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Dhaka Tribune

Nicholas Lezard's Choice: ‘The Art of Travel' by Alain de Botton

A book review

Update : 16 Jul 2018, 01:27 PM

There exists the concept, or category, of “the writers’ writer”—that is, an author whose technique is so consummately but subtly achieved that their success cannot be measured in terms of sales, but by the appreciation and esteem of their peers. (I would propose Henry Green as the supreme example of this, but there are plenty of other candidates.)

There is, though, a negative category, which we may as well call “the writers’ unwriter.” That is, someone whose success rankles among certain practitioners. Alain de Botton could be said to be the supreme example of this. One very well-known novelist I know used, at the height of de Botton’s fame, to delight in calling him “Alain de Bum-Bum,” and another novelist, also not lacking in sales or esteem, once said to me that “Alain de Botton can’t write ‘bum’ on a wall, and if he did, he’d spell it b-o-t-t-o-n.”
That some sour grapes were involved is, I think, beyond all doubt. As Martin Amis once said, no writer likes other writers stinking up the place if they are honest with themselves, and around this time—the first decade of the 21st Century—Alain de Botton was everywhere. A philosophy school (“The School of Life”), a collaboration with architects (“Living Architecture”); and in 2009, he was appointed, for a week, as “writer in residence” at Heathrow Airport. His The Consolations of Philosophy was considered glib, simplistic; his appropriation of Proust in How Proust Can Change Your Life ditto. Also, they were bestsellers. Put simply, if you wanted to make a certain kind of novelist’s lip curl, all you had to do was mention de Botton’s name. (To add insult to injury, he comes from a very wealthy family, and some took umbrage when his books started telling people the best way, philosophically speaking, to live their lives. It was felt that he might not have experienced it quite as other people do.)
So when I saw a copy of his 2002 work, The Art of Travel, on a shelf in a house I was staying in, I thought it might be amusing to poke some fun at it. I had a dim memory of flicking through it when it came out, because it was the kind of book you’d always find on people’s shelves.
I came to mock, but went away entranced. In nine brief, conversational essays, de Botton takes us through various kinds or stages of travel: From the anticipation, to the return home, taking along the way such destinations as “On the Exotic,” “On Curiosity,” “On the Country and the City,” “On the Sublime,” etc. (I suspect that these titles are meant to make us think of Montaigne. No writer minds being compared with Montaigne—who, too, in his day, was considered glib and facile.) De Botton interleaves accounts of his travels with précis of the works of writers or artists suggested by his destination. These yokings are by no means obvious. Van Gogh and Provence is, to the point of cliché; but Amsterdam and Flaubert are not, and neither is Madrid and Alexander von Humboldt (whose explorations of South America revolutionized botany, geography, sociology, and inspired Charles Darwin).
De Botton is a traveler like the rest of us, but he notices things. We all do, too, but he notices the bits we choose to forget: The plywood booth of the immigration official; the row with his girlfriend over their desserts, and the way this colored the rest of their holiday; the way he is bored by Madrid, uninspired by its architecture. He also does not force his hand. When staying, in the Lake District, at an inn called The Mortal Man, his girlfriend quotes some rather lovely lines from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Mortality. He does not force a connection between the two, but leaves us to notice it for ourselves. And everywhere the voice is engaging, honest, and if at times he verges on the platitudinous—“Journeys are the midwives of thought” being perhaps the worst, or best, example—that does not mean he is wrong, or stating the bleeding obvious. Journeys are the midwives of thought. And it is charming, and quite clever, that the book begins and ends with instances of anti-travel: Des Esseintes' decision not to take the train to London in A rebours, as he has already eaten at an English restaurant in Paris; and Xavier de Maistre's A Voyage Round My Bedroom, which is exactly what it says it is. (And very good too, I might add).
Its conversational ease is not to be held against it; rather the opposite. If it means acquainting la personne moyenne sensuelle with writers and artists they might not have been all that knowledgeable about hitherto, then I can’t see any cause for complaint. But there is one thing I noticed, an absence which struck me only toward the end of the book: It is politics-free, to the point almost of naïveté. There is no consideration of danger, or menace, or injustice; written before the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, its chapters on the strange comforts of flying (the meals, the views), and even the book’s cover, a snapshot of the earth from an aeroplane window, seem drenched in a sunshine of innocence. Coming out so (relatively) soon after the attack, people might have shied away from it. It certainly doesn’t seem like a book that could be written now. Which is perhaps another reason I enjoyed it so much.

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.

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