My France - Alain de Botton

Modern-day philosopher and author Alain de Botton grew up speaking French in Switzerland but now lives in London. He tells Carolyn Boyd why France, its people and culture, still fascinate him

Modern-day philosopher and author Alain de Botton grew up speaking French in Switzerland but now lives in London. He tells Carolyn Boyd why France, its people and culture, still fascinate himWhen did you first visit France, and what did you think of it? I grew up in Switzerland, going to a French school and speaking French at home. So from a young age I felt that France was home’, it was the country of my mother tongue, the country that gave me my first books. The French do childhood very well: they are keen on children, dress them beautifully, and somehow have a good balance between thinking that they are darling angels (not quite true) or monsters (not true either). You learn about a country from its confectionery: bless the French for having a brand of jam called Bonne Maman’. Your book How Proust Can Change Your Life was a best-seller. What was it about Proust that so inspired you? Proust has a forbidding reputation as a great writer, which suggests someone inaccessible and remote. Then, at the age of 18, I happened to pick up the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, and found that the first 30 pages are all about a guy trying to fall asleep and then remembering how his mother used to come and say night night to him when he was a boy. All this felt very close to home, and I was  hooked. He was describing a world I knew but could never have described so well.

Which other French philosophers do you admire? I am very drawn to French thinkers and writers. They have about them a kind of simplicity and style that Anglo-American writers too often lack – let alone German ones. They know how to be intimate, warm, human – and at the same time, very intellectual. I love that mixture. Lytton Strachey once compared the writer Stendhal to a man who combined the intellectual rigour of a high court judge with the emotionalism of a 12-year-old girl. What a perfect mixture!  And so many French writers have that. I recommend Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, La Rochefoucauld, Baudelaire.What other aspects of French culture do you appreciate? I really like French cinema, especially the very great, late �ric Rohmer, who made films about teenage girls in love at the French seaside. Also I love the films of Fran�ois Truffaut, which have a really emotional, poignant quality. As I get older and the women I meet have a bit more disposable income, I am also taken by the style of French fashion houses, for example, the brand Chlo�.

What do the French think of your work? My books have been translated into French and – I’m afraid – sell rather badly. My publisher and I have a theory about this. French readers tend to love their own writers – and when they shop abroad, they want the exotic. So they want English writers to be quintessentially English (cue Julian Barnes) and Americans to be their idea of America (cue Elmore Leonard). I am a paradox for the French, because I’m like them and yet not quite them. So I fall between the cracks. That said, I have had very warm reviews for all my books in the French press.

Where is your favourite place in France, why do you like it? I love Paris, I love the width of the streets and the life on the streets, where everywhere you go there are nice shops and fascinating things to look at. I can’t help but compare it favourably to my own home town, London. Indeed, returning to London after some time in Paris always throws me into despair.

What is it about France, do you think, that draws so many fans? France stands for certain ideas that the rest of the world doesn’t pursue with enough vigour: it is unshamedly elitist when it comes to food, culture, fashion, architecture. People respond to this. It’s a highly advanced country and also one that preserves the best of the past. It is also rigorously hostile to foreigners, the disdain of the French towards foreigners is legendary – and for a certain kind of masochist, this disdain is almost pleasant. One wants to break through the barriers.

How did it feel to receive the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres? It felt wonderful, it’s the first honour I ever received. I want to make a bigger deal of it, I was hoping they would give me a giant coat of arms to hang outside my house. Sadly no such thing appeared. But seriously, it is a lovely thing, especially as the British I live among are very far from reciprocating the honour.

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