"In Bed" with Alain de Botton

February, 2010

Alain de Botton
When it comes to love and books, who better to get "In Bed" with than Goodreads author Alain de Botton? No nuance of human nature is too small or insignificant for Botton's subtle, probing analysis. The Swiss philosopher-writer links Proust, Socrates, and Nietzsche with modern love, jet travel, and status anxiety.

His latest endeavor, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, explores how work can either be soul-destroying or life-affirming. For February, Botton recommends five books that "seem particularly apt for understanding, appreciating and surviving love."


"Love Books" by Alain de Botton

Heartache may be bad for the soul, but it's great for bookshops. It's when we are at our lowest romantic ebb that we are likely to do the bulk of our life's reading. Adolescents who can't get a date are in a uniquely privileged position: They will have the perfect chance to get grounding in world literature. There is perhaps an important connection between love and reading, there is perhaps a comparable pleasure offered by both.

A feeling of connection may be at the root of it. There are books that speak to us, no less eloquently—but more reliably—than our lovers. They prevent the morose suspicion that we do not fully belong to the human species, that we lie beyond comprehension. Our embarrassments, our sulks, our feelings of guilt, these phenomena may be conveyed on a page in a way that affords us with a sense self-recognition. The author has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a few moments, we are like two lovers on an early dinner date thrilled to discover how much they share (and unable to touch much of the seafood linguine in front of them, so busy are they fathoming the eyes opposite), we may place the book down for a second and stare at its spine with a wry smile, as if to say, "How lucky I ran into you."

It explains why literature is such a consolation when love has failed. Here are five books that seem particularly apt for understanding, appreciating, and surviving love.

Unrequited Love: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One of the finest novels I have known for unrequited love is Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Our hero Werther is an intellectual, sensitive young man living in a small German town. He is also in love with a young woman called Lotte, understandably so, because she's not only devastatingly beautiful—in a natural, no make-up sort of way—but also has a great sense of humour, sharp intelligence, and good taste in clothes. But unfortunately for Werther, Lotte happens to be married to Albert, a decent, sensible chap who makes her very happy. Lotte does her best not to lead Werther on; she emphasises what good friends they are, but Werther's passion is too strong for him to do anything other than hope she'll toss Albert aside for him. When, after much pain and a few clumsy lunges, he eventually realises this isn't on the cards, he buys a pistol and kills himself—a cautionary tale for intellectual, sensitive young men.

When I first read of Werther's plight, I was at university, twenty-one and, of course, Werther. Lotte was Claire (she lived down the corridor, studied microbiology and had shoulder-length chestnut hair in a centre parting) and Albert was Robin, an economist whom she'd been seeing for three years—testimony, if one needs it, of the miraculous ability of novels to mould themselves around, and illuminate, our own lives.

Werther's appeal to me lay partly in his impossibly earnest relation to his own passion. The young German is devoid of all sense of perspective, irony, and naturally enough, humour. "Without doubt, the only thing that makes man's life on earth essential and necessary is love," he solemnly declares, on returning from a chat with Lotte, before bursting into hot tears. His diary is filled with entries like: "She is sacred to me. All my desires are stilled in her presence. I never know what I am about when I am with her; it is as if my very soul were throbbing in every nerve"—which is consoling to read, when your own diary is in danger of sliding that way and everyone else thinks your crush is a joke.

Werther is a universal figure, in exaggerated form, he is an archetypal emotional possibility. Which is why his story is so consoling to read for anyone with a trace of Werther-ishness within.

Love Lost: The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave might have been well-known in British literary life twenty-five years ago, but no one under the age of 35 seems to have heard of it. It's usually out of print, and is often compared unfavourably with Connolly's far-better-known Enemies of Promise. The accusation most often levelled at it is that it is a work of self-indulgence—an accusation that fails to distinguish between talking a lot about yourself (which can be very entertaining) and being self-centred (which never is). Connolly did a lot of the former, but was not the latter.

The book is a seductive mixture of diary, commonplace book, essay, travelogue, and memoir—arranged in loose paragraphs, in which Connolly gives us his views on women, religion, death, seduction, infatuation, and literature. The book was written in the wake of the collapse of Connolly's marriage (his wife ran off with the publisher, George Weidenfeld) and it is the perfect read for anyone who has been left.

The thoughts are wise, dark, and beautifully modelled, with the balance of the best French aphorisms. Here are some examples from Connolly: "There is no fury like an ex-wife searching for a new lover," "No one over thirty-five is worth meeting who has not something to teach us—something more than we could learn from ourselves, from a book."

