Alain de Botton’s body of work has earned him a reputation as a modern day philosopher. His books span a wide range of topics, from love to architecture, travel and work, all with one thing in common: a thirst to understand our human experience. In this sense, the original sense of the word, the philosopher tag is absolutely accurate.
The use of multiple formats is a hallmark of his writing, as are references to classic literature, philosophy and psychology as a means to help explore how we deal with life and its meaning. All this in a simple, lyrical and always honest voice, which has seen him earn a large and loyal following.
De Botton’s latest book The Course of Love, published this April, is no exception. Set in Edinburgh, the novel follows the story of a relationship starting from its beginning and continuing over several decades. The Course of Love is “a study of what happens to love over time” explains de Botton. “I suppose it is a journey away from romanticism, the idea of finding a special person who understands you totally, who is your soulmate, all these kind of romantic feelings. In a way it’s the end of all those feelings, but that doesn’t mean the end of love; it means the birth of a kind of adult relationship.”
What is an exception though, is the format: de Botton’s first novel, Essays in Love, which sold two million copies, was published in 1993, when the author was 23 years old. Since then, his literary output has mostly been essayistic in nature with notable successes like How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety. Now, 23 years later and twice the age, de Botton returns to fiction to pick up a thread left by Essays in Love: what happens when a relationship doesn’t end after the first bloom of attraction, but instead endures and evolves with the course of time? “As a society, we are very obsessed by the beginning of love and always think the excitement is the start,” he says. “But if love goes well, the start should be less and less important.”
Far too few writers offer any kind of insight on love beyond the superficial ‘boy-meets-girl’ fairy tale, yet de Botton manages to lift up the curtain and offer an honest and sympathetic look beyond the sugar-coating. The book, he says, “is really trying to get people to think about how they could get better at relationships by watching a couple that has all sorts of difficulties, which are in a way the difficulties that we all have.”
The approach is a much-needed one in a world where any attempt to offer a more nuanced or complex picture of emotional relationships is a red flag. This is a fact that de Botton seems to have been conscious of in writing the book: “Partly, I wanted to correct what I think is a social bias against ‘ordinary’ relationships. Relationships which are neither totally blissful as they were at the beginning nor absolutely terrible like in a thriller, but somehow in the middle, where most of us live.”
Still, many thinkers famously advised against offering any kind of objectivity around love. “I know that there is an argument sometimes that feelings can be destroyed by analysis, but I think feelings can also disappear without analysis. If you analyse a feeling it becomes more deeply yours.”
It is doubtless for this very reason that de Botton’s work resonates so deeply with his readers. The honest and realistic depiction of his themes allows those readers to relate much more closely to the ideas presented. “I think if you’re being utterly honest with yourself and have understood yourself you will, by definition, also be understanding other people. Because we are so alike, really.”
In this sense, the choice of fiction is an instrumental one as it allows de Botton to expose multiple viewpoints on one topic. “You can have a romantic character and a more realistic character, and they can meet and have discussions, which is hard to do in a non-fiction essay.”
What the author is aiming for is a delicate balance of ideas with the intention of making people reflect about their lives, but without offering convenient pre-packaged solutions. This is the reason de Botton’s books transcend the self-help category in which they are sometimes placed in bookstores. There is no easy one-size-fits-all solution here: each of us needs to work out for ourselves how to move forward. It may sound like a tough take on life, but it is an honest one that allows readers to seek solutions for themselves at any age. De Botton tries to do it “by holding up a mirror to some situations, try to define them in words, [and] hopefully make some people see certain things a little differently.”
I know that there is an argument sometimes that feelings can be destroyed by analysis, but I think feelings can also disappear without analysis. If you analyse a feeling it becomes more deeply yours.
This is no easy mission; we asked de Botton what his first drafts look like. “Oh, a mess… I might rewrite a book 30 times. So I don’t write a book, I rewrite a book.” His candour is typically honest and refreshing. “I think the big thing I am always trying to do is to make it clearer, to make it sharper, to make the book have a better architecture, clearer lines through it. That’s why writing is so boring, and so painful. Because it doesn’t come out of your mind in the right way.”
While this image might spoil romantic illusions of the writing process for some, for de Botton it is entirely understandable. “Our minds are chaotic. We are not made to speak in perfect sentences for 300 pages; the mind is not designed like that. It is an instrument that throws out the occasional good idea, in the midst of lots of hesitation, confusion, etc. So as a writer what you have to do is just to get rid of all the hesitation and confusion and edit down to the few interesting things. Which is why you end up often in the odd situation that the book is better than the writer, because when you meet the writer all they can do is talk in very confused and chaotic ways: they haven’t had the chance to edit themselves.”
“So, I am sorry”, he says laughing.
The same disarming honesty and simplicity are at the core of one of de Botton’s other projects, The School of Life, an institution dedicated to ‘developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture’ with a consistent following, a strong online presence and 12 branches around the world. For the Swiss author, its future is to “move ever more into digital platforms so that it exists where most people are, which is not near a physical branch. We are exploring all sorts of things, but really we want to be the home of wisdom in a way… For me it should be the place to seek certain good ideas, that are presented in a charming, consumer-friendly way.”
It is a place, one imagines, far from self-referential rhetoric, reverence and dogmatism – a place where we can embrace our emotional intelligence and try to be better people. A place rather like his books in fact.
Article by Livia Formisani
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