: “Intimacy did not destroy the self/other slash. It merely moved it outside the couple. Otherness now lay beyond the apartment door, confirming suspicions that love is never far from a conspiracy.”
Lacking the leaven of irony, the analyses occasionally fall flat. After describing their first argument (which he had gratuitously instigated), the narrator asks, “What had turned me into such a monster? The fact that I had always been something of a marxist.” If the discourse On Love took shape as a Marxist critique of love stories, posing as a love story, this might have been interesting. Also, the author neither relishes nor deconstructs the gender-specificity of his two characters. I couldn't help thinking that the narrative would have been truer to its philosophical heart, and more welcoming, had the author followed Barthes in according the lovers sexual anonymity. Yet the book is almost lovable for its unevenness, its excesses. “Trop penser me font amours” … I'm looking forward to seeing what de Botton comes up with next, now that he's gotten this out of his system.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
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 story line or character-drawing in favour of presenting the author as a sociological raconteur. All of which can be fun; when Alain de Botton hits the target, The Romantic Movement is a delight to read. But when he's bad, he's awful.
De Botton's speciality is love and relationships, and in The Romantic Movement he gives himself what he considers an archetypal contemporary relationship to play with. Alice is 24 and in advertising. Eric is 31 and in banking. They meet at a party, go out with each other for about 12 months and then split up. They're not particularly beautiful, nor amusing, nor temperamental; in his meticulous efforts to present an ‘ordinary’ relationship, de Botton gets perilously close to writing a dull book. Alice and Eric operate like faceless crosses on a soccer coach's blackboard, and it is the arrows, squiggles and set-play movements between the two that interest the author.
When we meet ‘Philip’ (the man whom Alice will eventually turn her affections to) we get an even more thinly sketched character than those we already had. On page 247, where Eric unsuspectingly introduces the couple to each other, he tells Alice that
Matt's got this friend of his, Philip. He works as a sound engineer on classical recordings. He's really nice and I remember he likes antiques, so maybe you should get along with him.
Twenty pages later, Philip is telling his friend Peter about this nice girl he's met ‘through Matt's flatmate Suzy’. But Suzy lives in a two-bedroomed flat with Alice: Eric has no flatmate and Matt is never heard of again.
None of this is criminal in itself, but it does help dismantle the idea that The Romantic Movement is anything other than ‘De Botton On Relationships’. As in his first book, Essays in Love, it is in exploring the mechanics of love in the Nineties that the author's own obsession lies. Every phase and shift in Eric and Alice's affair is itemised and turned into simile, with accompanying diagrams to bang the point home: ‘Alice thought bitterly of how she was split into a bewildering range of moods, akin to a number of TV channels’; ‘one could liken conversational potential to a tree-shaped structure’; ‘one could have likened the scenario of love-permanence to a suspension bridge’; ‘the result was a constant meteorological struggle, warm fronts struggling against cold fronts and forming unstable alliances in occluded fronts’; ‘depending on her state of mind, Alice's outlook on life … alternated between two schools: that of the staircase and that of the tumble-dryer’.
Tumble-dryers apart, The Romantic Movement does provide some depressingly accurate reminders that most of us will always be closer to the Erics and Alices of this world than anything approaching Heathcliff or Cathy. And if Eric and co. had been allowed out of de Botton's test-tube long enough to achieve some sort of character, then the whole experience would have been even more depressing and far more enjoyable.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374
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 season has its genre: tragedy for fall; for spring, comedy; winter, irony; and summer (the season of fulfillment and freedom from workday contingencies), romance—a rich, green dream world where imagination runs riot.
For Frye's devotees, the perfect summer reading list might include titles such as Scott's Ivanhoe, Keats's Endymion, Shelley's Alastor, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. For those whose tastes are a little more contemporary, however, there's plenty of summer fiction to offer a timely, perhaps even romantic, excursion into the green realms of the imagination. …
Returning to the present, Alain de Botton's The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel is the tongue-in-cheek tale of a young woman looking for love in modern-day London. A dreamer and romantic, Alice is more in love with the idea of love than with anything or anyone else, and this lack of realism makes it hard for her to figure out whether the current handsome man on the horizon is Mr. Right or simply another Mr. Mistake.
The author of a previous novel called Essays in Love, de Botton has a flair for combining a diverting storyline with lashings of commentary that reads like a cross between a pop psychology guide to romance and a collection of Jane Austin-like ironic asides. To wit: “Shockingly incongruous in a romantic conception of love is the idea one might embark on a relationship not for the richness of another's eyes or the sophistication of their mind but simply to avoid contemplating a diary full of evenings alone.” Succinct, bright, witty, replete with aphorisms, insights, even funny charts and graphs, the story of Alice and her quest will have readers nodding with rueful recognition.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655
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. There is nothing remarkable about her except that she is an individual; and the biographical form in which the novel is cast—not so much a story as a straightforward shot at telling us what someone is really like—sets out her individuality in multifarious and lively detail.
As his reason for undertaking a biography, the narrator (recoiling from his last girl friend's accusation of narcissism) cites ‘the impulse to know another fully’. It is an impulse by which love often discloses itself to the smitten one, but here love between the two of them is not spoken of, is not the subject under the biographer's microscope; yet every stage and every detail of their love affair is transmitted to the reader with a deft indirectness which is marvellous to read. The scene in which the biographer, whilst cross-examining his subject on her past affairs, manages also to get her into bed with him is beautifully done.
All deviations from the conventional forms in fiction are attempts to side-step some of the difficulties of novel-writing, and it is interesting to see what Alain de Botton gains and what he loses with his biographical method. It is legitimate, for instance, for the biographer to feed his reader raw undigested information about his subject—strings of ‘facts’ about her tastes or her past, even her answers to questionnaires—without obeying the novelist's obligation to make information seem to surface of its own accord on the current of the story. This facility has its dangers: in Kiss & Tell Isabel sits now and then so unnaturally still under questioning, like someone who has agreed to have her portrait painted, that forward movement and development are lost. Mostly, though, the questions are ingenious and the answers revealing.
But they reveal the character of an individual only. Here is the weakness of the ‘biography’ idea, that the focus must be so tight. From a good novel you learn about humanity as it is exemplified by a set of characters interacting and developing around carefully constructed and deliberately positioned events. From a biography you learn all there is to know about an individual, with perhaps a few other faces glimpsed in reflected light.
I wasn't sure just how deliberately the author of this book, though focusing on the biography of Isabel through the narrator's eyes, was meanwhile semaphoring to the reader the sly sketch he was making of the narrator himself. Whilst they are discussing chocolate-eating they are playing chess; is it significant that Isabel seems to be winning? When the biographer tells his subject he likes or dislikes her dress, of course she pays him no attention, for we already know he can't tell one dress from another. Again, it is a fact that the inside of Isabel's head—her thoughts, her phraseology—resembles a little too closely the inside of the narrator's head; does that show us the narrator's unregenerate narcissism creating Isabel in his own image, or does it show us a shortcoming in Alain de Botton?
The book is so cultivated and witty and self-aware that it's safe to assume that all its effects are intended and the author's control perfect. Such a writer could write the biography of a broomstick, as Dr Johnson suggested, and it would come alive under his pen.
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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 of his great circular novel, fearful of ever again missing one word. For there are those, both well-educated and well-read, who still, after numerous attempts, fail to be captivated and thus, missing out on one of life's great pleasures, never manage to progress beyond the first or perhaps the second volume.
Might Alain de Botton's new book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, fulfil this function? Alas, that is not its purpose.
De Botton's intentions are somewhat different. He, I suppose, presumes that his readers will already be familiar with the master's work and so he sees it as his job, through an appreciation of the novel and some biographical sketches of Proust himself, to interpret for us how, if we properly understand In Search of Lost Time, we will be able to improve our spiritual quality of life.
With this in mind, he divides the book into chapters with headings such as ‘How to be a Good Friend’, ‘How to Express Your Emotions’ and ‘How to Suffer Successfully’ and then extrapolates from the behaviour of the characters in Proust's novel and from other various writings (with no references given), how Proust, albeit unhappy himself, would have advised us to behave in order to be happy.
At intervals throughout the book, the reader may well wonder what audience de Botton sees himself as addressing. It is hard to imagine that an intelligent person who has read Proust—or indeed who hasn't—really needs to be told that dukes are not better than dustmen—or, come to that, duchesses than dustwomen; nor that it is possible to seek beauty in the modern world, beyond the confines of a Carpaccio or a Veronese.
Of whom, outside Form 5a, can de Botton ask, ‘Why do we kiss people?’ and reply:
At one level, merely to generate the pleasurable sensation of rubbing an area of nerve endings against a corresponding strip of soft, fleshy, moist skin tissue …
This reviewer was, unfortunately, intensely irritated by many aspects of de Botton's thesis, finding it superficial, often contrived and at times patronising.
In the chapter on suffering successfully, de Botton takes a number of ‘patients’—characters of Proust's who suffer because of some inability to cope with a problem, then analyses the problem and posits a solution. Thus, Françoise, the narrator's cook, becomes a know-all to cover up her own lack of education. Had she asked when she didn't know something, she might have had fewer problems and been a happier person.
Does it lie within the realms of possibility that Proust might have expected the reader to pick up a few details of this kind on the evidence of the text alone? And does any reasonably mature person really need to be told that suffering ‘opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative enquiry’, which possibilities, according to de Botton, are ‘most often overlooked or refused’. Thank you.
Another peculiar and rather whimsical aspect of this book lies in the way it is illustrated, so that besides some reproductions of paintings by Monet or Chardin, there are illustrations of young girls skipping and hopping and swinging their arms, reproduced from Proust's doctor father's self-help book, entitled Elements of Hygiene (1888). All of which, whilst droll, feels somewhat self-conscious.
But it ill becomes the critic to be too harsh, and there are some excellent things too in this book. Most particularly de Botton manages to paint, through what are often no more than sketches, a very vivid picture of Proust the man. What appears to be the essence of this sick, neurotic, fur-coated, talkative, at times apologetic genius, is brilliantly conveyed. Little snippets of information, like the fact that Proust, as a mature man, once asked who wrote The Brothers Karamazov, combined with the occasional anecdote about, for instance, Proust sharing a taxi with Joyce, help to bring him very much to life. Interesting, too, is de Botton's exploration of the effect Proust had on Virginia Woolf.
So where do we go from here? Back perhaps to the pages of In Search of Lost Time. Can de Botton after all have achieved the almost impossible? Can he take the doubter by the hand and lead him through the tangled wood out into the sunny glades?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830
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 portrait [in How Proust Can Change Your Life] makes Proust sound like a Job in the hands of an unusually inventive Satan: he hated the cold and central heating, suffered from altitude sickness after a trip to Versailles, and was so acutely aware of neighbours' noise that he almost died from the installation of a WC next door. Even his stock-broker accused him of hypochondria, obviously recognizing a poor exponent of the art of probabilities. Proust died a few months later. He also, more famously, suffered from critical failure and a conviction that his writing resembled a piece of indigestible nougat. But he consoled himself with the seemingly contradictory belief that he had been “endowed with the power to procure the happiness of others”, and it is this belief that de Botton sets out to justify.
Teasing Proust's nougat into a nine-part instruction manual on “how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one's life”, he enables Marcel to measure up to his incongruously healthy father and brother. Proust senior was a vast, unstoppable man devoted to the eradication of brain-softening and bubonic plague. “I have been happy all my life”, he confessed. A staunch opponent of the spine-crushing corset, Dr Proust published a self-help book for young ladies, samples of which are quoted along with their stodgily explicit illustrations, explaining how to balance on one foot and jump off a wall. “Ah, Céleste”, Marcel is reported saying to his maid, “If I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick”, presumably not referring to the anatomical benefits of balancing the seven volumes of A la Recherche du temps perdu on one's head.
Marcel's indestructible brother Robert was an expert on genitalia in whose honour prostatectomies are apparently still known as “proustatectomies”. De Botton points out with characteristic optimism that Robert's ability to survive being run over by a 5-tonne coal truck came at a price: an inability to notice things.
This, indeed, is the continuous moral: suffering sensitizes the mind. “Wisdom”, ironically enough, is best acquired “painfully via life”, not “painlessly via a teacher”. Each chapter—“How to Take Your Time”, “How to Suffer Successfully”, “How to Be a Good Friend”, etc—offers a useful Proustian axiom: do not “deny the bread on the sideboard a place in your conception of beauty”; do not “evaluate people on the basis of conspicuous categories”; do maintain marriages with the threat of infidelity and friendships with hollow words; do read books in order to nullify the numbing effects of habit, but do not ignore the lesson of “perhaps the wisest person in Proust's book”, Mme Leroi: “Love? I make it often, but I never talk about it.”
