Back in the 1990s, a fiction subgenre emerged in England parallel to the men’s magazines (or rather, lad’s magazines) which popularised views of a new version of masculinity, more hip, more ‘Cool Britannica’, fluid to a degree and yet ultimately re-presenting the experience of prolonged heterosexual adolescence. Alain de Botton’s three novels – Essays in Love, The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell were written at the high-brow end of this spectrum, integrating de Botton’s reading of philosophy, psychology and literature within an accessible romantic love story of the boy-meets-girl, move-in-together, break-up and learn-something-new variety. As a more genuinely accomplished novelist, Nick Hornby was more successful, with film versions of High Fidelity and About a Boy to boost the book sales. His stories were about flawed-yet-likeable males who needed to learn something, by means of the same romantic cycle.
Another example was Mike Gayle’s novels, such as Mr Commitment and Turning Thirty. These explore familiar themes of growing up, learning about one’s own bad habits, and wondering if one can commit to a relationship that threatens to end that romantic era of the young man’s twenties (hence ‘turning 30’ as a crisis).
Alain de Botton’s fourth novel, The Course in Love, his first in twenty years, is a return to this genre. Since it aims to portray a more mature view of love, it both succeeds and fails as literature. Another way of saying this – and de Botton’s narrator makes the same point himself – is that literature entertains in a way that life doesn’t, and our expectations around romantic love stories in book and film bear little relationship with the day to day lives we lead, as must needs be, unless we wish to be thoroughly depressed, narcissistic serial monogamists. The book is divided up into the chapters that tell the story: romanticism, ever after, children, adultery, beyond romanticism. You might say that the genre normally deals with the first stage (romanticism) and flirts with the next two as the adult phases the protagonist fears the most (marriage, and the responsibility of family). Here de Botton takes the reader into the lives of a heterosexual couple, and while he tells both sides of the story, there is more about Rabih (would-be architect) than Kirsten (city council town planner). Each is treated sympathetically: they are flawed characters and yet the fault lies in the cycle of childhood to adulthood, with their own parents’ imperfections, and with some serious traumas to deal with in terms of deaths and desertions. Much of this is narrated rather than experienced in any depth by the reader.
The narrative is split up by italicised sections where we hear direct talk from the author. It is as if de Botton’s other self - as philosopher of everyday experiences, happily revealed to us in such texts as Religion for Atheists and The Art of Travel - has snuck into the book and interrupted the novelist. Here is an example that nicely illustrates both the themes of the novel and some of the problems it encounters:
By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separations and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love (p.215).
Stories like The Course of Love, in other words, like this novel-of-sorts. Alain de Botton’s return to fiction is welcome, since he has something interesting to say and since the advice is consistently good throughout. Measured against art and literature, it falls short, because it is a hybrid text, something in between philosophy and literature. As a clearly spoken pedagogue, de Botton the philosopher is more intent on leading us to conclusions than letting us learn those lessons ourselves through the often negative-examples in art and literature. Yet as another ‘essay in love’, and a return to a genre by a man who now has the maturity of hindsight, the story moves us to the territory it formerly feared the most: marriage, children, and life ever after (minus the blinkers).