Elena Lappin in Tages Anzeiger (Zurich), May 2000
If you look up Alain de Botton’s internet website (www.alaindebotton.com), you could be forgiven for thinking that his impressive gallery of photographs is a little on the boastful side. He looks like a young man who beams rather than smiles shyly at the camera, genuinely pleased that it may capture and faithfully reproduce his happiness. He looks, in fact, like someone who has absolutely no right to write a book entitled “The Consolations of Philosophy”: what, exactly, does this very young writer want to be consoled for? Aside from hair, he seems to have everything: international success, good looks, youth, charm, intelligence, money, and he’s not even married; yet he seeks solace from philosophers, “to console him in his grief.” And, as we talk at de Botton’s home in London, I get a sense of the depth of his sadness, which is poorly concealed by his permanent smile and warm manner.
Did I say home? This house is full of boxes, for Alain is actually packing and moving elsewhere. He has also just arrived from a long tour in America, and is about to embark on another, of Switzerland and Germany. A few hours after our meeting, he will write to me in an email: “I bear the dubious title of being Switzerland’s most commercially successful living writer - though most literary Swiss would be very surprised to hear that, probably imagining that I’m French or English!” Most British readers, I might add, would be very puzzled to hear that he is Swiss. And readers anywhere might be astonished to know that he is Jewish. His father, who died this year, was an Egyptian Jew from Alexandria; his mother, also Jewish, is from St Gallen in Switzerland. Alain himself was born in Zurich, and spent the first 12 years of his life there - if you don’t count the English boarding school he had been sent to from the age of eight.
And here it is, that first - and as I’m to discover, permanent - source of Alain’s grief: that early exile from his idyllic, free childhood in Zurich’s Bergstrasse where, he says, “my sister and I wandered about everywhere on our bikes.” But suddenly, there was a violent change and he found himself in a strict boys’ boarding school in Oxford, where he was now the strange outsider, a shy small boy who spoke with an accent and didn’t like anything the local boys were obsessed with: “I hated football, and any sports. I was teased and bullied. People who get bullied at school are often very stoic, they don’t show their pain.”
Not even to his parents? “I was quite intimidated by my parents. I wasn’t going to question their judgement. Their decision to send me to that school just seemed like an act of God.”
It so happens that I met Alain’s father, Gilbert de Botton, a few years ago, and liked him enormously. He was an unusual, extremely charismatic man. We were sitting next to each other at a formal dinner - I think it was a fundraising occasion and, like many other wealthy guests (people like me had been invited only to provide some comic relief!) he was probably expected to contribute a donation to some worthy cause. We talked about schools in England and I said I was against private schools in general, and boarding schools in particular. He was very interested in this topic and said that he had once believed they were the best possible form of education in the world, but that he now thinks he may have been wrong. He had looked sad as he said this. Now I knew why.
Alain’s father was a phenomenally successful financier, but his origins, in Egypt, had been very poor. He was the only child of