In the fifth chapter of The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton goes on a trip to the Lake District. He takes his girlfriend, ‘M’, and a paperback copy of The Prelude. Applying his talent for summary to the latter, he explains that it prescribes ‘regular travel through nature’ as ‘a necessary antidote to the evils of the city’. Not being the sort to take a poet at his word, de Botton sets out to test Wordsworth’s ‘suggestion’. With ‘M’ in tow, he goes for a long walk.
Nature turns out to contain oaks ‘of noble bearing’ and fields ‘so appetising to sheep as to have been eaten down to a perfect lawn’. It even offers some ‘suggestions’ of its own. Oaks, for example, are ‘an image of patience’, ‘showing no ill-temper in a storm’ and ‘no desire to wander from their spot’. So it’s hardly surprising that ‘Wordsworth enjoyed sitting beneath oaks.’ Later on, the landscape provokes a more philosophical line of inquiry: ‘Why am I me and she she?’ ‘She’, in this case, is a sheep, and further encounters with animals prove Wordsworth triumphantly right: ‘If we are pained by the values of the age or of the elite, it can be a source of relief to come upon reminders of the diversity of life on the planet, to hold in mind that, alongside the business of the great people of the land, there are also pipits tseeping in meadows.’ True, the palliative effects of tseeping might not last very long, but Wordsworth is on hand with a solution. Wordsworth recommends the gathering of ‘spots of time’ – and so, as if on cue:
I too was granted a ‘spot of time’ . . . M and I were sitting on a bench near Ambleside eating chocolate bars. We had exchanged a few words about the chocolate bars we preferred. M said she liked caramel-filled ones, I expressed a greater interest in dry biscuity ones, then we fell silent and I looked out across a field to a clump of trees by a stream . . . These trees gave off an impression of astonishing health and exuberance. They seemed not to care that the world was old and often sad. I was tempted to bury my face in them so as to be restored by their smell.
Whether the trees were unusually small or his face unusually large, de Botton doesn’t explain. Either way, they have the desired effect. Some time later, caught in traffic and ‘oppressed by cares’, he returns in thought to the scene (or it returns to him): ‘the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence . . . and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.’ As a parting shot, he quotes a few lines from ‘Daffodils’ and enjoins us to bear them in mind.
So ends Chapter 5 of The Art of Travel. There are four more still to come and, by now, the reader might be wondering how de Botton reconciles his gratitude to the trees with the acreage felled to print this stuff. But acreage is the point. In every chapter, de Botton extracts as much verbiage as possible from such ‘profound and suggestive’ insights as ‘it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ – or, as he puts it, ‘the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.’ What counts is staying power, and this he has in spades. A.P. Herbert, the Punch contributor chosen by Ian Hamilton to represent the ‘something-about-next-to-nothing school’ in the Penguin Book of 20th-Century Essays, could just about manage three pages on bathrooms. De Botton sustains his thoughts ‘On the Country and the City’ for an astonishing 25 – although, to be fair, Herbert doesn’t have the advantage of large print.
De Botton achieves this bulk with ruthless application and many ingenious devices. Some of these – like filling a fifth of the book with pictures – may strike purists as cheating. But couching each chapter as a literary essay is definitely a good idea, since quotation, especially of poetry, takes up a lot of space. So do capsule biography and paraphrase; de Botton generates almost four pages by rearranging sentences from Robert Baldick’s translation of A rebours. And when all else fails, the literary pose gives licence to cod-Proustian long-windedness, replete with ‘it is perhaps’, ‘that which’ and the bogus ‘precisely’. Here, for example, is how he expresses the notion that things look small from a plane: ‘We may know this old lesson in perspective well enough, but rarely does it seem as true as when we are pressed against a cold plane window, our craft a teacher of profound philosophy – and a faithful disciple of the Baudelairean command: “Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!/Take me far, far away! Here the mud is made of our tears!”’
When he writes about books, though, de Botton’s page-count often falls victim to his abilities as a summariser. These have grown steadily more acute. How Proust Can Change Your Life, his first big seller, runs to just over 200 pages. The Consolations of Philosophy, which deals with Seneca, Socrates, Montaigne, Epicurus, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, only stretches to about 250. The Art of Travel – 261 pp., including pictures and acknowledgments – is even more concise, discussing as it does Huysmans, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Xavier de Maistre, Alexander von Humboldt, Ruskin, Burke, Wordsworth, van Gogh, Edward Hopper and the Book of Job. Of course, when de Botton dissects the writings of, say, Schopenhauer, he’s only interested in the ‘consoling and practical’ bits, which obviously means leaving quite a few things out. And since quibbles about ‘exactly what Epicurus said’ or ‘precisely what Keats meant . . . might ultimately be quite dull or mistaken’, these can safely be left in the hands of dusty pedants – especially now that ‘most letters have been catalogued, most texts deciphered, most lives written up conclusively.’ Still, a writer capable of reducing Flaubert’s Egyptian travel notes and Dictionary of Received Ideas to ‘an invitation to deepen and respect our attraction to certain countries’ is clearly going to have trouble finding enough material in books alone.
