Here is how I first came to read Alain de Botton:
We were babysitting for some friends who have a small (or not-so-small) library in literally every room of their house, including the bathroom (reason one thousand-and-one why we love them). So there I was looking at the shelf when what should I see but Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. I had never heard of it, but the title appealed to me. I picked it up and started reading (which, if you didn’t know, and I didn’t for quite some time, is a very dangerous exercise in a house with three small boys who are liable to burst into the room at any time while you’ve got your trousers around your feet and are deeply engrossed in some work of literature or another). Half an hour later I came downstairs and said to The Man, why have I never read this before, it’s amazing? Who only said, I don’t know.
I find him fascinating, and inspiring, on a number of levels. He published his first book when he was 23–proof, perhaps, that you can become a serious member of the literary community whilst still in your youth (and even whilst still chronicling it). The Art of Travel, moreover, represents what I consider to be one of the most perfect genres of writing: both artistic and practical, thought-provoking and real, full of precise sentences and invitations to the reader to interact with the words themselves.
And, a few weeks ago, I came across this. It’s an interview with de Botton from 2002, just after The Art of Travel was published, and the author’s answers to some of the questions filled me with so much excitement that I realized I’d developed a virtual crush on the man, whose work has been described, rather brilliantly, as “essayistic” (I’m starting to use this term to describe my own work, in the hopes that it catches on). The interviewer, Robert Birnbaum, says to de Botton: “I read Kiss & Tell. That was essayistic?” and de Botton responds:
“Well, yes…Really, it was a reflection on different ideas. The point was not the plot so much as the ideas in it…it wasn’t totally straight fiction and I suppose I was just trying to move closer to what I felt was where my real interests lay. Which is in a non-fiction structure but which can allow for a certain amount of personal digressions and descriptions and some of the things that tend to belong in a novel.”
I centered on this because when I stumbled on the interview, I was in the midst of trying to categorize my own book. A non-fiction structure which allows for “personal digressions and descriptions and some of the things that tend to belong in a novel”: it’s more complicated than “travel” or “memoir”, but it’s just about a perfect description.
Then I read this, in response to a question about the book’s title (emphasis mine):
“It wasn’t that I set out with the idea that I’m going to cover the theme of travel. What I wanted to do was to cover certain feelings that we have in certain places, the psychology of places. That could be the subtitle. I was looking around for a form in which to gather together these thoughts and it seemed to me that travel is one of the times that we experience different feelings about different places. So that’s really the unity. I would get annoyed—well not annoyed—I’d think that people would miss the point if they said, “But you haven’t covered packing.” I hadn’t covered the impact of modern travel on the environment. I’m not trying to cover all aspects of travel. I’m really looking at particular aspects of it.“
Always an elegant and apt wordsmith, de Botton has put his finger on exactly what I want to write about: the psychology of places (or, in the case of the book, of one place in particular). I was practically giggling to myself by now. And the interview goes on, with Birnbaum asking, “What do you think of the assertion that all writing is travel writing?”
“There is a weird way in which modern publishing has put the word travel writing on anything that isn’t a story and is really about places,” de Botton responds. “The description of place has gone into travel writing. But travel writing goes into so many different strands.”
Then Birnbaum asks something which I find unecessary and inane: “I was amused when you related the tiff you and your traveling companion had over two portions of creme de caramel in Barbados,” he says. “It seemed strange that two adults would have such a conflict and that you would report it.”
And de Botton says back: “I think writing the book I felt an anxiety, “Maybe this is just too weird? Too trivial? Too something or other?…I think I lost confidence in my own experiences and descriptions. I think Jennifer Egan is right that what is wrong with the book is that there isn’t enough of me.”
And I think he’s right–not in there being something wrong with the book but in realising that he, as a person and not an author, would not detract from it; and, indeed, does not detract from it.
Of course, the interview is not all so smooth, or so deliciously focused on the (often misunderstood) literary portrayl of place. There are a lot of digs at Americans that I’d almost forgotten were so fashionable for awhile, especially in the wake of President Bush’s reaction to September 11th. You do still get it, of course, but I’ve lived abroad just long enough to forget this; and obviously we’re in the midst of a few glory months for America, when people are blaming those earlier feelings on poor national leadership, and are willing to make Americans seem human again.
Interestingly, though, if you read the interview closely you’ll see that a lot of it is the interviewer leading de Botton towards a question of American filthiness, as here, when Birnbaum asks if there are “national characteristics about how people see place and the way they travel from place to place?” which is, I think, an excellent question. De Botton responds:
“I’m sure there are. I think there are a lot of similarities in one what one could generally call the western attitude to places…I’m sure there are some differences. Americans get less time to travel. They travel a lot more in their own country—their country is much more diverse.”
To which Birnbaum responds, incongruously, “Americans don’t want to meet any foreigners.”
But masterfully, de Botton manages to divert the conversation beautifully near the end to explain that place is not as fragile as those afraid of globalisation think it is.
“I think generally the world is too big a place to succumb to this fear of homogeneity,” he says, to which Birnbaum asks, “Really?”
“I mean this idea that the whole world is going to become the same,” de Botton says. “We have two fears. One fear is that everything is the same and the other is that everything is completely different. In other countries people fry their children and make terrorists all the time: the twin poles. I think neither is true, completely. What’s interesting as a European is to discover the regional quality of the United States.”
“So we shouldn’t fear the advance of McDonald’s into Paris and other places?” says (the apprently very wary) Birnbaum.
“No,” says de Botton, “these are very, very superficial differences. To take a tragic example, there was a McDonald’s in Bosnia, many branches of McDonalds. Everyone was eating hamburgers but then picked up guns and killed each other. It doesn’t mean that everyone thinks the same thing.”
“So these places are not American outposts. They become localized,” says Birnbaum, still unwiling to relent.
“Exactly. When Indian singers do take-offs of Madonna suddenly Madonna songs become Indian songs, in a way. You get these wonderful transmutations. This has always happened through out history,” says de Botton.
In terms far less eloquent (and far more outdated): word.