The Art of Travel - Reviews
Annete Kobak in the Times Literary Supplement, 31 May 2002
"Bad art", Alain de Botton suggests in the Art of Travel, "could be defined as a series of bad choices as to what to show and what to leave out." By this criterion, de Botton's own writing is getting to be better and better art. In his last three books, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy and now The Art of Travel, he has shed the sometimes gawky concern about "where it's at", and the fiction where the philosophy kept breaking out, like Dr Johnson's cheerfulness, to create a form of belles-lettres which is unique to him: polished, contemporary, full of wit and intelligence, helpful and above all illuminating.
All de Botton's books, fiction and non-fiction, deal with how thought and specifically philosophy might help us deal better with the challenges of quotidian life - returning philosophy to its simple, sound origins. Satellite themes are given more or less spin in each book: how to be happy, courageous, just and good; how to deal with the eddies of anxiety provoked by others' misreading of us, and by our own paralyses and confusions; how to navigate the right course between chaos and order; how to live honestly in a materialistic culture; how to be a good friend; how to open your eyes.
Because he is in spirit an artist and craftsman rather than a storyteller (as well as a kind of inspired curator of the past), this revisiting of themes isn't repetitious but enriching, like Monet's revisiting of waterlilies. The new form de Botton has forged is in tune with times: linked, finely honed essays within which voices from the past such as Socrates, Seneca, Flaubert, Proust and Nietzsche are put in a conversation with us and each other, like some online conference call. Snippets of visual information - diagrams, blurry reproductions of paintings, likenesses of his protagonists, the odd snapshot he has taken, a goldfinch here, an isosceles triangle there - have burst out of the text from the start, even in a supposed novel like The Romantic Movement. The late W.G. Sebald breaks form in a similar way in his books, with more gravitas, more personal hinterland, but less accessibility. Yet de Botton's lightness of touch and concern about the humiliations of everyday life shouldn't be read as banality, just as Montaigne shouldn't (though they were at the time). If each generation corrects for the mistakes of the previous one, perhaps the author is reinstating a concern with ethics as a guide to how to live life for a generation reacting against the ethical gap in its parents' mainstay, psychotherapy.
Sometimes the self-help manual "we" can feel a little presumptuous - "we" do not all feel alike - but, on the whole, de Botton does us the favour of presenting himself as being that much more timid than most. Stymied as he is by over-refined thought processes in the face of risk, like a calm Woody Allen, the essentially risky business of travel is a natural step in his oeuvre. As you would expect, however, his concerns do not lie with how to cut the bristles on your toothbrush, or how to tense your muscles against mosquitoes. What interests him is how the search for happiness is caught on the wing in travel, and how thoughtful study of this impulse tell us in what ways - if at all - travelling helps "human flourishing". There are many approaches he might have taken to this, including considering how much of a nomadic component is hard-wired into us, but he takes an idiosyncratic route, seeing travel through the eyes of J.K Huysmans, Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Flaubert, Wordsworth, Edmund Burke, Job, Niet