Those who do ignore Mme Leroi's lesson and find Proust's precepts somewhat puny when divested of their syntax might use the book as a do-it-yourself Proust kit. A Pascal pensée is set alongside an advertisement for Pears' toilet soaps so that we can test Proust's assertion that the imagination can feed on anything. For a similar reason, the current Paris-Le Havre timetable appears on page 46, happily evoking, for anyone who has sat on the train with a sense of lost time, the sleaze of Paris-St Lazare and the dismal mockery of Mantes-la-Jolie.
It is refreshing to be invited to identify Proust's characters with people from our own lives (the author's smiling girlfriend, “who has never read Proust”, is winningly depicted in a photograph above the caption, “Kate/Albertine”), and to be reminded that Proust, like Pascal and Alain de Botton, is an example of that notorious faux ami: a “moraliste”—not to be confused with a “moralisateur”.
Ultimately, How Proust Can Change Your Life suggests that the pleasure of Proust lies not so much in discovery as in recognition, and even that all these moral niceties are simply pretexts for those wonderful, serpentine sentences.
Proust's tail-chasing novel ends with the narrator's decision to write it, and although Alain de Botton ends his with an invitation to cast this and all other books aside, he has after all written a book of his own. A cautionary tale in the final chapter—ambiguously titled “How to Put Books Down”—describes Virginia Woolf's unhappiness with her own writing after becoming “embedded” in Proust. De Botton's causerie is an object-lesson in ridding oneself of an obsession with Proust. In effect, a proustectomy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
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 horizon as a supreme peak.
Alain de Botton has written what seems, at first, a whimsical “self-help” manual based on Proust's 3,000-page novel. His book [How Proust Can Change Your Life] is at once a brilliant tour de force and a seriously legitimate guide for the perplexed, amply fulfilling the promise of its title.
We are informed that “Proust was born into a family where the art of making people feel better was taken very seriously indeed.” Proust pere was a doctor who wrote more than 30 books on all aspects of health and hygiene. To de Botton, Marcel was dutifully following in his father's footsteps while appearing to be an asthmatic invalid.
How can a man who made illness into a consecrated profession be trusted, and his implicit recommendations taken seriously? De Botton dismisses this problem easily in a typically urbane sentence: “It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.” The telling word is “miserable.” With deftness and wit, de Botton makes it evident that Proust was a Houdini of self-immurement, so accomplished that the scent of a lily drifting somehow into his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom could induce a life threatening crisis.
“The happy few” who read Proust realize quickly that his novel examines relentlessly all the causes of human misery and unhappiness yet becomes an exhortation to seize the true bliss within us—Proust's celebrated “la vraie vie.” De Botton's judicious excerpts show how the novel can teach us to suffer successfully, to express our emotions, to be a good friend, to open our eyes, to be happy in love, and to put books down.
In one of his finest passages, de Botton observes that for Proust the value of betrayal and jealousy is “its ability to generate the intellectual motivation to investigate the hidden sides of others.” The good use to which we put the people who cause us pain is one of the novel's dominant motifs. Thus, the book becomes one of “the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive.”
Proust, like Tolstoy, Stendhal and Flaubert, assiduously read the newspapers for ways to stimulate and sharpen his creative faculties. In one May 1914 newspaper there appeared the brief account of a horse who had leapt into the carriage of the tram in front of it, seriously injuring several passengers. De Botton suggests what Proust would have done with this simple story in a droll and facetious manner. No doubt the “somersault into the tram [was] provoked by misjudged nostalgia for a show-jumping career or vengeance for the omnibus that had recently killed its brother in the market place, later put down for horse steak.”
De Botton is really pointing to the way Proust transformed his frivolity into a method for undertaking his greatest search, the search for lost time.
Perhaps the most fascinating episode in this erudite book is the meeting of Proust and English diplomat Harold Nicholson (a delegate to the Paris peace conference) at a party. The writer wanted to know what a diplomat's day was like. When Nicholson started to sum it up. “Well we generally meet at 10 …” Proust interrupted: “Vous allez trop vite.” (You're going too fast.) According to his diary, Nicholson began again: “So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons.”
Macaroons? Proust famously decocted his childhood, and an entire French village, from a cookie dunked in a cup of lime tea. How confirming of his genius that a peace conference that prepared the way for Hitler would be precisely remembered for its macaroons and “tea in the next room.” These sorts of ironies were never wasted on Proust, though no one could have anticipated the Second World War coming out of those tea cups.
After reading de Botton's book, one will savor Proust with fresh wonder and gratitude.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630
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 mania. In de Botton's view, the multivolume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (as he accurately translates its title) is not “a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age”; it is “a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life.”
The novelist's father, Dr. Adrien Proust, was a specialist in the field of public health whose work went far toward eradicating cholera and bubonic plague in France. He also wrote guides to physical fitness, making him “a pioneer and master of the keep-fit self-help manual.” His son admired his achievements extravagantly. “Ah,” he said to his maid, “if I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick.”
De Botton's premise is a clever one, allowing him to sneak a rather slight literary study onto the most prominent display tables in the bookshops with the backing of a mainstream publishing house. It may seem to make the book a one-joke story, easily put down after flipping through a chapter or two. But in fact it expands naturally into the more serious theme that a great work, properly read, will offer invaluable insights. Or, as Proust expressed it: “Every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps have never experienced in himself.”
At first glance Proust might not appear to be the ideal guide for those seeking health and happiness. An invalid, he suffered from severe asthma, inexplicable allergies, poor digestion, dizziness, and chest pain. He seldom arose before evening, and wrote all of In Search of Lost Time—a task that took him 14 years—in bed. He was accused of being a hypochondriac, but his death from pneumonia at the age of 51 lends credence to his self-description: “suspended between caffeine, aspirin, asthma, angina pectoris, and, altogether between life and death every six days out of seven.”
Proust's love life, too, was far from satisfactory. Gradually realizing that the young women his mother produced for his inspection would never interest him, he accepted his homosexuality. But he was not ever to enjoy what modern self-help writers would call a “fulfilling relationship,” except for a very brief period with a taxi driver who died in an air crash. “Love is an incurable disease,” he wrote. “Those who love and those who are happy are not the same.” It is an opinion unforgettably illustrated in his fiction.
In the Proustian scheme to feel is, to a large extent, to suffer. How then can we suffer successfully, to use de Botton's catchy phrase? Well, we must learn something from our pain—learn, at the very least, that it is useless and possibly meaningless. Here, for instance, is Proust on jealousy: “It is one of the powers of jealousy to reveal to us the extent to which the reality of external facts and the emotions of the heart are an unknown element which lends itself to endless suppositions. We imagine that we know exactly what things are and people think, for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man has, then it becomes a kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything.”
Friendship, unlike romance, was something Proust excelled at. His countless friends attested to his affectionate nature, his generosity, his invariable tact and kindness. Yet he was no warmer in his appraisal of friendship than of love, characterizing it as “a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone.” And he cautioned in his writing: “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 that 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).”
While those might sound like the words of a hopelessly depressed and misanthropic person, Proust was not one to sink into a despair or throw himself off a bridge. His way of coping was cheerfully pragmatic; he decided that friendship, however unsatisfactory, was nevertheless important and he devoted considerable time and effort to its cultivation. His success was perhaps due to the fact that he entertained no unrealistic expectations; since he did not expect to find a soul mate, he could satisfy himself with simple affection. “I do my intellectual work within myself,” he wrote, “and once with other people, it's more or less irrelevant to me that they're intelligent, as long as they are kind, sincere, etc.”
Proust so showered his friends with flattery that they invented a verb, “to Proustify,” meaning to show a flowery, verbose geniality. He made it a rule to refrain wholly from unkind comment, and thought the pursuit of affection incompatible with the pursuit of truth. How different from our modern self-help gurus, who claim that honesty between friends is of paramount importance. Taking his cue from his hero, de Botton observes that “though the dominant view of grievances is that they should invariably be discussed with their progenitors, the typically unsatisfactory results of doing so should perhaps urge us to reconsider.” How true; just think of the friendships you've known yourself that have foundered upon an excess of “honesty.”
The imperatives of friendship and of art, of course, are not at all the same. Proust described artists as “creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention.” De Botton suggests, in turn, that we look at In Search of Lost Time as “an unusually long unsent letter, the antidote to a lifetime of Proustification … the place where the unsayable was finally granted expression.”
Still, Proust's art has a good deal to teach us not only about personal relations but about that rarest of talents, the simple enjoyment of life. He advised that we pay close attention to the great painters who open our eyes to the world, and singled out for especial praise the work of Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, pointing to “the charm and wisdom with which it coats our most modest moments by initiating us into the life of still life.”
Chardin chose to give the ordinary and the homely meaning, just as Proust himself did in writing about the village of Illiers, where he spent summers as a boy. Specific objects, or people, or existence itself is never trivial; what is trivial is the quality of our memories of these things. “We don't believe that life is beautiful because we don't recall it,” Proust wrote, “but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don't remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”
The glove, the smell inspire not so much recollection as appreciation. Works of art, including books, are also valuable insofar as they provide opportunities for appreciation. Otherwise, Proust stressed, their virtue is dubious: “As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place. …”
The art, then, lies not in an artist's experiences but in the quality of his perceptions and his ability to convey them. De Botton illustrates this truth by recounting his visit to Illiers (fictionalized as Combray, it is now officially Illiers-Combray in honor of the novel). Arriving full of eager anticipation, he finds, not the timeless beauty of Proust's evocation, but a dull. dusty little town; the rooms of his Tante Leonie's house, where de Botton takes a guided tour, “re-create in its full esthetic horror the feel of a tastelessly furnished, provincial bourgeois 19th century home.” As Proust said of the landscapes painted by Millet and Monet, the beauty is not in the scenes themselves. it is in the mind and eye of the artist.
While ostensibly this book concerns Proust's lessons on life. ultimately it probably reveals more about what he has to tell us regarding art. Be that as it may, even de Botton's smart, sometimes annoying, postmodern irony cannot obscure a sincere affection for his subject that few readers will fail to share. Who, after all, could resist a man who called his maid “Plouplou” and urged her to call him “Missou”? How Proust Can Change Your Life performs a valuable service in reminding us of the manifold allurements of a “great modernist” too often considered heavy and daunting.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476
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 Painter's superb biography came out, and we Proustians cannot get enough of what is now almost universally acclaimed as the greatest novel of the century, Remembrance of Things Past, the only possible contender being James Joyce's Ulysses.
When we do open the covers of How Proust Can Change Your Life, what we find is an amiable ramble through snippets of bright sayings by Marcel Proust accompanied by considerably lengthier and less bright sayings by Alain de Botton. Fair enough, I suppose, and something I suspect most of us could do and indeed already have done to some extent. I defy anyone to read Proust without finding passages to underline or copy. Most of us would not have the brass, though, to explain Proust's carefully expounded, transcendentally eloquent ideas by putting them into our own leadenly thudding words. Visconti's film A Death in Venice, a passable dramatization of Thomas Mann's novella, drew great power from the music of Gustav Mahler, no less, and Botton's book is a similar case of riding to glory on the coattails of a genius.
Nevertheless, Alain de Botton—who, despite his name, is English—has certainly done his homework very well indeed. He has even categorized his citations into nine chapters: “How to Love Life Today,” “How to Read for Yourself,” “How to Take Your Time,” “How to Suffer Successfully,” et cetera. The way these chapter headings are capitalized already seems a bit dubious to me, but never mind. However, one does have to ask: when this book was accepted for publication, was there no copy editor available? Proust is easier to read in French than in English, true, but one must admit he is not really easy to read in any language, especially when a sentence goes on for more than a page. But consider Botton's mangled style:
A good way of evaluating the wisdom of someone's ideas might be to undertake a careful examination of the state of their own mind and health. After all, if their pronouncements were truly worthy of our attention, we should expect that the first person to reap their benefits would be their creator. Might this justify an interest not simply in a writer's work, but also in their life?
In Britain today, the unisexist their is commonly used to avoid the sexist and therefore supposedly derogatory his or her and is accepted equally willingly as singular or plural, whom is fading out of existence, and the unsplit infinitive is an utterly lost cause; but still, how many antecedents can the same their have within one paragraph? I count five here. The antecedent of the first their may be whoever is doing the evaluating, unless it be the one who has ideas, but in that case why own? The second their definitely refers to the someone who has ideas, although its placement could suggest it was mind and health. The third their clearly belongs to ideas. The fourth their refers to the writer called someone in the first sentence, as does the first their, but the latter might instead refer to work. If does not always call for a were; here are would be preferable.
Well, this is not exactly what we call careful writing. Even I can humbly propose a clearer version: “A good way for us to evaluate the wisdom of ideas might be to undertake a careful examination of the state of their writer's mind and health [at the time of writing?]. After all, if such pronouncements are truly worthy of our attention, we should expect the first person to reap their benefits would be their creator. Might this justify an interest not simply in a work, but also in its author's life?” We can now understand the question, banal to the utmost, and answer it: “Yes, life sheds light on a work, work sheds light on a life, but the two are forever connected and separate”—so obvious it is embarrassing to have to state it.
