An interview with Alain de Botton

An interview with Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton‘s career to date has been spent writing books that tackle questions of everyday life. They refer both to his own experiences and ideas – and those of artists, philosophers and thinkers of the past. His work has been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life’. Here, Alain kindly answers some of our questions …

Readers Loft:  Were you disappointed by some of the harsh criticisms of Status Anxiety? Or don’t you read reviews?

Alain de Botton:  “Bad reviews are a tax a writer has to pay on success. There’s a further tax to pay if you’re trying at once to be profound and accessible. Our culture tends to allow people either to be popular and trashy or unknown but serious. I find this dichotomy too sharp and strive to reconcile the popular with the serious.”

RL Your introduction to Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Bedroom shows you to have long been a fan of the book. What is it about de Maistre’s book you so admire?

AB  “Without wishing to be contrary, in truth, I feel de Maistre’s book is very dull and wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. However, it does have a lovely idea at its heart, namely that travelling isn’t about going somewhere exotic, it’s about learning to look at what’s around in a new way. A traveller in the truest sense is someone who has learnt to see. That was very much the message of my last book, The Art of Travel, where the essay on de Maistre first appeared.

RL You are still perhaps best known for How Proust Can Change Your Life. Do you still reread Proust?

AB  “What interests me about Proust is his fierce intelligence, combined with great sensitivity to the small things of life. He writes beautifully about everyday experiences like falling asleep, reading a book and kissing. He originally inspired me because he showed how one can write a novel that is closer to an essay and an essay that has many novelistic aspects to it, that is descriptions of place and atmosphere. I have been guided by this in my own work.”

RL You haven’t written a novel for a while! Any plans to go back to novel writing?

AB  “My first few books were sold as novels, but they were in fact personal essays recounting episodes in my love life. What’s changed isn’t the books I write, just the classification used by publishers. This said, and perhaps this is the underlying point in your question, I might go back to writing about love.”

RL You seem to come from a mainstream philosophical tradition (your Consolations of Philosophy has Socrates on unpopularity, Epicurus on lack of money, Seneca on frustrations, Montaigne on inadequacy etc. not, say, Baudrillard on modern life or Deleuze on watching films) whereas I find myself more drawn to so-called continental philsophy. Do you ever read ‘the continentals’?

AB  “I am very drawn to so-called continental philosophy and my work makes frequent allusions to major figures in this tradition like Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. What I welcome in continental philosophy is the engagement with themes of everyday life and personal importance. The figures you mention, Baudrillard and Deleuze, aren’t people I like to write about, but I have read some of their works with pleasure. My real influence among the modern French thinkers is Roland Barthes.

I wouldn’t have become the writer I am if I hadn’t, in my early 20s, discovered the work of the French academic and essayist Roland Barthes. At university, I felt a confused longing to write, but couldn’t imagine what sort of writer to be – nothing I’d yet come across seemed to provide the model that could offer me the courage to begin.

I wasn’t interested enough in novels, I couldn’t tell ‘a story’, but the non-fiction I knew either had an off-puttingly impersonal, staid quality or else, in the case of memoirs, lacked the intellectual backbone I needed.

Then I discovered a Frenchman who showed me a new way of writing non-fiction. Roland Barthes spent much of his career writing about the most ordinary things: washing powder, the Eiffel Tower, falling in love, short and long-hemmed skirts, photographs of his mother. And yet he brought a classical education and a philosophical mind to bear on these subjects.

He knew how to connect Racine and beach holidays, Freud and the anticipation of a lover’s phonecall. His work rejected the division between the high and the low, like so many modern artists (Joyce and Beckett, Duchamp and Joseph Cornell), he could see the deeper themes running through supposedly banal things.

Like many modern artists too, he was an innovator at the level of form. His books have pictures in them. He played around with different fonts. He wrote an entire book, S/Z, on a single Balzac short story, analysing every line in playfully manic, encyclopedic detail. At the same time, his writing has a classical sense of poise and restraint.

He looked back to the tradition of the French ‘moralistes’ (I’d never heard of them before Barthes), people like La Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, La Bruyere, Chamfort. Barthes’s next to last book, A Lover’s Discourse helped me to shape my first book, On Love. His On Racine and Michelet were godfathers to How Proust can change your Life. The debt wasn’t at the level of ideas, it was a questionof style and approach.

RL What are you working on now? What is coming next?

AB “A book that is looking at the whole question of beauty in architecture. Why we care about it? Why we’re so afraid of mentioning it? Why so much of the man-made world is so ugly. It will hopefully be published in the spring of 2006, accompanied by a TV programme.”

