Essays in Love is a stunningly original love story. Taking in Aristotle, Wittgenstein, history, religion and Groucho Marx, Alain de Botton charts the progress of a love affair from the first kiss to argument and reconciliation, from intimacy and tenderness to the onset of anxiety and heartbreak.
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Alain de Botton has published five non-fiction books: The Architecture of Happiness, Status Anxiety, The Art of Travel, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and The Consolations of Philosophy, three of which were made into TV documentaries. He has also published three novels: Essays in Love, The Romantic Movement, and Kiss and Tell. In February 2003, de Botton was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, one of France’s highest artistic honours. In November of the same year, he was awarded the Prix Européen de l’Essai Charles Veillon. In 2004, Status Anxiety was awarded the prize for the Economics Book of the Year by the Financial Times, Germany. Cambridge-educated, de Botton is a frequent contributor to numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. It is one of the ironies of love that it is easiest confidently to seduce those to whom we are least attracted. My feelings for Chloe meant I lost any belief in my own worthiness. Who could I be next to her? Was it not the greatest honour for her to have agreed to this dinner, to have dressed so elegantly (‘Is this all right?’ she’d asked in the car on the way to the restaurant, ‘It had better be, because I’m not changing a sixth time’), let alone that she might be willing to respond kindly to some of the things that might fall (if ever I recovered my tongue) from my unworthy lips?
2. It was Friday night and Chloe and I were seated at a corner table of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a French restaurant that had recently opened at the end of the Fulham Road. There could have been no more appropriate setting for Chloe’s beauty. The chandeliers threw soft shadows across her face, the light green walls matched her light green eyes. And yet, as though struck dumb by the angel that faced me across the table, I lost all capacity either to think or speak and could only silently draw invisible patterns on the starched white tablecloth and take unnecessary sips of bubbled water from a large glass goblet.
3. My sense of inferiority bred a need to take on a personality that was not my own, a seducing self that would respond to every demand and suggestion made by my exalted companion. Love forced me to look at myself as though through Chloe’s imagined eyes. ‘Who could I become to please her?’ I wondered. I did not tell flagrant lies, I simply attempted to anticipate everything I believed she might want to hear.
‘Would you like some wine?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t know, would you like wine?’ she asked back.
‘I really don’t mind, if you feel like it,’ I replied.
‘It’s as you please, whatever you want,’ she continued.
‘Either way is fine with me.’
‘So should we have it or not?’
‘Well, I don’t think I’ll have any,’ ventured Chloe.
‘You’re right, I don’t feel like any either,’ I concurred.
‘Let’s not have wine, then,’ she concluded.
‘Great, so we’ll just stick with the water.’
4. The first course arrived, arranged on plates with the symmetry of a formal French garden.
‘It looks too beautiful to touch,’ said Chloe (how I knew the feeling), ‘I’ve never eaten grilled scallops like this before.’
We began to eat. The only sound was that of cutlery against china. There seemed to be nothing to say. Chloe had been my only thought for too long, but the one thought that at this moment I could not share with her. Silence was damning. A silence with an unattractive person implies they are the boring one. A silence with an attractive one immediately renders it certain you are the tedious party.
5. Silence and clumsiness could of course be taken as rather pitiful proof of desire. It being easy enough to seduce someone towards whom one feels indifferent, the clumsiest seducers could generously be deemed the most genuine. Not to find the right words is paradoxically often the best proof that the right words are meant. In that other Liaisons Dangereuses, the Marquise de Merteuil faults the Vicomte de Valmont for writing love letters that are too perfect, too logical to be the words of a true lover, whose thoughts will be disjointed and for whom the fine phrase will always elude. Real desire lacks articulacy — but how willingly I would at that moment have swapped my constipation for the Vicomte’s loquacity.
6. I had to find out more about Chloe, for how could I abandon my true self unless I knew what false self to adopt? But the patience and intelligence required to fathom someone else went far beyond the capacities of my anxious, infatuated mind. I behaved like a reductive social psychologist, eager to press my companion into simple categories, unwilling to apply the care of a novelist to capturing the subtleties of human nature. Over the first course, I blundered with heavy-handed, interview-like questions: What do you like to read? (‘ Joyce, Henry James, Cosmo if there’s time ’), Do you like your job? (‘ All jobs are pretty crap, don’t you think? ’), What country would you live in if you could live anywhere? (‘ I’m fine here, anywhere where I don’t have to change the plug for my hairdryer ’), What do you like to do on weekends? (‘ Go to the movies on Saturday, on Sunday, stock up on chocolate for getting depressed with in the evening ’).
7. Behind such clumsy questions (with every one I asked, I seemed to get further from knowing her) rested an impatient attempt to get to the most direct question of all, ‘ Who are you?’ — and hence ‘ Who should I be?’ But my directness was doomed, and the more I practised it, the more my subject
escaped through the net, letting me know what newspaper she read and music she liked, but not thereby enlightening me as to who she might really be.
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