Switzerland's best-selling author smiled broadly as he opened the front door of his London home.This content was published on April 15, 2002 - 18:06
Alain de Botton, 32, whose five books have been translated into more than 20 languages, exudes charm and modesty. With his British demeanour and dry wit, he shows no trace of his Swiss roots.
His high brow, literary "self-help" books have proved a winning formula, and critics have applauded the author for forging a new genre that appeals to readers ranging from housewives to academics.
His most recent book, "Consolations of Philosophy", has eclipsed his previous successes, and catapulted him to the mainstream arena.
Born in Zurich, he moved to England with his family when he was 12. But "home", for de Botton, is hard to define.
"I don't feel totally at home in England but I imagine that if I lived in Switzerland, I wouldn't feel totally at home there either," he says.
"I'm probably one of these modern people who's strung between different countries - with Swiss and English strands and whatever else mixed in - but I'm grateful for that."
"Feeling at home means to like a country completely," he continues, "and I think that's impossible, because there are always sides to a country that are troubling, whether it's the politics, or the social system or whatever - but I then I do think the Swiss forget about how efficient and reliable their country is."
The search for an ideal country is perhaps one of the motivations behind de Botton's forthcoming book, "The Art of Travel", which explores the ways we strive to find our true selves and fulfilment through our travels.
The recipe for his successful non-fiction works is to take a handful of great philosophers and writers and describe - in an entertaining and accessible manner - a few lessons that each of them could teach us. However, the author baulks at the "self-help" tag.
"Self-help is a curious word because it suggests books with pink covers called 'How to Change your Sex Life in Ten Minutes'. The idea that a book can ameliorate your life is appealing, although I'm not arrogant enough to know what others need, when I myself don't have a clue what's going on half the time!
"For me the function of art is to clear up the mess of daily life. It's a way you can clarify thoughts and experiences - and that's what I like to do ... it's like self-therapy."
Exploring human experience
The decision to become a writer came after de Botton dabbled in other creative professions, including filmmaking and architecture. "Writing was the only job I could get on with without needing to go begging for funding! But it's also so wonderfully expressive and you can do it anywhere."
Despite his books making the best-seller list, de Botton is cautious when assessing his own success to date.
"Obviously it's very nice to get readers' letters and feel that your work is recognised but, artistically, I don't feel like much of a success - I think my books have lots of problems in them," he says. "But I'm only 32 and there are plenty of books and other challenges ahead."
The author says he is anxious to write as much as possible during his lifetime, and to explore other subject matters.
"There are so many things I'd like to write about - even subjects I know nothing about. I'd like to write about children, death, politics and a history of the world," de Botton explains, adding with a broad smile that he wants to cover "all human experience".
Time is clearly of the essence for de Botton, whom one could imagine inwardly fretting at the amount of work left to do within a limited time.
"If I live an average life span, I might be able to write only another twelve books - it's not really that much," he says. "I'm very aware of time - so I get very frustrated if I'm delayed for five hours at an airport."
A tough aspect of his chosen profession is dealing with ruthless literary critics, whose inflammatory language is often out of proportion to the subject matter, says de Botton.
"Negative reviews are always very hurtful, because you always do your best as a writer and they play to all your fears, saying 'it's true, you really can't write'."
On the other hand, de Botton says he is careful not to let his current success go to his head; for instance, by avoiding going into bookshops to see his volumes on the shelves. He is also puzzled by the media attention he receives both in England and in Switzerland, where he sometimes referred to as "Dr. Love".
"It's absolutely ridiculous - can you imagine a more unsuitable candidate for Dr Love?" he laughs, glancing down at himself.
by Vanessa Mock
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