Still, Botton unearths all sorts of fascinating Proustiana. For example:
In 1922 [James Joyce and Marcel Proust] were at a black-tie dinner given at the Ritz for Stravinsky, Diaghilev and members of the Russian Ballet, in order to celebrate the first night of Stravinsky's Le Renard. Joyce arrived late and without a dinner jacket, Proust kept his fur coat on throughout the evening and what happened once they were introduced was later reported by Joyce to a friend:
Our Talk consisted solely of the word ‘Non.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘Non.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘Non.’ And so on.
This gives rise to Botton's speculations on what-might-have-been: “Proust: [while taking furtive stabs at an homard à l'américaine, huddled in his fur coat] Monsieur Joyce, do you know the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre? / Joyce: Please, appelez-moi James. Le Duc! What a close and excellent friend, the kindest man I have met from here to Limerick.” And so on, for another ten lines. Now, I ask you, what is the value of that? It only demonstrates the chasm of mièvrerie (soppiness, vapidity) that yawns between Proust's sensibility and that of this mini-Proust who even quotes his Master, in a fashion reminiscent of Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet with their farcical dissection of clichés, on how to express things at once innovatively and incisively, and then plods on in a stale, flat style all his own. In a word, Botton's talent as a writer is simply not up to the task he has set himself.
I am surprised that Botton constantly refers to In Search of Lost Time, and never mentions the only truly controversial episode in the history of Proust's publication in English. As I once wrote in London's Times Literary Supplement:
The prime example of well-meaning but misguided attempts … to improve on professional translators' work is the recent attempt to “get closer to the original” by changing Remembrance of Things Past into In Search of Lost Time. Any non-French-speaking person can look up temps and find “time” and look up perdu and find “lost” but surely any literate speaker of English ought to know that “lost time” means “pay deducted for unauthorized absences,” and what has that to do with Proust? … Clearly Scott Moncrieff's leap of the imagination in finding the little phrase in a Shakespeare sonnet to fit Proust's masterpiece should not be tampered with. … [Translation] is not to find word-for-word dictionary equivalents, but to recreate the original in another tongue.
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's original and flawed translation was revised by Terence Kilmartin, who also inserted missing passages, and then ditto by D. J. Enright. Well, Enright wrote to me as follows: “In fact I fought to keep the title Remembrance of Things Past, arguing that In Search of Lost Time sounded like one of those prehistoric movies featuring Raquel Welch, or at best Jules Verne—but failed. … The reasons for the change seem to be (a) the dissatisfaction with the old title long voiced by ‘Proustians,’ and (b) a factor (I suspect) which you can imagine for yourself.” I imagine that “factor” was a purely commercial one suggesting, if not a different work, a translation vastly different from the skillful touching up it actually was. Not a word of all this (unless my eyes glazed) is mentioned in Botton's book, purportedly to be all about Proust's oeuvre. Proust himself did not like the Shakespearean title, but perhaps he too belonged to the school which holds that translation is a word-for-word chore. Well, I would point out that recherche really means research, the same way you can entrer somewhere you've never been but rentrer when you go home. And what is delving into the past if not remembrance?
Despite my various grievances, I must admit there is one enormous benefit to be derived from this little book, for Proustians and not-yet-Proustians alike. If it leads the literate public either back to rereading Proust or even more desirably to reading Proust for the first time—and I fully believe it inevitably will do both—that is already a most praiseworthy accomplishment.
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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 philosophy. It is bad 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.
This is all the more dangerous because the decadent notion of philosophy as “consolation” is actually very close to the true conception of philosophy. Philosophy—and to this extent Alain de Botton is correct—is not something that can be separated from life itself. It is not something that you do between nine o'clock and five o'clock, after which point “life”—dinner parties and flirtation—resumes. Life is continually thrusting philosophical questions upon us, and our answers to those questions make demands upon life. What carries on in universities under the name of philosophy has only an accidental relation to philosophy itself, just as what carries on in church has only an accidental relation to religion.
Socrates is commonly revered as someone who took philosophy seriously, who lived and died according to its demands. He is to philosophy what Christ is to Christianity. Like Christ, Socrates was completely misunderstood by his contemporaries. They viewed his endless questions about the nature of justice and beauty as a kind of childish game, unconnected to the serious business of life. (This is how most people still see philosophy.) The truth, as Socrates said again and again, is precisely the opposite. These are the most serious and practical questions that anyone can ask; compared to them, the “serious business of life” is a childish game. Christ made a similar point when he described the Pharisees as men who “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”. The things that most people take seriously are in fact ludicrously trivial. In moments of lucidity or remorse, they perceive this but find it hard to keep the perception in mind. Hardest of all is to live according to this sense of what really matters, as the biographies of Socrates and Christ demonstrate.
This austere conception of philosophy is inverted by de Botton. For Socrates, philosophy makes demands on life; for de Botton, life makes demands on philosophy. Philosophical theories are no more than ointments that we apply to soothe our various ailments. A remark by Epicurus, on the back cover of the book, sums it up: “Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless, for just as there is no profit in medicine when it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it does not expel the diseases of the mind.”
Not only is this conception of philosophy decadent in the popular sense of being effete, but it is also decadent in the precise sense of belonging to a period of cultural decline. The Epicurean view of philosophy as therapy was shared by all the main schools of late antiquity. This was a period in which the material and spiritual resources of classical civilisation were running dry. Barbarians harassed the frontiers, while a swollen administration stifled civic life. Unemployed mobs congregated in the imperial capitals, and were pacified with bread and circuses. Creative literature gave way to rhetoric and pastiche, and the official religion declined into an empty cult. Frustrated and dispirited, the educated retired to their libraries and found consolation in philosophy.
If you rewrite the above description, substituting “welfare and football” for “bread and circuses”, and “psychotherapy” for “philosophy”, you gain an approximate portrait of the modern west. The idea of philosophy as therapy appeals today for the same reason it appealed in late antiquity: it promises respite from insoluble problems. Even within “serious” philosophy, the therapeutic paradigm has proved seductive. Wittgenstein saw an analogy between his method, in which philosophical problems are “dissolved” into linguistic misunderstandings, and Freudian psychoanalysis. And relativism is often commended on the grounds that it encourages a tolerant, chilled-out attitude to life—an argument that can be traced back to ancient scepticism.
This conception of philosophy is not only distasteful; it falsifies its object. The first virtue of a philosophical theory is truth, just as the first virtue of a law is justice. Truth and justice cannot be traded for anything less. If a philosophical theory is false, it must be rejected, no matter how many therapeutic benefits derive from believing it. If a law is unjust, it should be repealed, however salutary its political or economic consequences.
De Botton ignores this obvious truth. He recommends Schopenhauer's misanthropic theory of sexual love—the theory, in brief, that all sexual love is a delusion created by the biological imperative of reproduction—for no better reason than that it can help cheer you up after a failed seduction attempt. It is true that misanthropy can be cheering—Schopenhauer himself was essentially a cheerful person—but that is not a reason to espouse it. The function of philosophy is not to pander to wounded vanity.
De Botton attributes his therapeutic conception of philosophy to thinkers who would themselves have rejected it. Apart from Schopenhauer, he deals with Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne and Nietzsche. Of these six, only Epicurus and Seneca would have endorsed the notion that philosophy is therapy. Socrates would never have suggested philosophy as a “consolation for unpopularity”, because he did not think of unpopularity as something for which one needed to be consoled. Philosophy does not console one for popularity: it makes one indifferent to it. Similarly, Nietzsche's philosophy is not a “consolation for difficulties”; it is, rather, an injunction to seek out and triumph over difficulties. In both cases, de Botton is using philosophical ideas in ways for which they were never originally intended.
But it is Montaigne who suffers the greatest indignity at the hands of de Botton. Montaigne's remark, “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness in his life”, is glossed as “Only that which makes us feel better may be worth understanding”. Not only is this a miserable conception of intellectual endeavour, it is quite clearly a misinterpretation of Montaigne. Something may be useful or appropriate in your life without necessarily making you feel better. Once again, philosophy has been surreptitiously corrupted into flattery.
The medical analogy is misleading in another way. Different medicines may be incompatible in their effects, but they cannot strictly be said to contradict one another. This is because medicine refers to nothing outside itself. Philosophical theories, on the other hand, make claims about the world, and these claims can come into conflict. By treating philosophical theories as medicines, you abolish any sense of conflict between them. A little Epicurus for your money worries goes quite nicely with a bit of Seneca for your frustrations; that Epicurus and Seneca disagree with one another hardly matters. Ultimately, you lose the sense that philosophy refers to anything beyond the human psyche and its needs. It is transformed into a series of sound bites, all equally comforting and equally meaningless.
Perhaps some readers will find de Botton endearing, with his cocoa, holiday snaps and sexual hang-ups. But I failed to be charmed by these autobiographical touches, because they seemed like a calculated attempt at ingratiation. Philosophy has clearly not helped de Botton overcome the “indiscriminate desire for affection” he admits to in the opening chapter. But perhaps it has provided consolation for it.
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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.
Epicurus (b. 341 BC) is presented as being helpful to those who don't have much money. Botton supplies a knowing wish-list for a 21st-century zillionaire of taste (a Gulfstream IV jet, ‘a half-moon commode by Grevenich’ etc), by way of contrast with the simple life that Epicurus apparently advocated. He and friends occupied a rural commune, lived in freedom, ate vegetables from the garden, and found all the love and respect they needed from one another.
This raises problems for oneself. Friends, certainly, but friends alone? Didn't Epicurus (and most philosophers) find consolation in their reputations? Most of them were always scribbling books, aware of the interest of strangers, which is always refreshing. Simple victuals, yes, but what exactly constitutes ‘simple’? I could sing the praises of grilled non-supermarket kippers, eggs boiled within hours of laying and home-made soup using stock from beef bones, but these simple foods are rarely available on demand.
A photograph, confusingly captioned but evidently chosen to illustrate the simple pleasures of life in a hut—mansions being unnecessary—shows a rear view of a line of young people in casual clothes, arms linked. Those of us who are that way inclined notice at once that a couple of the girls have attractive bottoms. Sex is another of the simple pleasures being advocated, except that it is usually far from simple, as others among Botton's Six attest.
Montaigne (b. 1533), whose wry nature saw that the weakness of cerebral philosophy was its failure to appreciate how an ingrowing toenail can sabotage reason, wrote sympathetically of life's physical embarrassments, the untoward fart, the attack of sexual impotence. What makes Montaigne attractive, at least in Botton's friendly account, is not a statement of principles but an example of believable fortitude and good humour. He was still grieving for the loss of a friend, whom he loved because ‘he alone had the privilege of my true portrait,’ 18 years after his death.
Seneca the Roman (d. AD 65) would have sniffed at such a waste of emotion. His stoicism relied on the expectation that the worst was always likely to occur: ‘Reckon on everything, expect everything,’ or, as Larkin growled, musing on mortality, ‘Most things may never happen: this one will.’ Seneca (categorised by Botton as offering ‘Consolation for Frustration’) deplored anger, too, because it achieved nothing: which is not strictly true. Before writing this (I am sorry these personal interludes are less exotic than the author's) I dropped an Ordnance Survey map in the kitchen which landed on the edge of a bowl of cat food, sending a shower of Felix everywhere. I shouted at map, bowl and myself, and immediately felt better.
The Romans of course hadn't heard of the unconscious, so that Seneca thought he was on the right lines when he saw anger as an error of reason, not a dark force erupting from below. Botton suggests, as one of his own pieces of useful advice, that we should not get angry when people are disturbing us with noise, but rather tell ourselves that they are not doing it on purpose to annoy. Doesn't that rather miss the point? A few years ago I lived in a flat near a madwoman, who would start screaming at her husband at 3 am. Obviously it wasn't directed at me, but knowing that this was true didn't reconcile me to the racket. The non-philosophic solution was to go out and buy earplugs. Or perhaps that was the philosophic solution.
The ‘guide to living’ side of the book, though, is a bit of a delusion. What we have are old-fashioned Brief Lives, succinct and lucid, with pretentious touches that mar but can be passed over quickly. By the time we reach Schopenauer (b. 1788), modern times are approaching, and the unhappy philosopher is concluding that we have an unknown self, a ‘will-to-life,’ that drives us towards our biological, sexual destiny.
Freud is being prefigured, though he denied having been influenced by Schopenhauer or even by Nietszche (b. 1844), the last of Botton's sages, who once remarked that all philosophical systems reflect the personal lives of the philosophers. Nietszche knew Freudian things before Freud, about the instincts and their repression. His insights failed to make him happy; to Botton he is the brave man committed to life, to being someone who ‘no longer denies’.
