The journey of relationships: Alain de Botton’s newest novel tells the tale of a ‘real love story’
Man and woman meet, fall in love and later are left heartbroken at love’s departure.
Alain de Botton, a Swiss-born, British-based author, is nicknamed “Doctor Love” for his philosophical and intellectual analysis of the human heart. In his works, the emotions involved in a relationship are laid out with remarkable clarity and depth as well as wit and poignancy.
In his first novel, “Essays in Love,” written when he was 23, the narrator fell in love with Chloe on a plane from Paris to London. He told her he “marshmallowed” her, thinking that the word “love” just didn’t do it. Chloe replied that it was the sweetest thing she had ever heard.
In his latest novel, “The Course of Love,” however, there is no marshmallow-like romance. The male lead is a husband of 16 years. He and his wife worry about money and deal with periods of boredom. He has an affair and the couple goes to couples therapy.
“This will be the real love story,” De Botton says. “They’ll sometimes want to murder one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves.”
The truth is no matter how full of cliches they are, people still read love stories and dream of their own. Just like that, no matter how unromantic and mundane love can get, few of us can live without it.
Then, how should we accept love that’s become so ordinary? “The only thing that can save love is to submit it to rational analysis,” he said, adding “enough of Romanticism!”
The JoongAng Ilbo talked to De Botton about his latest novel and more. As of the second week of October, “The Course of Love” ranked at the top of the bestsellers list in the literature category, according to Yes24, one of the country’s largest online bookstores. Below are edited excerpts from that interview.
Q. Your last novel was published 21 years ago. What prompted you to write this novel? You always said you would write a novel when you could write about love again.
A. I wanted to write a novel because I feel that so much of what we believe about love comes from novels, and that most novels do not give us an accurate picture of what love is actually like. I believe that part of the reason we find modern relationships so hard is that we have been exposed to extremely unhelpful stories that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us feeling that not only are we suffering, but that our suffering has no equivalent in the lives of other more or less sane people. We break up or feel ourselves cursed in significant part because we have been exposed to the wrong stories.
In the archetypal romantic love story, the drama hinges entirely on how a couple get together, and it ends once they do. All sorts of obstacles are placed in the way of love’s birth, and the interest just lies in watching their steady overcoming. There might be misunderstandings, bad luck, prejudice, war, a rival, a fear of intimacy, or most poignantly shyness. But in the end, after tribulations, the right people eventually get into couples, and so the story must end.
But a wiser kind of love story would know that the real problem isn’t finding a partner, but it is tolerating them, and being tolerated, over time. It would appreciate that the start of relationships is not the high point that romantic culture assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent and yet quietly far more heroic journey.
What other element should better love stories have?
There’s the issue of work. In most love stories, the characters may have jobs but on the whole these have little impact on their psyches. Work goes on somewhere else. What one does for a living is not thought relevant to an understanding of love. Yet better love stories should show us that work is in fact a huge part of life, with an overwhelming role in shaping our relationships. It is the stress of work that ends up generating a sizeable share of the trouble lovers will have with each other.
Is that why you included kids in your novel?
In romantic love stories, children are incidental, sweet symbols of mutual love, or naughtiness in an endearing way. They rarely cry, take up little time and are generally wise and cute. But ideally, our love stories would show us that relationships are fundamentally oriented towards the having and raising of children - and at the same time, that children place a couple under near unbearable strains. They almost always kill the passion that made them possible. Life moves from the sublime to the quotidian. There are toys in the living room, pieces of chicken under the table, and no time to talk. Everyone is always tired. This too is love.
What else are you trying to tell people?
Our love stories are deeply unhelpful to our love lives. We have learned to judge ourselves by the hopes and expectations fostered by a misleading medium. By its standards, our own relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation or divorce so often appear to be inevitable. They shouldn’t be. We merely need to change what we watch and read, so that we regularly take in stories that normalize our many troubles and show us an intelligent, helpful path through them. That is the purpose of my new novel.
Our societies have a huge collective regard for education, but they are also oddly picky in their sense of what we can be educated in. We accept that we will need training around numbers and words, around the natural sciences and history, around aspects of culture and business. But it remains markedly strange to imagine that it might be possible - or even necessary - to be educated in our own emotional functioning, for example, that we might need to learn (rather than just know) how to love and live with someone, how to avoid sulking or how to interpret our griefs, how to choose a partner or make oneself understood by a spouse.
The task before us is therefore how we might acquire a set of emotional skills that could reliably contribute to a capacity for ‘emotional intelligence.’
Can you explain what that means?
When we say that someone is clever but add that they have made a mess of their personal lives; or that they have acquired an astonishing amount of money but are very tricky to work with, we are pointing to a deficit in what deserves to be called emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the quality that enables us to negotiate with patience, insight and temperance [to solve] the central problems in our relationships with others and with ourselves. It shows up around partnerships in a sensitivity to the moods of others, in a readiness to grasp what may be going on for them beyond the surface and to enter imaginatively into their point of view. It shows up in regard to ourselves when it comes to dealing with anger, envy, anxiety and professional confusion. And emotional intelligence is what distinguishes those who are crushed by failure from those who know how to greet the troubles of existence with a melancholy and at points darkly humorous resilience.
In Korea, the title of your book is translated as ‘The Romantic Love and Daily Life after That.’ What do you think of the translation?
The word romantic is very important in my novel. Since around 1750, we have been living in a highly distinctive era in the history of love that we can call Romanticism. Romanticism emerged as an ideology in Europe in the mid-18th century in the minds of poets, artists and philosophers, and it has now conquered the world, powerfully (yet always quietly) determining how a shopkeeper’s son in Yokohama will approach a first date, how a scriptwriter in Hollywood will shape the ending of a film, or when a middle-aged woman in Buenos Aires might decide to call it a day with her civil servant husband of twenty years.
We can at this point state boldly: Romanticism has been a disaster for our relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism. Our strongest cultural voices have - to our huge cost - set us up with the wrong expectations.
It appears in your novel childhood is a very important factor for every character. Why is that?
My novel is about two kinds of love: the love of adults for one another, and the love of parents for their children. Paradoxically, we see that it is the children who teach their parents how to love. Of course, we expect it to be the other way around: us teaching them.
As adults, we give love chiefly because of what others can do for us. Babies can do nothing at all for us. Yet we help them nevertheless. They, in turn, teach us about the truest, purest, ego-free kind of love, which is about giving affection without an expectation of receiving anything in return, but simply because someone else needs help - and we are in a position to give it.
When children are unhappy, they can’t tell us what is wrong with them. We have to guess, and what’s striking is how generous we are in our interpretation of what is going on. How helpful it would be if we were more often able to apply a similar method of interpretation around adults. How kind we would be if we could look beneath the surface behavior - the unpleasantness, viciousness and desperate grumpiness - and see that what could really be going on is just confusion, fear and exhaustion.
The divorce rate is high in Korea, but there’s a stigma attached to going to therapy. Do you think therapy will be helpful for the people who have problem in their marriage?
Yes, I am a great believer in the benefits of psychotherapy, and if we are too shy or reserved to do this, then at least the benefits of rational analysis. Our emotions are too peculiar and misleading to be trusted. The only thing that can save love is to submit it to rational analysis. Enough of Romanticism!
BY MIN KYUNG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]