De Botton solves this problem by writing about himself. He does so with studied whimsy, keen to show that even he – the master of thought – is a regular guy. It’s true that sometimes he does seem rather grand, the sort of fellow who ‘resolves’ rather than ‘decides’ and ‘travels’ rather than ‘goes’; at one point he even alights from a ‘craft’ which, when you scan the surrounding evidence, turns out to be what others might call a ‘car’. But he has a nice line in bathos too, and some of his humorous effects – ‘We talked about the colonial system and the curious ineffectiveness of even the most powerful sunblocks’ – are almost certainly deliberate. Most of the time, though, de Botton seems largely concerned with conforming to the stereotype of the neurasthenic intellectual. And life, we sense, is hard for this pitiful figure, forever confounded by what he calls ‘the distracting woolliness of the present’. He complains of dizziness, sore throats and pressure across the temples; further anxieties accumulate ‘like the weather fronts that mass themselves every few days off the western coast of Ireland’. Cleaning staff intimidate him. In Madrid he’s too shy to enter a restaurant, and in Barbados he worries about the price of lunch. Leaving a ‘gathering’ in London he feels ‘envious and worried’; he imagines that in summer he might ‘feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom’, but knows that this is probably an illusion.
Most of his problems derive from the pains of love. He seems to have trouble with his girlfriends, perhaps because they’re usually called things like ‘M’. (Woody Allen: ‘Should I marry W? Not if she won’t tell me the other letters in her name.’) His ideal woman would be ‘a reincarnation of Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna’ with ‘a dry sense of humour and spontaneity’, with whom he would like to lie in bed ‘chatting about existence’ and ‘occasionally teasing’. Most of the time she seems very far away. In The Consolations of Philosophy there’s a heartbreaking episode in which he chats up a girl on a train. When she spurns his advances after their only date, our hero, ‘beset by melancholy’, repairs to Battersea Park with ‘a paperback edition of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in Leipzig in 1774’. All seems flat and meaningless. A little girl points at a plane and says: ‘Daddy, is God in there?’ Daddy doesn’t know. Eventually, de Botton is consoled by thoughts of Schopenhauer. When suffering from impotence, he turns to Montaigne.
Puddings and sweet things in general are his other consolation. In Amsterdam he sees some bricks which remind him of ‘halva from a Lebanese delicatessen’; he feels an urge to kiss them. In Barbados some crèmes caramel provoke a serious row with ‘M’, whom de Botton accuses of stealing the shapelier portion. This arouses ‘mutual terrors of incompatibility and infidelity’ which even spoil his enjoyment of the beach: ‘there was no pleasure for me in such beauty. I had enjoyed nothing aesthetic or material since the struggle over the crèmes caramel several hours before.’ Poor Alain! The most important of his confectionery-related insights, however, revolve around chocolate. In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton revealed that he had the inspiration to write the book while trying to buy ‘a glass of a certain variety of American chocolate milk of which I was at that time extremely fond’. In tribute, he inserts a photo of a carton of Nesquik. His meditative trip to a service station in The Art of Travel is chocolate-fuelled, as are his walks in Madrid and, of course, his vision of trees in the Lake District. In Provence he wolfs down ‘three pains au chocolat in guilty, rapid succession’ before launching into a disquisition on van Gogh. He needs the sugar rush – and so, presumably, do the people who buy his books.
Perhaps it’s unfair to make fun of de Botton’s effusions. They’re not meant to be taken that seriously, after all, and a few of his readers might be tempted to pick up the works of Proust or Xavier de Maistre. Why shoot fish in a barrel – especially when they’re not doing anyone any harm? At the same time, though, there’s something rather chilling about the gulf between what de Botton has to say and the way he goes about saying it. Does a sequence of platitudes really need all that padding? This is how de Botton once put the idea that convoluted language doesn’t necessarily imply deep thought:
It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it . . . Yet the association between difficulty and profundity might less generously be described as a manifestation in the literary sphere of a perversity familiar from emotional life, where people who are mysterious and elusive can inspire a respect in modest minds that reliable and clear ones do not.
‘Such prose masks an absence of content,’ he remarks a few pages later, offering ‘unparalleled protection against having nothing to say’.