Among the innumerable small illustrations printed alongside the text is a sports watch of the kind that a woman whom Botton fell in love with on a train from Edinburgh to Euston was wearing. It is that sort of book. But it manages to rise above its affectations.
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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 younger, more intelligent, better looking and a zillion times richer than me …
Then, one day, I got to meet him and discovered that he was even worse than I'd feared: not only was he brilliant, handsome, youthful and rich, but the bastard was charming, modest and impossibly likeable too. I realised then that the only way of dealing with such a monster was to tame it and make it my friend. So we arranged to have tea at Fortnum & Mason's where we bonded so well that for days after I silently congratulated myself on my sublime genius: ‘That Alain de Botton's no fool. If he likes me, it must mean I'm pretty damned wonderful.’
One of the good things about being Alain de Botton's friend is that in literary circles you can refer to him casually in conversation as ‘Alain’ and people tend to be quietly impressed, rather as they would in Hollywood circles if you started dropping Christian names like Bobby, Marty or Quentin. Another is that when you hear him performing brilliantly on Start the Week, or discover he's written another masterpiece or that he's a total natural on TV, you don't think ‘tosser!’ Rather, you root for him all the way.
I suppose now that I've said all that, you're not going to take seriously my remarks about his wonderful new TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness. But, let me assure you, there are few things that make me more uncomfortable than heaping undue praise on the work of friends. If I hadn't liked the series, I would have found an excuse not to review it. (And, for the record, I found the recent TV adaptation of his How Proust Can Change Your Life ineffably tedious, so there.) Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, though, is great. In theory, it sounds like yet another example of TV's relentless dumbing down. Each week, de Botton takes the work of a great philosopher, strips it down to a few handy soundbites and suggests how it might still be considered—ugh!—relevant to the modern world: how Seneca can cure road rage, for example. In practice, though, it's astonishingly clever and illuminating. Just as How Proust Can Change Your Life managed to make you feel not only that you really understood Proust but that you were now ready to tackle his oeuvre for real, so it is with de Botton's introduction to the great philosophers. You no longer see them as daunting figures whose work you're far too old and stupid to try comprehending now, but as wise old friends whom you'd very much like to get to know better.
Yes, I'm sure I must once have learned—and then swiftly forgotten—that Seneca was Nero's tutor and that he met his end with admirable dignity. But never before have I heard his life and work described so succinctly and sympathetically. On location in Rome, de Botton explained how Seneca's philosophy was born of its context: a world so riddled with treachery, cruelty and random violence that you woke up fully prepared for the possibility that this day would be your last. What does this have to tell us about road rage? Why, that if you begin each car journey fully expecting to encounter traffic jams and bad driving, then you will be able to greet such horrors with philosophical indifference. But if you don't, when the inevitable happens, you're going to end up getting very, very cross.
The series is funny too. I particularly liked the scene where de Botton illustrated Seneca's view that man's predicament was akin to that of a dog being pulled by a chariot. His budget wouldn't run to a chariot, he explained, so instead he was shown pulling the dog along by a bicycle. Quite a hard thing to do, I imagine, while looking to one side and delivering a long, cogent piece to camera. But, as I say, the boy's a TV natural.
Whenever I ring up Alain these days for one of our regular chats, I always make sure to ask him first whether he's yet reached that stage of celebrity where he's too grand to talk to me. He always says no and, rather sweetly, when I told him I was going to review his series, he said he hoped that I would write more about our relationship than I would about the programme.
And I meant to, I really did. I was going to tell you about the long phone conversations we have about life, love and how much we hate writing books; about how weirdly secretive Alain is when talking about his background; and about how it was partly thanks to Alain's advice—‘just make it like one of your Spectator columns, only more so’—that I managed to write the novel which, I've a strange suspicion, is going to make me almost as famous as he is. But I can't because I'm out of space.
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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?
In an increasingly servant-based culture, we do the sensible thing: Pay other people to read for us. The cheapest way to do this, of course, is to buy a book review. (My job as reviewer is essentially to be a reader-for-hire.) Here we can find out, at the very least, what's out there and how much of what's out there is considered worth reading. Incidentally, we can pick up enough information on a book to hold up our end of a conversation if someone should happen to refer to it. At the higher end of the market, we can buy and read an author who reads other authors for us and offers up tasty nuggets of their thought for his own time-strapped readership.
The English writer Alain de Botton has set up a neat line for himself in this racket. His perky 1997 volume, How Proust Can Change Your Life, was a well-researched but light-handed gloss on In Search of Lost Time, which interspersed biographical sketches of Proust with quotations from his great work, leaving readers not just entertained and enlightened but also with a slyly flattering sensation that they had themselves read Proust or at the very least understood the important things he had to say. One could enjoy Proust's views on “How to Be Happy in Love” or “How to Express Your Emotions” in a book that was accessible and short, even illustrated. Who knew Proust could be so breezy?
In his new book, The Consolations of Philosophy, De Botton takes the same approach with six philosophers, from Socrates to Nietzsche, with less happy results. De Botton stashes a justification for his method in one of the book's best chapters, on Montaigne, where he writes that clever people should get their ideas “from people even cleverer than they are. They should spend their time quoting and producing commentaries about great authorities who occupy the upper rungs of the tree of knowledge.” To take on six philosophers is very different from taking on one novelist, however, and if in How Proust the author's wry lovelorn sensibility seemed reasonably matched with his subject (though his cute faux-naif tone threatened to sound precious), here the benign guide simply seems out of his depth.
That De Botton directs a graduate program in philosophy in London is bewildering—as he sounds nothing like a philosopher—to the great relief of his publishers, no doubt. He writes not only as if there were no contemporary discipline of philosophy, with figures such as Richard Rorty or Bernard Williams producing thought-provoking works, but also as if he were unaware of what makes philosophy exciting: its promise to tell us something about what the world is (metaphysics) or how to behave (ethics) or what we can know (epistemology). For De Botton, none of this is of interest. In his view, philosophers are united by “a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.” It is philosophy as therapy, and truth—surely philosophy's own holy Grail—does not get a look-in. Williams' view, that “if philosophy, or anything like it, is to have a point, the idea of ‘getting it right’ must be in place,” is rejected by De Botton in favor of the pragmatic question: But does it help?
This deliberately anti-philosophical approach—in which the investigation is only important insofar as it might provide solace say, for heartbreak—might not pall so if the wisdoms De Botton discovered were genuinely helpful or, as he would put it, consoling. He is setting out to write a lay person's book, after all. Yet, though there are moments when De Botton stumbles upon a nicely humanist wisdom—in both Epicurus and Montaigne he finds lovely hymns to the value of friendship—on the whole his conclusions are remarkably banal, as is suggested by his chapter headings (“Consolation for Difficulties.” “Consolation for Frustration”).
Thus, De Botton examines Socrates not for his many views on politics or justice or even love but for how he might provide “Consolation for Unpopularity.” De Botton focuses on Socrates' being condemned to death by fellow Athenians who distrusted his unconventional questioning stance and allows this to lead, with almost comic deflation, to his own reflection that “social life is beset with disparities between other's perceptions of us and our reality.” To follow Socrates, De Botton tells us, we must learn to think for ourselves. (Isn't Apple Computer constantly telling us something similar?) Later, De Botton summarizes Nietzsche's complex thoughts on the value of difficulty and struggle in our efforts toward fulfillment with the lines: “Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts us may be bad.” Compare this with De Botton's similar, but altogether more graceful, reading of Proust: “We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence.”
In taking a USA Today approach to his selection of philosophers—peppering the text with tables, pictures (of a goat he saw near Montaigne's chateau; of the decorations he would choose for his private jet, if he had one) and randomly enumerated thoughts and including brief autobiographical anecdotes along the way (such as how reading Montaigne made him feel better after a brief episode of impotence)—De Botton seems to be trying to jolly us along. He writes with appealing frankness of his own tendency toward ingratiation and of his lack of self-confidence, and you can see both at play in this work, in which he tries to distract us from any consideration of his book's intellectual content. You begin to sense that De Botton is apologizing for the fact that he's writing a book at all, that he is trying to write something that will seem as easy as, say, television.
Then again, it is television. In Britain, the series based on this book has started to air. It seems by far the more appropriate medium for it (if not quite as good as the recent BBC version of De Botton's Proust book, which benefited from Ralph Fiennes' handsome performance as the melancholy Marcel). Driving around London with a van driver frustrated by bad traffic, De Botton benevolently dispenses Seneca's advice on dealing with anger, lounging in a young woman's room, discussing her boyfriend's abrupt walking out on her, De Botton sympathetically shares Schopenhauer's wisdom on a broken heart. De Botton explains Schopenhauer's view on the Will-to-Life and how her boyfriend must have rejected her not for any personal failings but rather because on a biological level he did not want to have children with her. “But isn't that sad?” the woman asks reasonably; whereupon the amiable De Botton can only admit that it is sad and then sweetly offer his last best consolation: an invitation to dinner.
If this volume is half as successful as the Proust book, we can surely expect other future De Botton readings of the great works. It's tempting to guess which authors might be next in line for his illustrated self-help treatment (Joyce was from Mars, Woolf was from Venus, perhaps?). I would say that De Botton, himself a novelist, has more to offer with his readings of literature than with any further philosophical excursions.
In The Consolations of Philosophy, it is in De Botton's passing readings of Stendhal, or Goethe that his prose comes to life and his eye finally sharpens, and we begin to suspect that under this elaborately constructed authorial persona is a passionate reader—one who turns to great novels when he is seeking consolation.
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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 short step to imagining that philosophy is a practical skill, designed to provide us with the good things in life.
And this short step is a disaster for philosophy, thrust thus into the competitive world of consequences, for which it is manifestly unfit. In the culture of the market economy, we miss the fact that philosophy is valuable in and by itself; and this is the culture which will destroy not only the independence of philosophy, but the humanities entire.
It is deeply dispiriting, then, that the latest attempt to popularize philosophy—that is to say, to make philosophy into televisual fodder—does so precisely on the basis that philosophers can provide us with useful tips, convenient attitudes to strike in the muddle of our practical lives. Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy presents six philosophers—Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—as, in his version, means to combat the ills of human life. Socrates was put to death because his methods of philosophy were unpopular; but those methods themselves show us how to reason, and so (here, de Botton maintains, is the good consequence) how to resist the misguided opinions of others. Epicurus' odd hedonism allows us to see that happiness is not the possession of great resources, but the satisfaction of the right sorts of desire; so (the consequence) it doesn't matter if we don't have much money. Seneca the Stoic, who died painfully on the crazy instructions of Nero, shows us how to care less for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—and so, de Botton claims, to deal with frustration [sic]. Montaigne's broad view of the relativism of culture allows us to acknowledge, and to live with, our own frailties, while his attack on an intellectual elite should encourage us to foster wisdom, not academic show. Schopenhauer explains how love is the consequence of the species' desire to procreate; so disappointment in love is to be explained, and borne, by reflection on its natural origins. And Nietzsche insists that greatness is achieved through adversity, so (the consequence again) we may transcend failure for the sake of the success that is to come. Philosophy, on this view, is the self-help science, the art of success, whose imperatives are heard throughout the book against barely disguised autobiographical themes of social awkwardness, disastrous sexual activity and failure in love.
De Botton fails entirely to see that if reflection is to be thus directed, then, corrupted by the exigencies of practicality, it ceases to have the kind of reflective distance which makes it work. Even the more practical aspects of philosophy are not there to be harnessed to some immediate decision, or, worse, brought in to justify some decision after the event: ethical reflection matters because when we act, we should act for the right reasons, not because the right reasons should be hooked to the act after it is done. He fails to see that philosophy, to be philosophy at all, needs to be disinterested; and that two at least of his philosophical heroes died in making just that point. Indeed, philosophy, on his view, seems to be just what is said by philosophers, who utter generalizations about the human condition, or about wisdom.
But is that right? Surely philosophy has two vital concerns: reasons and reason. It asks “why?”, and inquires about reasons—and so cares for well-structured argument. And it asks why this or that answer to the question “why?” is a good one: so it is reflective upon the reasons, it is about reason. This is so, of course, even if the conclusion of the reflective process is that reflection is inadequate, or that well-structured arguments are themselves a poor account of the giving of reasons. But of this sort of philosophical reflectiveness, de Botton's philosophers are innocent. Thus his account of Socrates misses entirely the point of the Socratic method (to expose and to reflect on the inconsistency in the beliefs of his interlocutor) and imagines it, instead, as a rather tedious business of finding counter-examples to a generalization, a process which easily degenerates into the kind of eristic which Plato's Socrates brings under attack.
