De Botton returns to a different Switzerland


Bestselling author Alain de Botton has returned to his native Switzerland to receive the 2003 Charles Veillon European Essay Prize for his most recent book, “The Art of Travel”.

This content was published on December 14, 2003 - 12:35

The Zurich-born writer, who lives in London, received the award on Saturday for his exploration of the meaning of travel.

The “Art of Travel” - which has sold over 400,000 copies worldwide since its publication last year – is the author’s seventh book.

Earlier works include “The Consolations of Philosophy” – a look at the wisdom of philosophers - and several novels. His new book, “Status Anxiety”, is due out next year.

Despite a punishing publishing schedule, de Botton still finds the time to take a keen interest in Swiss affairs – which he sometimes finds unsettling.

He spoke to swissinfo about writing, success and Switzerland’s place in the world.

swissinfo: Are you surprised by the success of “The Art of Travel”?

Alain de Botton: Yes, because one never expects success. You always hope for it, but prepare for the worst. I thought this book would be particularly unsuccessful because it’s looking at an aspect of our lives that isn’t necessarily considered as serious or important.

Plus it’s an essay, it’s quite digressive, slightly meditative and melancholic. So I was very surprised that what seemed to be a personal preoccupation struck a chord with so many people.

swissinfo: Earlier this year, you made the World Economic Forum’s list of 100 most influential people. How do feel about that?

A.d.B: As a child, you always think that people at the very top of society know exactly what they’re doing and have their good reasons for doing it. But as you grow older, you realise that that’s less and less true. And you realise you may have as many ideas about how the world is going as the head of some company. Which isn’t to say ‘I’m great’, but more ‘none of us really has a clue about what’s going on’.

There’s a certain amount of liberation in that idea because it opens up the possibility for dialogue: just because someone is powerful doesn’t mean there’s no room for changing things. Society seems more flexible.

swissinfo: It’s been quite an eventful year for Switzerland politically – do you keep a close eye on developments back home?

A.d.B: I guess like many Swiss I’m sometimes a bit perturbed by some developments in Swiss national life.

If we take a step back, Switzerland is having to adjust to the pressures of European changes, globalisation and so on. It’s got a terrifically proud, independent history. It’s searching for a way of holding on to the good things and keeping at bay the bad, which is a fine project. But it can throw up some unsavoury answers.

And obviously the knee-jerk answers are to throw up the barriers, to stay out of international organisations and so on. Like many Swiss, I don’t think that’s the answer - though I can sympathise with those who think it might be.

I think the best of Switzerland has always been global and outward looking and many Swiss function best when they are operating on a world stage. To me, Switzerland has always been dogged by its insularity.

It’s unfortunate this has become associated with Switzerland’s greatness – I don’t think Switzerland’s greatness ever lay in its insularity.

swissinfo: In Wednesday's cabinet elections, a second seat was given to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. What was your reaction to the news?

A.d.B: Fundamentally, I don't believe that Blocher's victory presents much of a problem - for two reasons. Firstly, because the most extreme of his policies won't survive the transition into government. And secondly, because the direction of European politics is stronger than one man, and this direction is pointing towards greater integration.

The great thing about electing people who seem a bit scary is that it immediately forces them to move towards the Centre and puts their ideas to the test. So the best thing you can do with a party that stands outside and criticises is to bring them in.

Ten years from now, Blocher's victory will seem like a last-ditch attempt to stave off certain inevitable developments in Swiss national life - and hopefully, a prelude to a Swiss national revival based not on shutting doors, but on opening them wide.

swissinfo: What do you make of Switzerland’s activities on the international stage, such as its support for an alternative Middle East peace plan?

A.d.B: This is precisely the kind of thing that Switzerland should be doing. I think it’s the role of small, prosperous countries with highly educated workforces to put their brain power and diplomatic skills to this kind of use.

I was enormously cheered by Switzerland’s role in the peace plan - that’s exactly what it should be doing.

swissinfo-interview: Vanessa Mock

In brief

Alain de Botton was born in Zurich in 1969 and grew up in Switzerland and England.

He has written seven books. His first novel, "Essays in Love", was published in November 1993.

In February 2003, de Botton was made a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Art et des Lettres, one of France's highest artistic honours.

De Botton’s books are published in twenty languages. He is married and lives in London.

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