The charm of the work lies in the narrator's mischievous, melancholy tone as he shifts between the sublime and the banal: "To sit late in a restaurant (especially when one has to pay the bill) is particularly conducive to angst, which does not affect us after snacks taken in an armchair with a book. Angst is an awareness of the waste of our time and ability, such as may be witnessed among people kept waiting by a hairdresser."

Beyond Love: Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld

Another great book for people who want to survive rather than enjoy love. For a long time now, philosophers have liked to remind us that our apparently selfless and altruistic behaviour is not quite as pure as we might think. When we go on an Alpine walk and remark how sweet the cows look, we aren't displaying a touching enthusiasm for animals, in Friedrich Nietzsche's analysis, we are expressing our triumph over the defeat of another animal species. When we worry that a friend who is late might have been killed in a car crash, we aren't really concerned for their road safety, for Sigmund Freud we are avenging ourselves for being delayed by entertaining murderous fantasies.

Though we might believe that this kind of cynicism about human nature is modern, it really has its origins in a slim 17th century volume that Voltaire said was the book that had most powerfully shaped the character of the French people, giving them a taste for psychological reflection and precision: La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. Behind almost every one of these maxims, there lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves, particularly of ourselves as romantic lovers. La Rochefoucauld repeatedly reveals the debt that nice behaviour owes to its evil shadow. He shows that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish, and petty—and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness.

For example, we might believe that we're kind to be concerned about the worries of our friends. Nothing of the sort, mocks La Rochefoucauld, writing a century before the Germans had even thought up the notion of Schadenfreude: 'Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d'autrui.' (We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.) The real challenge, he might have added, is to find enough strength to endure others when they have the temerity to succeed.

La Rochefoucauld was writing in order to hold up a mirror to his own age, but unwittingly, he speaks for others down the centuries, and perhaps never more clearly than to our own time, because what La Rochefoucauld hates above all is sentimentality, and there are perhaps few more sentimental periods than our own. That's why the maxim of his that is most quoted concerns romantic love. It seems almost designed to shock us away from our taste in emotional melodrama, Hollywood films and saccharine pop music: Il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais ete amoureux s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour. (Some people would never have fallen in love if they hadn't heard there was such a thing.)

La Rochefoucauld is modern in another way: He recognises the importance of writing his truths in a way that will help them to stick in the mind, in beautifully balanced phrases. If most philosophers feel no need to write like this, it is because they trust that, so long as an argument is logical, the style in which it is presented to the reader will not determine its effectiveness. La Rochefoucauld believed in a different picture of the mind. Arguments are like eels: However logical, they may slip from the mind's weak grasp unless fixed there by beautiful sentences.

The fact that his maxims continue to surprise us and shock us means that we do not accept—on a daily basis—the wisdom they contain. We keep thinking that we are better than we are. It's La Rochefoucauld's achievement to remind us of our difficult reality in a way that leaves us curiously satisfied. To read him is like sucking the juice from the bitterest lime, and enjoying it.

Love as Inspiration: A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

I wouldn't have become the writer I am if I hadn't, in my early 20s, discovered the work of the French academic and essayist Roland Barthes. At university, I felt a confused longing to write, but couldn't imagine what sort of writer to be—nothing I'd yet come across seemed to provide the model that could offer me the courage to begin. I wasn't interested enough in novels, I couldn't tell 'a story', but the nonfiction I knew either had an off-puttingly impersonal, staid quality or else, in the case of memoirs, lacked the intellectual backbone I needed.

Then I discovered a Frenchman who showed me a new way of writing nonfiction. Roland Barthes spent much of his career writing about the most ordinary things: washing powder, the Eiffel Tower, falling in love, short- and long-hemmed skirts, photographs of his mother. And yet he brought a classical education and a philosophical mind to bear on these subjects. He knew how to connect Racine and beach holidays, Freud and the anticipation of a lover's phone call. His work rejected the division between the high and the low, like so many modern artists (Joyce and Beckett, Duchamp and Joseph Cornell), he could see the deeper themes running through supposedly banal things.

Like many modern artists too, he was an innovator at the level of form. His books have pictures in them. He played around with different fonts. He wrote an entire book, S/Z, on a single Balzac short story, analysing every line in playfully manic, encyclopaedic detail. At the same time, his writing has a classical sense of poise and restraint. He looked back to the tradition of the French 'moralistes' (I'd never heard of them before Barthes), people like La Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, La Bruyere, and Chamfort.