The Stoics—whom de Botton portrays as rather whimsical ascetics, explaining bad luck by appeal to the goddess Fortune—had good reason to propose that the world is fully determined. Their ethical theory, consequently, involves a subtle account of how determinism is consistent with morality. The death of Seneca, then, should not be understood merely as a case of Stoic courage (the Stoics, we should recall, imagined that all sorts of frightful things might happen, so that when they did, they should strike with less force) but as the exemplar of the Stoic view that there is in fact only one thing that matters: rational virtue.
All of this is missing from The Consolations of Philosophy. Instead, we have a motley collection of Interesting Things said by Philosophers (despite their variously ghastly lives), presented in a format suitable for television (this is, after all, the book of the series). Thus the opening remarks about David's “Death of Socrates” are illustrated by a photograph of the chocolate milk the author was drinking at the time he first saw the picture. Or the analysis of the Epicurean account of pleasure is explained by a graph to show how happiness is not increased by greater luxury; and Montaigne's account of cultural relativism is accompanied by a map of “what is considered abnormal where”. This is not the dumbing down of philosophy, it is a dumbing out. Nothing in this travesty deserves its title; Boethius must be turning in his grave.
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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: Sophocles, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. To my surprise, I found that this book exploded several of my misconceptions regarding the philosophers in question. As I read on, it became apparent to me that my college-course exposure to these philosophers focused on just a small part of their total belief structures, and that the course distorted those parts severely. I would have counted this book worthwhile for that discovery alone.
Alain de Botton goes beyond mere description of ideas and shows how the life experiences of these thinkers produced the concepts he describes. The philosophers did not set out to develop large answers to large questions, but rather they acquired for themselves a set of hard-earned tools for living a successful or happy life. These days, philosophy has become detached from daily life, and most modern philosophers seem to believe that their work consists only of finding the large answers, not of improving the lot of the average person—that job belongs to psychologists. De Botton, a philosopher himself, contends that philosophy only matters as it applies to daily life and the living thereof.
More importantly, for our purposes, many of the concepts de Botton describes could have come directly from a text on general semantics. For example, in the section on Seneca, we read that Seneca believed that,
… anger results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning. … if fingers are flicked over our eyes, we have to blink, but anger does not belong to (this) category … it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger.
In the section on Montaigne, de Botton says the philosopher traveled widely, partly to develop a broader and more conscious sense of “normal” and “abnormal,” and that he decried the parochial belief of so many people that there could exist only one possible view of things—their own. De Botton presents several examples that show Montaigne embraced situational ethics and valued a relativistic orientation.
In the last section of the book, we come to Nietzsche, usually iconically linked to the Nazis and their beloved Superman (which of course bears little more than the name in common with his original concept of Ubermensch). Ask a college graduate who, like me, took only an overview course on philosophy, to name one concept Nietzsche developed besides that of the Superman and many will say “Pain is good.” Some might conclude that this puts him in a league with the Marquis de Sade, but de Botton shows that the philosopher believed that to prosper, a person must not avoid the difficulties inherent in the climb towards success and achievement (not that pain “is good” but that it comes with the territory and acts to fertilize the soil in which pleasure grows). De Botton says that to Nietzsche,
… every pain is an indistinct signal that something is wrong, which may engender either a good or bad result depending on the sagacity and strength of mind of the sufferer. Anxiety may precipitate panic, or an accurate analysis of what is amiss. …
In general semantics terms, one might say Nietzsche valued the ability to control one's semantic reactions and properly evaluate a difficult situation. To Nietzsche, the superior person embraces difficulties and gladly learns from them and thereby qualifies as Ubermensch.
I think readers of ETC will find this book worthwhile and enjoyable. The author has a somewhat whimsical style that might not please everyone, but the underlying information will probably appeal to those familiar with the concepts of general semantics, especially those who seek tools for a saner life.
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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 necessary to construct a satisfying “consolation of unpopularity.” His discussion of poverty, which centers on a lovely analysis of Epicurus' life, is much more successful. The other sections—Montaigne as the source of consolation for inadequacy, Schopenhauer as consolation for broken heart, etc.—are rarely successful, although each is written with considerable wit and charm. Helping readers to understand the deep connections between philosophical abstractions and issues of deep concern in their own lives is an important task. Unfortunately, De Botton's work is not nearly as edifying as he takes it to be. One hopes that this volume—as well as the popular companion British television series—will lead De Botton's many admirers to consult their libraries for the genuine article.
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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. Coincidentally, both have served as television critics or reviewers for the New Statesman. The two men share Francophile tendencies, as reflected in the fact that Barnes's best known work is a fictional biography of Flaubert, while de Botton has recently produced a study of Proust, entitled How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997). Furthermore, while both are novelists, each evinces a strong interest in nonfiction, particularly biography and the analytic or argumentative essay, and both incorporate these forms into their fiction. The hybrid works which result perhaps should not be described as novels, their unconventionality being sufficient to position both Barnes and de Botton squarely among the avant-garde postmodernists.
Self-reflexivity or self-consciousness has long been accepted as a prominent feature of postmodernist art. In his Critical Essays, Roland Barthes champions self-reflexive literature, arguing against “realistic” or mimetic fiction on the grounds that fiction by its very nature is unrealistic. Fiction consists of language, or in the terms of Saussure, of signs and signifiers, rather than signifieds. As Barthes emphasizes, however realistic it affects to be, all fiction is necessarily selective; it is artifice, shaped in the interest of narrative, theme, and character portrayal. Furthermore, “Literature is never anything but language. … In other words, in relation to objects themselves, literature is fundamentally, constitutively unrealistic; literature is unreality itself. … The ‘truest’ literature is the one which knows itself as essentially language.”1 Barthes speaks approvingly of a “double-literature,” which is “at once object and scrutiny of that object, utterance and utterance of that utterance, literature object and metaliterature.”2 Literature suitable for the present, Barthes maintains, is not content with illusory verisimilitude, but instead parades its own artifice and functions as “a mask which points to itself.”
In addition to being conspicuously self-reflexive, the art of Barnes and de Botton exemplifies other postmodernist characteristics, as outlined by Frederick Jameson and Ihab Hassan. In his essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” Jameson notes that postmodernists have been “fascinated precisely by this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of biography, the murder mystery and science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they … incorporate into their very substance.”3 Jameson's remarks provide a strikingly accurate description of several elements contained in the work of both de Botton and Barnes. For his part Hassan stresses the fragmentary and formally incomplete structure of postmodern art: “As an artistic, philosophical, and social phenomenon, postmodernism veers toward open, playful, optative, provisional … disjunctive, or indeterminate forms, a discourse of ironies and fragments.”4 “Playful, disjunctive, ironic, fragmentary”: all four descriptive terms may be applied to the fiction of both Barnes and de Botton.
Julian Barnes had already published two novels, Metroland and Before She Met Me, when the appearance of Flaubert's Parrot in 1984 brought him worldwide acclaim. It was unlike any previous novel in English, though several reviewers likened it to Nabokov's Pale Fire.5 Unlike Pale Fire, however, this novel incorporated some features of genuine biography: i.e., incidents in the life of Flaubert. On the other hand, equal importance was accorded to the character and past life of the biographer and narrator, Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite. Readers familiar with Madame Bovary would quickly recognize parallels between the lives of Flaubert's married couple, the Bovarys, and the lives of Dr. Braithwaite and his late wife.
While the narrative presents elements of the life stories of both Flaubert and Dr. Braithwaite, its structure is fragmented and unsystematic. Considerable information about Flaubert is supplied, but it is not given in chronological format. Of the fifteen chapters which comprise Flaubert's Parrot only the second provides a brief chronological resume of the author's life and work, and it assumes the form of subjective contrast: a positive or optimistic account of Flaubert's life, balanced by an equally negative or pessimistic summary. For example, the first capsule biography refers to only one death, that of Flaubert himself in 1880, at which time he is said to have expired “full of honour, widely loved, and still working hard to the end,” while the second biography commences with reference to the deaths of two Flaubert children before the birth of Gustave and also records the death of a third child when the author-to-be was only one year old. It continues with a relentless litany of deaths, including those of Gustave's father and his beloved sister Caroline, the deaths of his dear friends, Alfred le Poittevin and Louis Bouilhet, his mistress Louis Colet, his mother, and eventually of Flaubert himself, in this instance portrayed as “impoverished, lonely, and exhausted.” Similar discrepancies mark the two accounts and estimates of Flaubert's work. Alluding to the publication of L'Education Sentimentale in 1869, the first biography notes that “Flaubert always claims it as un chef-d'oeuvre,”6 whereas the second describes the book as “a critical and commercial flop.” The first account makes no mention of Flaubert's play, Le Candidat, while the second dismisses it as “a complete flop,” forced to close after only four performances. These pointedly contrasting life-summaries dramatically illustrate the manner in which biographies may be colored by the writers' attitudes toward their subjects. Two biographers possessed of more or less identical evidence and documents may produce widely differing accounts.
The parallel and contrasting miniature biographies constituting Chapter Two are, of course, ironically self-reflexive in character. Flaubert's Parrot continues in this self-reflexive vein, inquiring what sort of evidence biographers should collect and which facts they should consider as salient and worthy of mention. Dr. Braithwaite likens a biographer to a trawling fisherman. Having collected a net full of facts about the subject, the fisherman/biographer then “sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells.” It is inevitable, however, that some fish will elude the trawler's net. Dr. Braithwaite encounters one such elusive creature in the form of a series of letters, supposedly recently discovered, which were exchanged between Flaubert and Juliet Herbert. The latter was an English governess, who lived for a time in Flaubert's house at Croisset while instructing his niece, and is believed by some experts on Flaubert to have been his mistress. To Dr. Braithwaite's mortification and rage, the discoverer of the letters blandly informs him that he has recently burned them in accordance with Flaubert's directive to Ms Herbert that they should be burnt.
Though he does not succeed in gathering as much evidence as he would like, Dr. Braithwaite remains tireless in his pursuit of any facts, however recondite, which may shed light on either Flaubert's work or his life. He alludes, for instance, to the scene in Madame Bovary during which Emma first surrenders to her second lover, Leon, while riding through the streets of Rouen in a closed cab. Having distinguished this scene as “probably the most famous act of infidelity in the whole of nineteenth-century fiction,” he adds that it may well be misrepresented in the imaginations of readers because of an erroneous preconception about the shape of the cab in question. To clarify the matter, he quotes several lines from an obscure work by G. M. Musgrave, who visited Rouen around 1850, less than a decade prior to the publication of Madame Bovary, and who observed of the cabs of that city that they were “the most dumpy vehicles … of their kind in Europe. I could with ease place my arm on the roof as I stood by one of them in the road.”(92) Emma's seduction would therefore have been even more cramped and uncomfortable than most readers have assumed.
One fact which Dr. Braithwaite has labored diligently to establish concerns the identity of a certain stuffed parrot. While composing Un coeur simple, Flaubert borrowed one such bird from the Museum of Rouen and kept it perched on his desk. Presumably this bird served as the model for “Loulou,” the parrot which features prominently in that story. What is claimed as Flaubert's original parrot-companion is now housed in the Hotel-Dieu of Rouen, the hospital where Flaubert's father worked as head surgeon and where the writer spent his childhood. A second claimant, however, is ensconced at Flaubert's adult home of Croisset. Dr. Braithwaite seeks unsuccessfully to determine which of the two is the genuine parrot, only to reveal at the narrative's conclusion that at one time the Museum of Rouen possessed as many as fifty stuffed parrots, any one of which might have graced Flaubert's writing desk. The novel thus ends on a wry, indeterminate note appropriate to postmodernist fiction. Dr. Braithwaite's soberly industrious but fruitless pursuit of the authentic parrot, has, of course, its comic dimension, since the successful identification of the bird in question would have had no significance either for Flaubert's life or his work. The very impossibility of the task, however, highlights a matter of concern not only to Dr. Braithwaite but to all biographers: i.e., the insurmountable difficulties of recapturing the past. Some facts about the lives of even the most famous individuals have long been forgotten or will never be known. Consequently, no biography, regardless how lengthy, can be definitive.
