Alain de Botton’s new novel, is, I think more of a psychoanalytical and philosophical investigation into the nature of love interspersed within the story of a particular couple. For example, something which a lot of novels (but not all) have, as ways to keep the reader engaged and turning pages, is an as yet-unknown journey – a plot of some unpredictability.
Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue
de Botton ensures, right from the start that the reader knows absolutely the major staging posts of this journey. There are five major sections – and I am tempted to call them Acts, like an Elizabethan play, and each Act has several scenes within it. (or chapters). These are named, and we are thereby told what will happen in ‘The Course of Love’ : Romanticism; Ever After; Children; Adultery; Beyond Romanticism;
Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing……They teach us to give without expecting anything in return, simply because they need help badly – and we are in a position to provide it
The idea of this being a 5 act play suggested itself to me also because there is within it the idea of ‘playing a role’ – also, in classical tragedy, the chorus comments on the action and ‘de-constructs’ meaning for us, plus, there is an audience, observers, who both watch and are involved – and the role of the chorus is to take the audience out of over-involvement so that the wider picture can be seen, and happenings taken out of ‘this is an individual story’ into something more universal, with lessons for all.
Melancholy isn’t, of course, a disorder that needs to be cured. It’s a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face to face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start
Here ‘the actors’ playing their parts, and standing for the rest of us, are Rabih and Kirsten : they are both unique individuals with their own backgrounds and family histories, and ‘everyman and everywoman’. This book follows the trajectory of their lives and relationships, with the main focus being on the internal, often unconscious, emotional landscape which drives what happens externally.
Interspersed with the events of their lives, both the major and the small, daily, landscape ones, are ‘Alain de Botton’ as the observing chorus, analyst, interpreter. He breaks one of the ‘Creative Writing Skills’ ideas : that is, show, don’t tell, by deliberately doing both. Rabih and Kirsten, for example, might find themselves in an argument over something small which has suddenly come out of nowhere – which glasses should they buy for their table – the argument happens, and then the authorial voice deconstructs what underlies, in psychological terms – very much related to patterns lid down in early childhood – the strong survival instinct responses each are experiencing.
Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm
There is, for this reader, a fascination to what seems like a literary story, then analysed by a psychotherapist whose background comes from Bowlby’s attachment theory – the primary relationship, which affects all others, is that which the infant and then the small child has with their caregivers. De Botton, the ‘author’ of these explained sections takes us ‘inside the feelings’ of his characters – but, from the outside. We, as indeed they, are invited to understand themselves – and each other
If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun
I can quite clearly see that if what the reader is after is a more unpredictable story line, if what the reader wants is to submerge empathically with Rabih, Kirsten or both, de Botton’s simultaneous pull-you-in, pull-you-out-and-now-think-about-the-trajectories-of-your-own-relationships might annoy, but, for myself, I found it a wonderful piece of writing, even if I’m not quite certain what to call it.
I was underlining here, there and everywhere (mainly in the ‘authorial/analysis of subtext sections)
This was provided as a review copy, from the publishers, via NetGalley
Yeah, see, I just must be missing the gene! That liitle baby’s face does not make me want to say “Awww” and pick it up and kiss it all better. No, indeed – it makes me want to have a nice cup of hot chocolate, preferably with an adorable cat on my knee, meditating on how good it is to be childless… I wonder what on earth de Botton would make of that reaction! 😉
Lady Fancifull said:
I suspect you are strongly programmed to respond to fur. Maybe if the baby had a kitten on his head?
I read The Course of Love a few weeks ago. As you note, I was initially uncertain about how I would find the story vs. the authorial commentary, but I quickly became engrossed. I think I switched from seeing the book as a story with commentary, to seeing it as a perceptive meditation with accompanying narrative examples. I very much enjoyed the journey.
Lady Fancifull said:
The book is like one of those optical illusion pictures – the one which can be seen as a young girl or an old lady, depending on the shapes your eyes perceive. A great read, I think, whichever way it is perceived. I loved its inherent kindness and tenderness for our human suffering, and the lack of ‘taking sides’ against his central characters. I like the realistic acceptance of the fact that ‘suffering’ is part of the fabric, and that working WITH it is the optimistic path, whilst to deny it is illusory and more likely to enhance despair
I do agree with you. Alain de Botton expresses such a generous view of humans and the human condition. While he gently points out how we all undermine ourselves and each other, and the ways in which we could listen and express ourselves more fully – he does this with an acceptance and understanding that much of the time we don’t or won’t or can’t do this.
I agree, it is a fabulous piece of writing. Eventually I stopped reading it as a work of fiction, but rather as a case study/notes by a psychoanalyst. Either way, it was perceptive and enjoyable
Lady Fancifull said:
It’s fascinating, the number of different ways this book can be read – and i think equally with validity, equally successfully achieved, by de Botton. I shall definitely read more of his writing
Sounds like a successful experiment. I find de Botton an engaging and witty writer, and compassionate too, so I’d be interested to read this. I’m with FF on the baby’s face though!