You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Alain De Botton’ tag.

The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

The author is again visibly starting to amuse himself – nay, we’ll use the word – to mystify us.

So I woke up this morning feeling tired, wondering what I would read next.  Then Mr Postman arrived with a package from Canada. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a book from Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse blog. Hey, if anyone else out there wants to send me on a book, that would be just lovely.

This book features a series of parodies of different authors by Proust, describing the circumstances of a scandal that involved the famously neurotic writer himself. Henri Lemoine was a scam-artist who claimed to be able synthesize diamonds from coal. Proust himself was conned, but famously the De Beers Diamond Mines were also taken in by the scam.

For the purpose of his parody, Proust has the likes of Henri Balzac and Gustave Flaubert respond to the scandal, as well as a critical review by Sainte-Beuve of the latter’s effort published in The Constitutional. With each example chosen the parody extends beyond merely stylistic quirks of the respective authors, as the short chapters focus on different aspects of Lemoine’s deception.

I have never read À la recherche du temps perdu, having previously only come close when studying Chien de Printemps by Patrick Modiano, as well as that silly book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. As such my impression of him was that his writing was structured around endless digressions into memory and self-consciousness. The Lemoine Affair proves that I was missing the point entirely.

The authors selected by Proust are not merely chosen to display his gift for parody, but to demonstrate his insight into their importance in French culture. What if this scandal had demanded that all the bright lights of the literary world weigh in on what had happened? What if Lemoine’s trickery had led to Proust’s own suicide? In imagining this scenario he removes himself from the ranks of literary contenders vying to write the definitive account of the affair. Yes, and by association, about Proust’s own shame in being taken in by the scam. In this as in everything else, the central point of concern is Marcel Proust himself. This is interesting as Sainte-Beuve for one is known for having argued with Wilde on the point about all authors revealing their inner selves through their fiction.

Balzac in particular fairs poorly as a target of gentle ridicule. ‘His’, section of the novella concerns itself with aristocratic gossip and badinage, right up until the end, when it seems the author suddenly remembers to deliver a screed of exposition on Lemoine. Flaubert’s realism is also dismissed as mere stylistic prudery and Michelet delivers pedantry about the diamond industry itself. Again and again we see the degree to which Proust prided himself not only as a writer capable of translating his thoughts onto the page with exacting detail, but as a critic of literature itself. Failing to revenge himself upon Lemoine, he retreats to the world of writing, where he holds a stronger position.

I enjoyed this book for its insight into Proust and the taste it gave for his masterpiece. While I do not intend to plough through that sequence of novels for this site, I am looking forward to reading them soon.

Thanks again to Stacey for the lovely gift.

‘What I’m thinking is: here I am, lying under a haystack…The tiny little place I occupy is so small in relation to the rest of space where I am not and where it’s none of my business; and the amount of time which I’ll succeed in living is so insignificant by comparison with the eternity where I haven’t been and never will be…And yet in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well…What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense!’.

I like Russians. Oh sure, if you dig into the classics every character has triple-barrel names, there’s talk of serfs and agriculture the entire time (that bloody neverending chapter in Anna Karenina for one), and half the dialogue is in French. I still enjoy reading Russian novels though, both modern and classic, because they have a consistent dry sense of humour. Whether the author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Pelevin, the tone is similar, to my mind at least. That’s what surprised me the most about this tale of misunderstandings between the young and the old, the regrets that crowd the space between parents and their children. It was pretty funny, in a sort of ‘a-ha’, way.

Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a widower, an unsuccessful landowner and a proud father. The novel begins with him impatiently for his son’s return from St. Petersburg. The year is 1859. Nikolai Petrovich is an old man, given to daydreaming and poetry. He lives with his brother Pavel, always the more outgoing of the two, a handsome military officer with a one-time promising career, who threw it all away over a doomed love affair. They are both trapped by their pasts, country aristocrats with little understanding of how to manage the serfs who live on their lands.

Arkady, his son, arrives back from graduation with his charismatic friend Bazarov in tow. The two young men converse frequently about exciting new ideas. Poor Nikolai Petrovich is left behind by their discussions. Bazarov in particular disturbs the balance of the house. His manner towards all aristocrats is contemptuous and snide. He declares that all art is nonsense, only what we can determine through science is of value. Arkady is enthralled by his commanding friend, echoing his opinions on most everything. Over dinner the young men send Pavel into a rage when they announce that they are nihilists. All the old values must be swept away, society is corrupt and only proper reform will solve the problems of modern life. This ideological gulf between the two generations increases the antagonism between the four men and over time each of them finds their certainties tested.

As I have said, I was surprised at how funny this book can be. Pavel has a particularly wicked tongue and his debates with Bazarov are extremely witty – However, we are unable to understand one another. I, at least, have the honour not to understand you.’ The nihilist’s young ward in training Arkady is naieve and easily shocked by his friend’s cynicism, although he tries to hide it. Bazarov in particular is contemptuous of intellectual women. For all his talk of ‘reform’, and criticizing of old values, he is peculiarly conceited in many ways. His nihilism is an extravagantly inverted form of egotism. Only provable scientific theories are of value and as he intends to become a doctor, he reduces everything in life to biological drives, pronouncing himself an enemy of romance. Which makes it all the more amusing when he falls in love. Bewildered and angry at these strange emotions, he becomes curiously sympathetic, despite his abrasiveness. Apparently Turgenev was viciously attacked by members of both the political Left and Right for his caricature of nihilistic views. Personally I think Bazarov is a well realized character who happens to claim to be a nihilist, but is in fact simply very confused by life.

My edition of Fathers and Sons was translated by Richard Freeborn. He choice of phrasing distracted me occasionally from the flow of the novel’s language. Bazarov often says ‘mate’ in an almost contemporary fashion and the dialogue of the serfs appears to be imported from Yorkshire. Still the warmth and empathy Turgenev feels for Arkady and his father is retained.

It’s a simple tale, one that repeats itself with every generation. I enjoyed it very much.

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share