A noteworthy similarity between Flaubert's Parrot and Alain de Botton's biographical novel Kiss and Tell (1995) is that both volumes feature biographers who are forthcoming about themselves. Most biographers are self-effacing, obeying Flaubert's dictate that, “The author in his book must be like God in his universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.”(88, FP) Flagrantly disregarding this convention, the narrators of Barnes and de Botton disclose important facts about themselves alongside of facts about their subjects. Dr. Braithwaite is particularly candid, and his self-revelations point to significant parallels between his own life and that of Flaubert's widower, Charles Bovary. Both men are medical doctors, general practitioners. Both have had unfaithful wives who subsequently committed suicide by swallowing poison. Both were devoted husbands and were (or are) inconsolable in their grief. As for the two wives, similarities between them began with their names. Emma Bovary and Ellen Braithwaite shared the same initials. Neither woman loved her husband, and both repeatedly lied about their adulterous affairs. Coincidentally, both used the excuse of attending the theatre to conceal the pursuit of their liaisons. Despite these resemblances, Dr. Braithwaite also notes significant differences. For instance, Emma Bovary was a reckless spendthrift, eventually undone by her unpayable debts rather than by her love affairs, while Ellen, in contrast, “didn't run up bills.” Emma followed a downward path as her personality coarsened, and she became corrupted by lust, whereas Ellen “wasn't corrupted; her spirit didn't coarsen.” Did Ellen find happiness or fulfillment in her “secret life,” or did she, like Emma, “rediscover in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”? The doctor answers, “We didn't talk about it.”(164) A significant irony underlies this cryptic reply. Dr. Braithwaite has previously expressed great admiration, even love, for Flaubert, yet despite his best efforts, he cannot assemble a satisfactory account of Flaubert's life. The facts for which he is searching appear to him like “a piglet … smeared with grease,” evading all attempts at capture. The doctor also loved his wife deeply and intensely, but he had no knowledge of her “secret life,” particularly because her only allusions to it apparently consisted of lies. Consequently, in order to account for his wife's decision to take her own life, he is forced to “hypothesise a little … fictionalise … invent my way to the truth.” This affectionate but desperate expedient serves as a timely reminder of the necessary subjectivity of all biographies.
Like Barnes, Alain de Botton had published two novels prior to the appearance of his volume of biographical fiction. His two preceding works were Essays in Love (1993) and The Romantic Movement (1994), followed in 1995 by Kiss and Tell. While Flaubert's Parrot offers a unique blend of authentic biography and fiction, Kiss and Tell adopts the traditional form of fictional biography, i.e., a novel presented as the biography of a fictional character. The novel as biography or autobiography is as old as the English novel itself, as exemplified by Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Kiss and Tell differs from all previous fictional biographies in English (with the exception of Sterne's brilliantly unorthodox Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy), however, in being narrated by a biographer preoccupied not merely with the facts in the life of his chosen subject but also by the questions of which facts to present and in what order. In brief, his perspective and methods are comically self-reflexive. As biography per se, Kiss and Tell is unusual also in that its subject is neither famous nor exceptionally accomplished, though at only twenty-five, she is remarkably youthful. As the narrator is keenly aware, from Boswell to the present, biographers customarily have chronicled the lives of the famous from birth to death, whereas he has selected a young woman unknown to the public at large and presumably with as much as two-thirds of her life ahead of her. The individual in question, Isabel Jane Rogers, was born into a middle-class London family in 1968. She is the eldest of three children, brought up in “a small house in Kingston.” After graduating from London University, she found work as a production assistant with a stationery company, where she has remained for the past four years. She now lives alone in a flat “in a street off Hammersmith Grove” in London.7 The biographer's task is to enlarge and extend this simple profile. While rendering this undertaking considerably less arduous than usual, Isabel's extreme youth serves also to highlight a peculiarity of de Botton's work to date (which is perhaps accounted for by his own youth): the fact that he has as yet undertaken to portray no major character appreciably older than himself. The few older characters present in his fiction play minor roles there and are likely to appear as comic caricatures.
Although this constitutes his maiden attempt at biography, de Botton's narrator is well acquainted with the genre. He has read or is at least familiar with James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, the works of Lytton Strachey, and such twentieth century landmarks as Richard Ellmann's James Joyce. He quotes Richard Holmes, the biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, to the effect that it is necessary for biographers to love their subjects if they are to follow patiently in their footsteps (a precept with which Dr. Braithwaite presumably would heartily agree). While the narrator does not actually express love for Isabel, he certainly is very fond of her and lives with her for a time (thus the appropriateness of the novel's gossip-promising title). In sharing Isabel's apartment, he follows the example of Boswell, who spent months in the company of Dr. Johnson (though not actually residing with him). The narrator has read enough biographies to recognize that Boswell is an unusual biographer in that he frequently recounts both his own activities during his companionship with Johnson and remarks exchanged between Johnson and himself. In this regard also the narrator's methods resemble those of Boswell, while he shares Dr. Braithwaite's willingness to call attention to problems confronting the biographer. How, for instance, should a biographer order the events in the life of a subject? The customary method is to commence with the individual's birth and to progress chronologically to death, but the narrator protests that this practice disregards both the manner in which subjects experience or recall their own pasts and the process by which a biographer acquires information. Only after an eight-month acquaintance with Isabel has he obtained a clear picture of the events of her early childhood. The better to reflect this non-chronological development, he withholds until the seventh chapter a systematic account of her earliest years, by which point in the narrative the reader has already learned the details of her adult love affairs.
Another issue confronting biographers (and one also grappled with by Dr. Braithwaite) is that of selectivity. A conscientious researcher is almost certain to have knowledge of numerous facts or details which possess little claim to be included in a biography. For instance, de Botton's narrator recognizes as a comically insignificant piece of trivia an occasion witnessed by himself when Isabel ordered for her lunch an avocado, bacon, and turkey sandwich. While such details clearly are irrelevant, the narrator astutely observes that food is a vital feature of anyone's life, and that a subject's preferences in food are not to be totally disregarded. In his support he quotes Dr. Johnson's pronouncement that “Nobody can write the life of a man but those who have eaten and drunk with him.” The narrator conveniently fails to mention that in his own Lives of the Poets Dr. Johnson sketched the careers of numerous writers, such as Milton and Dryden, with whom he had neither eaten nor drunk. Nevertheless, Isabel's preferences in food are not overlooked. She is said to have a marked fondness for pasta and chicken, the latter being “the thing she most liked to cook for dinner.”
Central to the issue of selectivity is the question of approximately how long a biography should be. As the narrator points out, biographers have before them two sharply contrasting precedents: on the one hand the single-page Brief Lives of the seventeenth-century wit, John Aubrey, and at the other extreme Boswell's biography of Dr. Johnson, the unedited version of which runs to 1,492 pages. While inclined to favor brevity, the narrator recognizes that the omission of vital material may result in a caricature rather than an accurate portrait. He also perceives that in order to produce a balanced account of Isabel's life, he needs considerably more information than he possesses at present, but Isabel forestalls all further biographical endeavors by suddenly proclaiming herself to be weary of the narrator's inquiries and unwilling to answer any further questions or to supply any additional information about herself. As a result, her life story is abbreviated, its 246 pages falling far short of the 875 pages estimated by the narrator as the average length of biographies published from 1990 to the present.
When his subject refuses any further co-operation, the narrator is indeed at a stand, particularly because from the outset Isabel has been virtually the only person whom he has consulted in his quest for information. Her father, mother, and sister all reside in London and presumably are within easy reach, yet the narrator questions none of them, nor does he interview any of her friends, lovers, teachers or work-mates. His sole approach to a second person occurs when he accidentally encounters Flo Youngman, who for the past two decades has assisted in cleaning the Rogers' house. He draws Flo into conversation, anticipating “a fountain of stories with which to enrich [his] portrait.” Although Flo proves amusingly garrulous, she makes only a brief, passing reference to Isabel, centering her attention instead upon her family members and neighbors.
The narrator's virtual negligence of all possible sources of information save Isabel herself ensures that what he eventually produces is less a biography than an extensive profile. The volume contains an Index such as might form part of a conventional biography, and it is instructive to consult the entry there for “Rogers, Isabel Jane.” This item occupies three full columns of print, and its numerous subheadings, ranging from “aggression” to “vulnerability” and from “cynicism” to “warm personality,” bespeak a wide ranging survey of Isabel's character, attitudes, and behavior. The book's two lengthiest chapters are the sixth and the ninth. The former recapitulates Isabel's various love affairs. As the subject of romantic love is de Botton's special province, it is no surprise to find him devoting extensive attention to Isabel's romances. The ninth chapter consists of a tongue-in-cheek review of various experiments in psychology, a field described by the narrator as “a myriad of incompatible theories of the antics of the human mind.” Nevertheless, he maintains that “We are all psychologists in interpreting the behavior of others.”(179) In so saying, he speaks not only for his own biographical methods, but also for the author, who in the two volumes preceding Kiss and Tell has supplied extensive psychoanalytic explanations of the conduct of his major characters, especially their reactions to being in love.
Philip Glazebrook, among the more perceptive reviewers of Kiss and Tell, regards the book as less than a novel because it portrays only one character: “From a good novel you learn about humanity as it is exemplified by a set of characters interacting and developing around carefully constructed … events. From a biography you learn all there is to know about an individual, with perhaps a few other faces glimpsed in reflected light.”8 Glazebrook is no doubt aware that his distinction is not strictly accurate, since a number of “good novels,” among them Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies, Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange, and J. M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K., do focus upon a single character.
Nevertheless, his remarks highlight a limitation of Kiss and Tell and, indeed, of de Botton's fiction as a whole: each of his novels to date has centered upon the interaction of a single couple. His first novel, Essays in Love, revolves around the love affair between an unnamed narrator and a twenty-four-year-old graphic designer named Chloe. The affair commences after the two meet while occupying adjoining seats on a flight from Paris to London. Their romance continues for one year and ends suddenly (and symmetrically) during a second flight from Paris to London, when Chloe confesses that she has recently been seeing another man. The simplicity of the plot—its focus upon a relatively brief love affair between one couple—is somewhat offset by the commentary which insistently accompanies these events. A major innovative feature of this novel is that the majority of its text consists of nonfiction, most of it psychoanalytic in character. The commentary which constitutes the bulk of each chapter represents the efforts of an unusually thoughtful or introspective narrator to understand and explain the emotional experiences which he is sharing with Chloe. Essays in Love is recognizably postmodern precisely because it is less a conventional novel than a series of informal essays and as such a hybrid or “indeterminate” form. The book's essay-like format engenders a resemblance between its narrator and the speaker of Kiss and Tell, both of whom exist essentially as speaking voices, thinking and analyzing presences, rather than as fully formed characters. We learn nothing whatever about this narrator's physical appearance or characteristics and relatively little about his professional life (he is an architect) but much about his thoughts on the subject of love.
Prominent among the narrator's cogitations are explorations of several fundamental dichotomies, such as body/mind and real/ideal. His reflections upon the former center upon the sex act, traditionally assumed to be largely a physical rather than a mental function. Indeed, readers of the chapter in question, “Body and Mind,” are likely to be recall the tireless fulminations of D. H. Lawrence against “sex in the head” (self-aware or self-conscious sex). For his part the narrator implicitly acknowledges that his lengthy analysis of sexual activity may expose him to ridicule: “If the mind has traditionally been condemned, it is for its refusal to surrender control to causes supposedly beyond analysis; the philosopher of the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub.”9 Having initially postulated that “few things can be as antithetical to sex as thought,”(46) the narrator eventually reaches quite a different conclusion. He acknowledges that “the mind can never leave the body,” and that therefore, so long as one remains conscious, it is impossible to have a totally mindless experience. In any event, active minds are vital to lovers during sexual intercourse, since only through the agency of thought can each partner anticipate what will afford pleasure to the other. The achievement of sexual harmony is dependent upon mutual thought.
As for de Botton himself, one of the trademarks of his writing is the extensive attention which he devotes to matters of the intellect. (In a sense he qualifies as a successor to Aldous Huxley as a “novelist of ideas.”) His frequent philosophical allusions have attracted the notice of several reviewers.10Kiss and Tell, for instance, makes reference to the thoughts or activities of Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Kierkegaard, Rousseau, and Sartre. The narrator of Essays in Love also possesses a background in philosophy, which he brings to bear upon the subject of aesthetics. Evidently Chloe cannot be persuaded to believe herself beautiful. She assumes the existence of an objective standard of feminine beauty embodied in the models of Vogue magazine. When measuring it against this standard, she finds little to admire in her own appearance. The narrator describes Chloe as a follower of Plato, who postulated the existence of an ideal Form of beauty, conferred in part upon all beautiful earthly bodies. In contrast, the narrator embraces Kant's belief that the “determining ground” of aesthetic judgments must necessarily remain subjective. According to this view beauty resides first and foremost in the eye of the beholder. As it happens, Chloe is gap-toothed, prompting the narrator to supply one of his numerous explanatory diagrams or visual illustrations, of the sort favored by the linguistic theorists Saussure, Lacan, and Barthes, whom de Botton obviously knows well. The narrator presents two drawings: one features a gracefully formed set of “Platonic teeth,” while the second gap-toothed drawing is labeled as “Kantian teeth.” Chloe's lover claims to be attracted to the latter precisely because of their imperfections.
