I was once so impressed and heartened by a small piece of Alain de Botton's writing, in which John Ruskin and Goethe were invoked to help him weather a breakup, that I clipped it and tucked it into my desk drawer for a rainy day. What worked so refreshingly well was the juxtaposing of the lonely and drab details of an acute personal crisis with an epiphany Ruskin had while taking shelter from a thunderstorm in the woods. Here was literature removed from the bookshelf and the grips of academic theory and applied explicitly practically and immediately, like an ointment, to improve our experience of life.
Although the novelty has since worn off some, this particular bibliotherapeutical trick has carried de Botton through a number of literary self-help guides, including most recently The Art of Travel, in which we find the author on a mini world tour armed with volumes of nineteenth century literature to ward off whatever demons may attack his despairing traveler's soul.
We begin in Barbados or, more specifically, in the London travel agency where de Botton is lured into purchasing his vacation by a brochure containing enticing photographs of the island's beaches and palm trees. But the anticipation he feels in Britain only sets up his disappointment when Barbados fails to match the idealized vision the brochure prepared him for. His senses, he writes, are immediately assaulted by the distinctly unexotic rubber luggage conveyer belt in the airport, by the billboard advertisements for rum, by the giant air conditioner in his formica tiled hotel room. After an absurdly prolonged fight with his girlfriend in a touristy restaurant over who gets the better crFme caramel we are depressed enough with his holiday to welcome the introduction of J.ūK. Huysmans and a hero he dreamed up in one of his novels in 1884, the Duc des Esseinte, who, after some experimenting with travel finds that it's better to just stay home and imagine the place than to go there and be disturbed to the core by the dissonance between expectation and reality.
While resistant to Esseintes's cynicism, de Botton takes comfort in his company. "I travelled in spite of des Esseintes. And yet there were times when I too felt there might be no finer journeys than those provoked in the imagination by staying at home slowly turning the Bible-paper pages of the British Airways Worldwide Timetable."
This is generally emblematic of how The Art of Travel progresses. De Botton travels; he discovers some new aspect of gloom; he is bailed out by a well selected item of literature that either makes him feel less alone or shows him the way. As is usual with de Botton, his writing is concerned and earnest, a clever fusion of diary-speak and academic engagement. His persona is naked and frank and without irony, so that his many, often petty, crises are endearing rather than annoying. (The absence of irony is not always a good thing. Witness the crFme caramel caper in which he and his girlfriend "M" sulk for an entire evening after one of them gets a better dessert than the other. I'm not so sure that it's J.ūK. Huysmans that's needed here and not two sets of pacifiers.)
So de Botton is a prissy depressivełwe like him anyway. His erudition, sober tone, and the patience with which he reads himself out of trouble, are charming. But the problem is that the sour presence of his character often saps some of the strength out of his central thesis: that the mediation of place through art and literature deepens and sustains our appreciation of travel. Because despite de Botton's eloquent persuasion, we're never quite convinced he's enjoying himself wherever he goes (Barbados, the Lake District, Amsterdam , Madrid, Provence, and the Sinai desert). Sitting in his hotel room or in the seat of his car, taking hasty notes on Pascal, frequently miserable, he despairs to be away and then despairs to return. He is as unlikely a person to pen a travel book as I can imagine.
While the ideas de Botton introduces are wonderful and practical and frequently inspiringłthe chapter in which he advocates Ruskin's prescription of sketching as a better means of possessing beauty than photography had me defacing a blank page in The Art of Travel with an attempt to capture the homeliness of my favourite mugłsometimes his inability to feel contact with the world except when filtered through literature leaves me a little cold. It all reminds me of the trope in poetry in which the poet, despite all his learning and heightened powers of observation, feels strangely separate from nature, unable to connect. (Think Purdy's "Agawa Canyon" or Layton's "Berry Picking".) To be fair, he does once run his hand along crumbling bricks in a wall in Holland and has the "impulse to kiss them, to feel more closely a texture that reminded me of blocks of pumice or halva" but there is too little of this spontaneous wonder. De Botton's style of burying his nose in a book for ideas yields interesting results, but it also closes the windows to the world a little too often.
The addition of something riskier, more immersive, is needed to warrant a true art of travel. You might say he'd be an excellent companion on the trail through the forestłall talk, elaboration and analysis. But you'd have to leave him behind if you wanted to dart off into the brush to smell the flowers. ņ