How Proust changed his life

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 to Francesca Se­gal about love, fam­ily… and brick walls

The Jewish Chronicle - - INTERVIEW -

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, freshresh 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 t hat y o u 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 t r a g i c c o l o u r s 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 com­pensa- tion 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.

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