When seized by a desire to declare his love for Chloe, the narrator is thrown into doubt by postmodernist linguistic theory. Evidently he has read enough of Derrida and others to appreciate that the most common of terms lack fixed or universally shared meanings, and that any word may convey as many different meanings as it has recipients. If he were to express “love” for Chloe, what would she make of such an utterance? Her previous romances must have colored the term “love” for her. As for himself, several prior affairs have combined to shade that term of endearment with personal associations. He could not speak to Chloe of love without involuntarily recalling these past affairs, which would be an act of disloyalty to her. The chief noteworthy fact here is that the narrator proves to be incapable of a simple, unreflective, spontaneous expression of love. Just as he cannot make love without pondering about his actions and eventually concluding that such thoughts are not to be despised, so too he cannot announce his love without first considering the possible reactions of his beloved to such a declaration. He reviews the differing uses to which the word has been put in various historical eras and in differing societies. He acknowledges the distinction between sacred and profane love and between Eros and agape. He reflects that “the Troubadours equated love with unrequited passion” and that at least one tribe in New Guinea possesses no word for love. This thoroughgoing analysis leads the narrator to conclude that he requires a new and different word with which to convey his feelings. Amusingly, “marshmallow” strikes him as peculiarly apt for the purpose, and he assures us that when she was informed that he “marshmallow[ed]” her, Chloe understood him perfectly, describing his tribute (apparently without irony) as “the sweetest thing anyone had ever told her.”
The psychoanalytic commentary which his readers have come to associate with de Botton is present abundantly in those passages in which the narrator assesses individual features of Chloe's personality and supplies an account of her conduct. He establishes, for instance, that it is a “deep seated and pervasive feature of Chloe's character” to blame herself for occasions on which she suffers. Even when violently ill, she prefers to remain silent, since she is loath to “load responsibility” upon another by expecting that person to care for her. He notes also her generosity, her creativity, her awkwardness in the company of other women, and her fierce loyalty to her friends. He acknowledges, however, that his portrait is incomplete and subjective, neglectful of certain features of Chloe's character and conduct. He has registered her “talent for baking bread … social anxiety … love of Beethoven … hatred of laziness [and] claustrophobia,” while largely overlooking her “love of outdoor markets … mathematical talent … thoughts on God … relationship with her brother [and] taste for Victorian architecture.”(149)
While the narrator's psychological insights of Chloe are perceptive, his later self-analysis is considerably less so. This lame attempt at self-understanding is prompted by Chloe's sudden departure. He searches for a reason for her desertion of him, finding it with overmuch alacrity in “rejection compulsion” syndrome, the origin of which he traces to his parents' divorce. In fairness to the narrator, during this discussion his voice assumes a decidedly ironic tone, indicating that he recognizes his self-psychoanalysis for what it is—glib and superficial. It is of a piece with his comically inept suicide attempt, during which, in place of sleeping pills, he mistakenly swallows “twenty effervescent vitamin C tablets.” This last is a spontaneous act, perhaps his only one since the moment of his falling in love with Chloe, and it has the merit of sobering him and convincing him of the folly of suicide. He now recognizes as a just censure the prediction of another woman whom he had once loved that he would “never be happy in love because I ‘thought too much.’” At length, the narrator draws a closely related conclusion, his pointedly self-reflexive statement constituting a wry self-assessment by the author of his idiosyncratic undertaking in writing this essay-like novel (and in numbering each of its paragraphs in the manner of a philosophical treatise): “Love taught the analytic mind a certain humility, the lesson that however hard it struggled to reach immobile certainties … analysis could never be anything but flawed—and therefore never stray far from the ironic.”(249)
Prior to de Botton's exploration of the subject, the “analytic mind” of Julian Barnes had already addressed the dimensions and powers of love in A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters (1989), another hybrid work mingling fiction with informal essays. As in Flaubert's Parrot, the focus here is upon issues relating to the search for historical truth. Once again Barnes acknowledges that historical facts are elusive and beyond the power of any individual to assemble in full. Although knowledge of history is indispensable to us, much of it remains forever beyond our grasp. Frustrated by his inability to encompass the facts of Flaubert's life, Dr. Braithwaite has been tempted to claim that “History is merely another literary genre: the past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report.”(90, FP) In A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters greater blame is accorded to human weakness than to the intractability of historical evidence. Barnes accuses historians of selectivity, of deliberate omission or distortion of facts, owing to their need to “fabulate”: “We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.”11 Against history's everlasting obscurity, Barnes marshals the intangible power of love, which, he argues, affords the clarity of vision necessary to assimilate vital historical facts.
It has been the form, however, rather than the theme of A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters which has elicited the majority of critical comments. While the book has frequently been described as a novel, it hardly qualifies as such. The text does not consist of a single unified and extended narrative. Instead, it is composed largely of a series of chapter-length short stories, each with different settings and characters, but grouped around common subjects or themes. Interspersed among these stories are three chapter-length essays or reminiscences. The subject underlying these episodes is survival, especially at sea or on water. Barnes's approach to the subject is three-fold: the review of actual historical events, the conferring of historical significance upon fictional events, and the revisiting of pertinent myths, particularly that of the Flood and Noah's Ark. The author's implicit assumption is that much of human history has consisted of a struggle for survival. Therefore, by portraying selective instances of this struggle, he supplies representative illustrations of history in the making. To lend increased authenticity to this enterprise, several fictional episodes are based or modeled upon historical incidents. The second chapter, for instance, portrays the hijacking of a cruise liner at sea by a group of Palestinians, who execute a number of the ship's passengers before being overpowered by counter-terrorist commandos. This incident is reminiscent of the actual hijacking of the liner “Achille Lauro.”
Several chapters of the book recall Frederick Jameson's observation that postmodern art frequently appropriates to itself the genres of science-fiction or fantasy. The opening chapter, for instance, consists of an account of the Flood and Noah's role in it from the viewpoint of a stowaway termite which voices indignation at the ill treatment and slaughter of many of the animals entrusted to Noah's protection. At least half of the book's chapters, however, possess standard features of fictional verisimilitude: carefully detailed settings, specific frameworks of time and place, plausible actions which are graphically depicted, and characters endowed with distinctive identities and expressing themselves in idiomatic language. One such chapter is “Upstream!”, consisting of a series of letters written by a British film actor to his sweetheart in London. He is on location in the rainforests of Venezuela for the filming of a story about an exploratory journey up the Orinoco River by two Jesuit priests some two hundred years ago. The situation resembles that in a British film, The Mission (1986), directed by Roland Joffe and starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, which also depicts the experiences of a Jesuit missionary who was dispatched to the jungles of Brazil in the mid-eighteenth century. Barnes's descriptions of the jungle surroundings, the appearance and behavior of the native Indians, and the activities of the film crew are all detailed and credible, thoroughly consistent with the mimetic conventions of realistic fiction.
Perhaps because of the text's pervasive realistic atmosphere, the occasional authorial intrusions register with greater force. By interrupting his narrative in order to address related issues, Barnes violates a central tenet governing the composition of realistic fiction: that in the interest of verisimilitude, authors must as nearly as possible efface themselves from their texts. One such intrusion occurs in the chapter entitled, “Three Simple Stories,” in which Barnes seeks to substantiate two premises related to his main theme. The first premise, common enough among historians, is that history repeats itself. The second (far less commonly maintained) is that myths eventually will be enacted as fact, will become history. The conclusion implied by these two premises is that the study of myths as well as of history will assist us to anticipate future events.
As a comic example of history repeating itself. Barnes relates an anecdote about an Englishman named Lawrence Beesley, who survived the sinking of the “Titanic.” On the strength of a book which he subsequently wrote, entitled The Loss of the Titanic, he came to be regarded as an authority on that shipwreck, and forty years afterward he was engaged as a consultant for the film “A Night to Remember.” As the sinking of the vessel was about to be filmed, Beesley went on board as an uninvited extra, apparently with the intention on this occasion of going down with the ship. The director spotted him, however, and ordered him off of the set. He was thus spared for a second time, and, in a farcical manner, history repeated itself.
To demonstrate how myth will eventually manifest itself as actuality, Barnes relates a modern version of the forty-year odyssey in the wilderness of Moses and the Israelites. This particular journey was undertaken in 1939 by 937 Jews aboard the liner “St. Louis.” On May 13 of that year they sailed from Hamburg, expecting to be temporarily resettled in Cuba before eventually migrating to the United States. Upon arriving at Havana, however, they were refused entry. The ship then sailed up and down the coasts of North and South America, but without finding any country willing to give the passengers asylum. In despair, the ship's captain eventually turned back to Europe, where the passengers were dispersed to Holland, Great Britain, and France. On June 21, the British contingent reached Southampton, at which time “They were able to reflect that their wanderings at sea had lasted precisely forty days and forty nights.”(188)
Barnes reserves his most personal statement for “Parenthesis,” a chapter which consists of an argumentative essay enumerating the merits of love. The better to link this discussion to the theme of survival, he inquires at the outset whether or not the love of human beings will survive their deaths. Not surprisingly, he answers in the negative. What, then, are love's capabilities? Does it bring happiness? Not necessarily, Barnes replies, but it makes possible increased happiness and greater zest for life, because love's “primary effect is to energize.” Love also enhances confidence and confers increased clarity of vision and discrimination: “Love and truth, that's the vital connection. … Have you ever told so much truth as when you were first in love? Have you ever seen the world so clearly?”(240) While acknowledging that no entirely objective account of history is humanly possible, Barnes remains adamant that it is imperative to strive for greater enlightenment and that “43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent.” Not only can love serve as a helpful instrument in the quest for valid historical knowledge, but it can also supply an anti-materialist, anti-mechanical counter force to the materialistic tyranny of history. In light of this conclusion the witty didactic strategy of A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters becomes fully apparent. While exemplifying in its own narrative the “fabulation” of history which it deplores, at the same time the book exhorts its readers to strive for greater historical truth.
Barnes makes perhaps grander claims for love than does de Botton, but, like the narrator of Essays in Love, he is drawing upon his personal experiences, describing and analyzing the features of love and exemplifying its manifestations and its effects. However unconventional their techniques, both authors are addressing traditional features of fiction. The better to facilitate the portrayal of character, for instance, in Flaubert's Parrot and Kiss and Tell each adopts the guise of a self-reflexive narrator. As a means of developing theme, in Essays in Love and A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters each turns to nonfiction. In the latter two works both writers are concerned with love, from Boccaccio to the present a favorite subject of fiction. The pleasures and pains of love were depicted by Flaubert and Proust, two novelists highly esteemed by both Barnes and de Botton, but the fictional methods adopted by those two great novelists differ widely from the postmodern techniques employed by Barnes and de Botton.
Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972) 159-160.
Thomas Docherty, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1993) 63.
“Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” Docherty 154.
Cf. John Updike, “A Pair of Parrots,” The New Yorker 61.22 (July 22, 1985): 86-96, and Wendy Lesser, “Bloated and Shrunken Worlds,” The Hudson Review 38.3 (Autumn 1985): 463-472.
Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot (London: Picador, 1985) 26. Page numbers of all subsequent quotations from this edition are included in the text between parentheses.
Alain de Botton, Kiss and Tell (London: Picador, 1996) 37. Page numbers of all subsequent quotations from this edition are included in the text between parentheses.
“Portrait of a Lady and Little Else,” The Spectator 275 (September 9, 1995): 42.
Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (London: Picador, 1994): 49. Page numbers of all subsequent quotations from this edition are included in the text between parentheses.
Cf. Andrea Ashworth, “Isabel Encounters Her Biographer,” Times Literary Supplement 15 September, 1995: 20, and Lisa Zeidner, “Post-Modern Love,” New York Times Books Review 11 June, 1995: 35.
Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 and [frac12] Chapters (London: Picador, 1990): 242. Page numbers of all subsequent quotations from this edition are included in the text between parentheses.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109
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 my experience, write a modicum of rubbish, and de Botton is no exception. He is a genuine master of the truism, a virtuoso of the obvious. I doubt if he has written a dull sentence in his life, but when he draws didactic conclusions, or talks about motives and suchlike, he does sometimes put one toe over the fringe of bunkum. That the reality of travel does not always live up to the anticipation; that painters can often tell us more about a place than photographers; that personal anxieties, brought from home, can encroach upon the mind even when you are lazing on a tropic beach somewhere—such thoughts could well be expressed by anyone who has been on a package holiday to Benidorm.
But away from the generalisations, this book is really an elegant and entertaining evocation of all the sensations of travel, and a manual of how to get the best out of it. Half of it concerns de Botton's own reflections; half of it is about the attitudes of great writers, painters and, yes, philosophers towards the whole business of going away from home. I have made a profession of the practice, so perhaps I may be forgiven for offering a few travelling techniques of my own, and seeing how de Botton conforms to them. Here they are:
Wherever you go, pretend to yourself that you have never been there before.
Remember that any experience, of any sort, even going to the dentist or losing a passport, is grist to the proper traveller's mill.
Keep in mind E M Forster's advice about the best way to see Alexandria—“to wander aimlessly about”—or Lord Salisbury's theory of an ideal foreign policy—“to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat-hook to avoid collisions”.
Don't set out to see what other people see.
