Thursday, December 20, 2007

Alain de Botton/ESSAYS IN LOVE

Although he was born in Switzerland and comes from an exotically mixed family background, England's chattering classes have graciously deigned to overlook these cosmopolitan origins (and his unfortunately French-sounding name) and have adopted de Botton as their darling. He abandoned his original vocation as an academic philosopher to establish himself over the last decade-and-a-half as an extremely popular writer and TV presenter, thus pulling off the very enviable trick of making his passions (philosophy, architecture, literature) into the stuff of his work. He has managed to become a great popularizer of these abstruse subjects, leavening his erudition with a charming wit, and forging a style which is broadly accessible yet not dumbed-down. De Botton is one of those people that most of us (by which I mean well-educated Englishmen of a certain age) would like to be.

I was reading - and loving - How Proust Can Change Your Life, his quasi-philosophical appreciation of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, during a trip to the States last summer, but didn't quite finish it. I'd read enough to convince me that I loved his viewpoint and his way with words, and so was delighted to find this in my favourite bookstore (just about the only decent bookstore!) here in Beijing a couple of weeks ago.

It's his first book, from the early '90s. Whereas, I think, most of his subsequent work has been non-fiction (albeit written with a novelist's flair for language), this is more of a novel-in-disguise. It masquerades as a philosophical treatise on love, with short chapters divided by theme, and each chapter further divided into short, numbered paragraphs, each dissecting a particular observation on love. Yet he uses an account of a devastating love affair of his own as the subject matter, so despite the unorthodox approach and high-brow tone, there is a strong narrative backbone to the work. There's no way of knowing how far the love affair described is an imaginative creation; you suspect it is a fictionalized rendition of perhaps several different real-life affairs - but it is often so poignant, so powerfully-felt that you sense the writing of it was a kind of necessary catharsis for him. Then again, maybe it's all completely made-up and he just has very convincing powers of invention.

I gather from Amazon that it's now been retitled as On Love: A Novel (although my edition, which appears to have been published recently, still has the old title). Perhaps the 'concept' of the work was too confusing, was tending to limit the readership. Or perhaps de Botton was becoming embarrassed that people were constantly assuming that this seemingly most personal of his works was a true story. If it is closely based on real events, he has been ruthlessly, bravely honest - 'he' ultimately comes out of it rather worse than the girl, exposing 'himself' as in many ways a bit of a shit.

Above all, the writing here is gorgeous. A little heavy going sometimes, because he's trying to express some quite complicated ideas and you want to keep doubling back to make sure you've got it. And perhaps just a little too rich at times - it's dense with epigrams. But it's hard to resist a book that's so full of humour and humanity and honesty and wise observation. It's a short read - barely 200 pages - and something that I think I could return to again and again.

Just one brief example to whet your appetite, a great metaphor from one of the closing chapters:
"There is an Arabic saying that the soul travels at the pace of a camel. While most of us are led by the strict demands of diaries and timetables, the soul, the seat of the heart, trails nostalgically behind, burdened by the weight of memory.... The camel became lighter and lighter as it walked through time, it kept shaking memories and photos off its back, scattering them over the desert floor and letting the wind bury them in the sand, and gradually the camel became so light that it could trot again and even gallop in its own curious way - until one day, in a small oasis that called itself the present, the exhausted creature finally caught up with the rest of me."


Lisa said...

OK, I made it exactly two days into the new year before I had to order something new. You've got me sold. I ended the year on a David Mitchell/Ian McEwan high so I'm stuck on English writers these days! Thanks for the great write up.

Lisa said...

On Love and How Proust Can Change Your Life are among the best books I've read in a very long time. I love this author.