RL How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?

AB  “1. In the early hours, between 5 and 7pm, I take notes in longhand on a pad of paper. These notes are written a blue Pilot G-Tec-C4 pen. 2. I later transcribe what’s valuable into a computer.”

RL What is your favourite book?

AB  “Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: this book might have been well-known in British literary life twenty-five years ago, but no one under the age of 35 seems to have heard of it. It’s usually out of print, and is often compared unfavourably with Connolly’s far-better known Enemies of Promise.

The accusation most often levelled at it is that it is a work of self-indulgence – an accusation that fails to distinguish between talking a lot about yourself (which can be very entertaining), and being self-centred (which never is). Connolly did a lot of the former, but was not the latter.

The book is a seductive mixture of diary, common-place book, essay, travelogue and memoir – arranged in loose paragraphs, in which Connolly gives us his views women, religion, death, seduction, infatuation and literature.

The thoughts are wise, dark, and beautifully modelled, with the balance of the best French aphorisms (a genre that’s never gone down well in England, though the Scots have tended to be more enlightened). Here are some examples from Connolly: “There is no fury like an ex-wife searching for a new lover,” “No one over thirty-five is worth meeting who has not something to teach us – something more than we could learn from ourselves, from a book.”

The charm of the work lies in the narrator’s mischievous, melancholy tone as he shifts between the sublime and the banal: “To sit late in a restaurant (especially when one has to pay the bill) is particularly conducive to angst, which does not affect us after snacks taken in an armchair with a book. Angst is an awareness of the waste of our time and ability, such as may be witnessed among people kept waiting by a hairdresser.”

British literary life is still dominated by the novel. Connolly’s particular genius was to remind us of the value of the rather neglected genres of the essay and the aphorism.”

RL  What book do you wish you had written?

AB  “I’ve always been a fan of J.W.Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). The hero Werther is an intellectual, sensitive young man living in a small German town. He is also in love with a young woman called Lotte, understandably so, because she’s not only devastatingly beautiful – in a natural, no make-up sort of way – but also has a great sense of humour, sharp intelligence and good taste in clothes. But unfortunately for Werther, Lotte happens to be married to Albert, a decent, sensible chap who makes her very happy.

Lotte does her best not to lead Werther on; she emphasises what good friends they are, but Werther’s passion is too strong for him to do anything other than hope she’ll toss Albert aside for him. When, after much pain and a few clumsy lunges, he eventually realises this isn’t on the cards, he buys a pistol and kills himself. A cautionary tale for intellectual, sensitive young men.

When I first read of Werther’s plight, I was at university, twenty one and, of course, Werther. Lotte was Claire (she lived down the corridor, studied macrobiology and had shoulder-length chestnut hair in a centre parting) and Albert was Robin, a economist who she’d been seeing for three years – testimony, if one needs it, of the miraculous ability of novels to mould themselves around, and illuminate, our own lives.

Werther’s appeal lies partly in his impossibly earnest relation to his own passion. The young german is devoid of all sense of perspective, irony, and naturally enough, humour. “Without doubt, the only thing that makes man’s life on earth essential and necessary is love,” he solemnly declares, on returning from a chat with Lotte, before bursting into hot tears.

His diary is filled with entries like: “She is sacred to me. All my desires are stilled in her presence. I never know what I am about when I am with her; it is as if my very soul were throbbing in every nerve” – which is consoling to read, when your own diary is in danger of sliding that way and everyone else thinks your crush is a joke.

Werther is a universal figure, in exaggerated form, he is an archetypal emotional possibility. Which is why his story is so consoling to read for anyone with a trace of Werther-ishness within.”

RL Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?

AB  “The best tip I’ve read comes from Friedrich Nietzsche (from Human, All Too Human). He suggested that most books don’t get written, or are written badly not because their authors lack genius, but because they have an incorrect idea of how much pain is required.

This is how hard one should try to write a novel, according to Nietzsche: “The recipe for becoming a good novelist…is easy to give, but to carry it out presupposes qualities one is accustomed to overlook when one says ‘I do not have enough talent.’

One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes every day until one has learnt how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present, one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer… one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human actions, disdain no signpost for instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. One should continue in this many-sided exercise for some ten years; what is then created in the workshop…will be fit to go out into the world.

The philosophy amounts to a curious mixture of extreme faith in human potential (fulfilment is open to us all, as is the writing of great novels) and extreme toughness (we may need to spend a miserable decade on the first book).”

RL  Thank you so much for your time Alain – all the very best!