Barthes's next-to-last book, A Lover's Discourse, helped me shape my first book, On Love. The debt wasn't at the level of ideas; it was a question of style and approach. I loved his forensic analysis of every emotion and his ability to combine heart and head.

The Biography of Love: The Life of Henry Brulard by Stendhal

In the English-speaking world, Stendhal's fame as a writer rests on his two great novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. But his novels form only a small part of his prodigious output; he was also a writer of nonfiction; an art historian, a musicologist, journalist, biographer, and diarist. Unfortunately, these works have fallen into relative neglect and are not generally in print in English translation. They have immense charm, deriving largely from Stendhal's personality. Holden Caulfield's definition of good writers as people who give one an urge to call them up for a chat certainly holds true for Stendhal. He seems like an ideal companion, never more so than in his great unfinished memoir, The Life of Henry Brulard, which is the finest romantic biography ever written.

The title is rather puzzling, and in line with Stendhal's habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. His real name was Henri Beyle, and he chose Brulard both because it was a surname in his mother's family, and he had a legendary hatred for his father (a small-minded reactionary who had never shown affection for him as a child). As for the anglicised Henry, it reflected Stendhal's fondness for England.

The book is no ordinary memoir. Stendhal keeps interrupting his story to tell us what he's doing in the present: when he goes to open a window or to a dinner party between paragraphs. "In truth, I've never been ambitious, but in 1811, I did for a time think myself ambitious," he writes, then adds, "I stopped here on the 24th of November, at half past five in the afternoon."

The most distinctive feature of Stendhal's prose style is an excessive, almost manic, precision, particularly when handling emotional material. Lytton Strachey remarked that Stendhal's trademark as a writer lay in his ability to combine "the emotionalism of a schoolgirl with the cold penetration of a judge on the bench." For instance, in an early chapter of the memoir, Stendhal lists in the driest possible way all the women he has loved. "I am trying to destroy the charm of events by considering them in a military way," he tells us, "It's the only way to get to the truth about things which I wouldn't be able to discuss with anyone... I have been insanely in love with Mme Kubly, Mlle de Griesheim, Mme de Diphotz, Methilde, and I never managed to possess them, and many of these love affairs last three or four years... Despite the suffering they caused me, they have at least left me with memories that have a sort of charm (in some cases, even after twenty four years, like the memory of Madonna del Monte, in 1811)."

Stendhal's life was immensely painful: He was deeply romantic and a terrible seducer. He tells us he was nervous in the company of women he loved; he would offend them and prove gauche and repulsive. He notes this without a trace of self-pity, simply with that cold legalistic penetration Strachey talks about and which makes his memoirs very moving.

Continuing with the legal theme, Stendhal loves lists: He lists exactly who his friends were when he was ten; all his favourite books at various ages, the twenty-five landscapes that have most affected him. He also likes to draw. The Life of Henry Brulard is full of diagrams, maps, and architectural plans. One of my favourites is a sketch of a bridge near his home in Grenoble, designed to show us the exact place (marked A) where as a boy he caught sight of a little bit of skin above his aunt's left knee - which excited him sexually for the first time.

Stendhal is the perfect friend for those who can appreciate a man who describes himself thus: "My normal state has been that of an unhappy lover, who loves music and painting deeply. Daydreaming is what I like to do best of all."

17 likes · like


Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by Blake (new)

Blake More I finished reading one of Alain´s books a few weeks ago and wrote to him saying how wonderful I thought it was, and I'll be damned, he answered me. I read all of what he wrote here on Goodreads. His mind is smart and seductive. His style is attractive. I intend to read all of his work.


message 2: by Astrid (new)

Astrid Natasastra I agree... Alain's writing is surely addicting! Just a few pages of The Consolation of Philosophy got me completely hooked and got me ordered all of his books! His views on daily philosophy is fresh and eye opener, without being dictating, like the modern era of Tolstoy =)


message 3: by Erika (new)

Erika Blake wrote: "I finished reading one of Alain´s books a few weeks ago and wrote to him saying how wonderful I thought it was, and I'll be damned, he answered me. I read all of what he wrote here on Goodreads. Hi..."

Amazing! I, too, love his writing. Clear, concise, simple, and direct, yet it still promotes independent thought and exploration. His writings on the concept of success are really something.


message 4: by N.P. (new)

N.P. v cool


back to top

Good Minds Suggest
Goodreads Voice