Take a sketchbook, not a camera.
Don't be ashamed to go on a bus tour.
Almost all these simple precepts crop up in one form or another in this book, and de Botton graphically describes putting them to the test. He is fine, and fun, when he follows the travels of celebrated predecessors: Flaubert to Egypt; Humboldt to Peru; Edward Hopper into the service stations and late-night cafés of America; van Gogh among the wind-flustered cypresses of Provence; or Wordsworth amid the Cumbrian sublime. He is best of all, however, when discussing his own detailed and intimate responses to the making of journeys.
Pretending he has never been there before? He often goes down to Heathrow, he tells us, just to watch the aeroplanes go by, but nobody has ever described the take-off of a loaded 747 with such freshness and amazement, and I am prepared to bet that nobody ever will—in particular, that always thrilling moment when the lumbering progress of the aircraft along the tarmac suddenly becomes, with “the controlled rage of the engines” and “a slight tremor from glasses in the galley”, a breathtaking release into the Elysian freedom.
Is everything grist to his mill? Of course. Absolutely everything. De Botton is as interested in the conversation of a man with a mobile telephone on a train as he is in the typography of public notices—as curious about the compulsion of deserts as he is about the different designs of front doors in England and Holland. I feel sure he would welcome, just for the experience, an interrogation at a Paraguayan immigration office, or the extraction of a tooth in a Rwandan dental surgery.
Wandering aimlessly? Well, he is perhaps too analytical to be quite authentically serendipitous, but he is certainly no conventionally organised traveller. He ignores guidebook itineraries, and indeed toys with the idea of writing his own subjective handbook to Madrid—drawing attention, for instance, to the lack of vegetables in the city cuisine (three stars for interest, in his guide), to the smallness of Spanish male feet and to the extraordinary length of Madrileño surnames.
Not seeing what other people see? Bless you, he doesn't even try. De Botton's vision is entirely his own. Who else would observe that the cry of a black-eared wheatear has no effect on a caterpillar “walking strenuously across a rock”? Has anybody else ever noticed that the texture of Amsterdam brickwork is like that of halva from a Lebanese delicatessen?
De Botton takes both a camera and a sketchbook, it seems, but he quotes Ruskin on the value of drawing as a way of seeing places, however primitive your technique, and says that he began to appreciate the identity of oak trees after spending an hour drawing one in the Langdale Valley—my own experience exactly, after spending interminable coffee breaks trying to get the Doge's Palace right.
“Don't be ashamed to take a bus tour.” Alain de Botton would never be. He doesn't give a damn, I'm sure, what other people think, and when he goes on a tour along the Van Gogh Trail, led by a lady guide from the tourist office at Arles, he carries his camera along, too, to take holiday snaps.
And does he travel alone? Not always, it seems. Somebody called M often accompanies him: but he proves my precept all the same, because on page 24 of this book, when the two of them are eating lunch in the shade of a tulip tree beside the Caribbean, they fall out over who should have the larger portion of crème caramel, and don't make up till nightfall.
So in all respects, this book gratifyingly confirms my own travelling criteria. De Botton probably prefers to be thought of as a philosopher, and I myself would rather categorise him (if he must be categorised) as an essayist; but the sparkling, profound and exuberant quality of The Art of Travel betrays him not just as an admirable traveller, but as one of the very best contemporary travel writers—an artist in the genre, in fact, in both senses of his title.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1824
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 concern about “where it's at”, and the fiction where philosophy kept breaking out, like Dr Johnson's cheerfulness, to create a form of belles-lettres which is unique to him: polished, contemporary, full of wit and intelligence, helpful and above all illuminating.
All de Botton's books, fiction and non-fiction, deal with how thought and specifically philosophy might help us deal better with the challenges of quotidian life—returning philosophy to its simple, sound origins. Satellite themes are given more or less spin in each book: how to be happy, courageous, just and good; how to deal with the eddies of anxiety provoked by others' misreading of us, and by our own paralyses and confusions; how to navigate the right course between chaos and order; how to live honestly in a materialistic culture; how to be a good friend; how to open our eyes.
Because he is in spirit an artist and craftsman rather than a storyteller (as well as a kind of inspired curator of the past), this revisiting of themes isn't repetitious but enriching, like Monet's revisiting of waterlilies. The new form de Botton has forged is in time with the times: linked, finely honed essays within which voices from the past such as Socrates, Seneca, Flaubert, Proust and Nietzsche are put in conversation with us and with each other, like some online conference call. Snippets of visual information—diagrams, blurry reproductions of paintings, likenesses of his protagonists, the odd snapshot he has taken, a goldfinch here, an isosceles triangle there—have burst out of the text from the start, even in a supposed novel like The Romantic Movement. The late W. G. Sebald breaks form in a similar way in his books, with more gravitas, more personal hinterland, but less accessibility. Yet de Botton's lightness of touch and concern about the humiliations of everyday life shouldn't be read as banality, just as Montaigne's shouldn't (though they were at the time). If each generation corrects for the mistakes of the previous one, perhaps the author is reinstating a concern with ethics as a guide to how to live life for a generation reacting against the ethical gap in its parents' mainstay, psychotherapy.
Sometimes the self-help manual “we” can feel a little presumptuous—“we” do not all feel alike—but, on the whole, de Botton does us the favour of presenting himself as being that much more timid than most. Stymied as he is by over-refined thought processes in the face of risk, like a calm Woody Allen, the essentially risky business of travel is a natural next step in his oeuvre. As you would expect, however, his concerns do not lie with how to cut the bristles on your toothbrush, or how to tense your muscles against mosquitoes. What interests him is how the search for happiness is caught on the wing in travel, and how thoughtful study of this impulse might tell us in what ways—if at all—travelling helps “human flourishing”. There are many approaches he might have taken to this, including considering how much of a nomadic component is hard-wired into us, but he takes an idiosyncratic route, seeing travel through the eyes of J. K. Huysmans, Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Flaubert, Wordsworth, Edmund Burke Job, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Ruskin, and venturing out randomly to Barbados, the odd airport and service station, Amsterdam, Madrid, the Lake District, Provence, the Sinai Desert and Hammersmith. The only conventional traveller included is Alexander von Humboldt, and he is only brought in to show how the manic fact-finding of his travels to South America is no longer open to us, now that the globe is charted. What is open to us is to consider what impulses drive us to travel, what psychological baggage we take with us on our journeys, and what is genuinely life-enhancing about the experience, as opposed to our expectations of what ought to be so. The book's own journey meanders back thrillingly on itself between the idea that “journeys are midwives to thought” and the idea that, with the right frame of mind, you can do that journey just as profitably on your own doorstep as in distant regions.
The inspirational aspects of journeying are such things as the “relief from the fake comforts of home”, or—as Wordsworth and others discovered—that the mere fact of walking, let alone within a rich landscape, stimulates the brain. As de Botton says, “The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do”. The more adventurous aspects of travelling, in search of wild landscapes or what the eighteenth century called “the sublime”, teach us that “sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will”. Or, put another way, “There are concerns which seem indecent when in the company of a cliff.” Thus wilderness helps us with our humiliations in the world of man. However, de Botton has more fun with the opposite idea: that, as Pascal put it “the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room”.
This idea surfaces in the book in many guises: in the author's decision to take a day off to wander round his home patch of Hammersmith with his eyes open and no agenda—no shopping, no trying to get anywhere—or in his approval of the underachieving peregrinations of Joseph de Maistre's brother, Xavier, who went on an epic journey in 1790 and gave his account of it in Journey around My Bedroom. “Gratified by his experiences, in 1798, de Maistre undertook a second journey. This time he travelled by night and ventured out as far as the window-ledge, later entitling his account Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom.”
De Maistre explained how helpful his pioneering efforts would be: “Millions of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, others who had not been able to travel and still more who had not even thought of travelling will now be able to follow my example.” He “particularly recommended room-travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies and high cliffs”.
But these home-hugging insights are hard won. The Art of Travel starts with the dissatisfaction with the local weather and environment that usually precedes travel, what Baudelaire called “that appalling disease the Horror of Home”. “Life”, Baudelaire continued morosely, “is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he'd get better by the window.” One steely grey winter's day in London, de Botton finds himself seduced by a brochure into thinking he would like a change of radiator, and takes off for Barbados. He does indeed find palm trees at an angle to a white beach, and, at the edge of the sea: “small lapping sounds beside me, as if a kindly monster was taking discreet sips of water from a large goblet”.
However, his imagination hadn't reckoned with other things that were also there: luggage carousels, BP petrol stores, immigration paraphernalia, tour guides, stray dogs, electronics factories, and most of all the “momentous but until then overlooked fact … that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island”. So a petty quarrel over supper with his companion renders the whole idyllic scenario null and void—worse than a grey day in Hammersmith because his expectations were so much greater, the let-down more oppressive, his pocket emptier. In spite of the radical change of scene, his mind “revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm”—just as Flaubert's had, Job-like, in Egypt: “What is it, oh Lord, this permanent lassitude that I drag about with me?”
These observations are not new, of course. Others have been there before, including Sterne and Robert Louis Stevenson, but de Botton recasts them freshly and sensitively. He also tries to solve them, by giving us mental baggage more appropriate to contemporary travel: the ability to see poetry in liminal places like service stations and airports, an understanding of why art can be a good guide and why guidebooks can be very bad guides, cameos of men from the past who can be good companions on our journeys, even if we travel alone, or only from our armchairs. De Botton not only writes about these things, but demonstrates them through the text and illustrations. So the only passages in the book where the eyes glaze over are quotes from a Madrid guidebook, quietly proving the author's point that Goethe was right in saying “I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity”. And a virtuoso piece on Van Gogh's painting of cypresses shows us why the flame-like turbulence that Van Gogh saw in them is actually the structural characteristic of cypresses in Provence, not part of the artist's own turbulence. This textual interactivity is something de Botton did to good effect in The Consolations of Philosophy, where he set up an “acquisition list” for happiness of such detail and sophistication—including a private jet (“Dassault Falcon 900c or Gulfstream IV”), with a picture on its tail-fin of a still-life of “three lemons by Sánchez Cotán from the Fruit and Vegetables in the Prado”—that you find yourself inhabiting this fantasy in some awe before he demolishes it and you realize you have been lured into ludicrous materialism.
In the end, like the company of good friends, travel emerges as a way of discovering truths about ourselves: “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves.” If this is not so in quite the same way for women, then it points up the fact that philosophy has been almost exclusively the preserve of men, and all de Botton's compagnons de route from the past are, as it happens, men. For although the challenges of life and travel are common to all human beings, some of them are different for women. Sometimes we are different “we's”. Half of the human race could probably do with such witty, freewheeling advice for travelling dames, whether in the boudoir or Barbados.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546
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 behind holiday-making, probing our motives and desires for going on a journey, and questioning what we think we do when we travel with the help of a handful of (all-male, mostly French and English nineteenth-century) writers and painters.
The selection of guides to thinking about travel, no less than the topics chosen to explore, reveal de Botton's romantic inclinations. In a series of essays on the exotic, on the sublime, on Wordsworthian “spots of time,” and on walks through one's own neighborhood in the spirit of de Maistre's Journey around My Bedroom, de Botton instructs us to “notice what we have already seen,” echoing Shelley's claim that art “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty.”
There's much to like in The Art of Travel. At times taking us over familiar (narrative, visual, or geographical) ground, de Botton is at his best when arguing for journeys at or close to home. The juxtaposition of Baudelaire's poetry and Hopper's painting reveals a captivating poetics of attente, of waiting and expectation; the demonstrations of the ways in which art can open our eyes to our surroundings—Van Gogh's paintings pointing the traveler's eyes to the cypresses, the olive trees, and the wheat fields of Provence, Ruskin's use of a sketchbook enabling them to remain “alive to the smallest features of the visual world”—hold the irresistible appeal of the reflective life wherein there's time to attend to and delight in the details of the quotidian. To compare the fascination the Orient held for Flaubert and de Botton's own enthusiasm for Amsterdam, containing for this reader the delight of the familiar made strange, also indicates the ways the reader is situated.
There's something discomforting about the “we” evoked throughout the text, that comes to insight on tropical islands, that is lured to travel by photographs of “a sandy beach fringed by a turquoise sea, … a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze” yet to whom the landscapes of Provence are revealed through kindred artistic processes of selection. And there's something disturbing about the passing in silence over the fact that it is the same tourist industry that spoils the very picture it sells on “Winter Sun” brochures (think of Jamaica Kincaid's scathing description of the effects of tourism in A Small Place) and that uses art to tell us what to look for in a landscape, what counts as interesting. Despising guidebooks for telling us what's worth seeing yet applauding art for doing exactly that, de Botton looks at travel through an art that regrettably forgets it is itself ideological, and that the pleasures of the aesthetic are vested with many, sometimes contradictory, interests.