Alain de Botton ’s astute observations on subjects as varied as philosophy, travel and shopping have won him a wide book-reading and TV-watching audience. He talks about love, family... and brick walls
Years ago, this interviewer’s parents threw a party at which very few people knew one another. I was summoned back from Oxford to interpose myself wherever there might be an awkward pause. At one point, a man to my left mentioned “Swann’s Way”, and I simply turned to a man on my right and asked the obvious: “Have you read Proust?” That man happened to be Alain de Botton, fresh from the phenomenal international success of his fourth book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life”. He looked suitably perplexed. “Ha, ha!” I trilled, desperately overcompensating before he could answer. “I meant to ask whether you read it in English or French.”
“I am French,” he apologised.
Although three novels had gone before, de Botton exploded into the public consciousness in 1997 with a book of essays uniting criticism, biography and an ironic take on the world of self-help literature. It was, for most readers, the only accessible bridge to Marcel Proust and his lengthy remembrances.
Since then, de Botton has explored, in print and on television, subjects as diverse as travel, philosophy and status anxiety. He is certainly full of ideas, with the capacity to explore them in an accessible, stimulating way. His latest work, “The Architecture of Happiness,” considers the influence of our habitat upon ourselves.
“I grew up in Switzerland — which is a country with a lot of very good architecture — and then I came to England and was shocked by how bad a lot of the architecture was,” he explains. “People’s attitudes to it were so strange, the way that people wanted new buildings to look old and loved old buildings above all other things… So, in a way, the book was an attempt to get back to Swiss modernism.”
His own physical environment has recently suffered disruptions of the most exciting kind. His wife Charlotte has recently given birth to their second son, Saul (their elder boy, Samuel, is just two). The family lives in a modest terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush, and de Botton works in an office across the street, a fastidiously tidy space a world away from the clutter and chaos that accompany small children.
“Having a family forces you to put aside many aesthetic concerns. You can’t make things look beautiful all the time. I think there’s an inherent conflict between family life and beautiful surroundings because children have no interest in beauty as such, but they teach you other things. For example, Samuel is very keen on the carpet, and touching the carpet because it’s soft, and he puts his cheek against it. So children are very sensory; they notice whether something is hard or soft. They’re not insensitive brutes, they’re just not very ordered.”
Fatherhood has not only changed de Botton’s appreciation of the sensory world. “The raising of children is a very full-time occupation indeed, so the world has become narrower. When you haven’t got children you’re much more able to take opportunities as they come. You might bump into many more people, you see many more people, and one weekend might be very different to the next. With marriage and family, things become much more regular. You know what’s going to be happening. In a way that’s good and in a way that’s boring. Life gets deeper but less varied. I’m also very aware of time with children because you can instantly plot out your life according to what they’ll be doing at a certain age — you know that when they’re 18, you’ll be X. So from life having seemed very formless it suddenly acquires a real shape, with a beginning, middle and end.”
He and Charlotte fell in love five years ago after being introduced by well-meaning friends. “Of course, a lot of initial attraction is physical, and also psychological — she was slightly enigmatic which was intriguing, and she was very clever in a dry way,” he says to show what distinguished his wife from the women he had met before. “She was very accomplished intellectually and in business… and she seemed to have a lot of qualities that I aspired to but didn’t really possess securely. I think a lot of falling in love is about an ideal that someone else will bring you things that you don’t feel that you have enough of.”
Early on in his discussion of the influence of architecture, de Botton writes: “Life may have to show itself to us in some of its authentically tragic colours before we can begin to grow properly visually responsive to its subtler offerings.” That is not to say that one’s life must be difficult in order to respond to a Corinthian column, he clarifies.
“It’s simply that you don’t find many people when they’re 18 stopping and commenting on a lovely brick wall, or, if you do, then you have to worry for them. It’s something that comes with age because, in a way, it’s a modest pleasure, the pleasure that people can find in architecture — as indeed are the pleasures of art. That’s why they have a hard time competing against the more dramatic pleasures, like falling in love or changing the world.
“There’s a certain amount of resignation in the appreciation of architecture, and perhaps art as well, as it’s in some way a compensation for things that are not perfect in life. It’s like reading — people don’t read a lot when they’re very cheerful; you read in some ways to cope with disturbance. If the world were ever completely happy, bookshops would go out of business. I think generally art is there as a compensation. In a good way.”
Religion, arguably another of life’s compensations, played a more complex role in de Botton’s upbringing. “My father was very keen to promote being Jewish — it was a very weird message. On the one hand, anyone who believed in God was a complete fool and like a child who believed in Father Christmas but at the same time it was incredibly important to remember that we were indeed a Jewish family.
“He didn’t see any contradiction between the two but it was a genuinely confusing message. And so I was left with a rather incoherent sense that it was extremely important that I was Jewish and yet unclear why that might be.
“It was a form of racism, a form of feeling superior to everyone else on no good grounds other than, you know, Jews were cleverer — and lots of dark comments about what might happen if one married out, including the inevitable thing that one’s wife would turn around and call you a dirty Jew in a moment of crisis. It’s amazing to me — perhaps people are saying that now to their children. There were a few years of my childhood when my father made a valiant attempt to orchestrate a Passover but there were no regular things. Occasionally I would get a glimpse of things, but we were very unobservant. Occasional visits to Israel…
“I had an urge to rebel against what I saw as a sort of chauvinism as regards Jewish identity, so I’ve married someone who’s not Jewish. Of course the Other becomes more interesting when you’ve been told that they’re forbidden and bad. And so now I keep writing about Christianity in my books because I find it all very interesting; it has that slight frisson of the forbidden which is actually very profound. Yes, I’m confused.”
He may well be confused about his Jewish identity, but on all other matters there seems little cause for uncertainty. Alain de Botton seems to have everything else pretty clear. He has even read Proust.
Alain de Botton in brief
Read history at Cambridge
Married to Charlotte, with two sons under the age of three
Books and TV
“Essays in Love: A Novel”, “The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel” (novels); “How Proust Can Change Your Life”, “Status Anxiety” and, the latest, “The Architecture of Happiness” (non-fiction)
On the insecurity of writing
“In Britain, because I live here, I can also run into problems of envy and competition. But all this is just in a day’s work for a writer. You can’t put stuff out there without someone calling you a complete fool”
On being Jewish
“I had an urge to rebel against what I saw as a sort of chauvinism as regards Jewish identity, so I’ve married someone who’s not Jewish… Yes, I’m confused”
On the Middle East
“The Arab-Israeli conflict is also in many ways a conflict about status: it’s a war between two peoples who feel deeply humiliated by the other, who want the other to respect them. Battles over status can be even more intractable than those over land or water or oil”