The Proust Q&A: Alain de Botton

Keen oenophile Alain de Botton is Britain’s best loved philosopher. The Zurich-born author has penned books on subjects as diverse as love, religion and travel, including Essays in Love and The Architecture of Happiness. Well versed in Proust, in 1997 he published the bestseller How Proust Can Change Your Life. In addition to writing, de Botton runs The School of Life in Bloomsbury, which offers courses on everything from how to be creative and how to realise your potential, to how to have better conversations. He lives in London with his wife and two sons, Samuel and Saul.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The few days after I have finished a book that I think is worthwhile, in a warm climate, with people I love, about to have lunch.

What is your greatest fear? 

To suffer an illness which leaves me severely and painfully incapacitated but doesn’t finish me off. To watch anyone I love in similar circumstances.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I am a great admirer of Michel de Montaigne, the French 16th century writer. I feel I might have been his stupid younger brother.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Constant anxiety, neglect of the precious nature of every moment.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Reluctance to think deeply and disclose their fears and vulnerabilities to others.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would be more confident and more courageous. I would be less hamstrung by doubt.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Books – I never wonder what the price is. I always buy first and repent later.

What is your favourite journey?

I love deserts, the redder and emptier the better (like Sinai or Namibia) – somewhere very empty to give my own thoughts room to expand and my ego a chance to shrink.

On what occasion do you lie?

When someone’s excessive demand for the truth places an unnatural and unfair demand on me.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

Almost everything. But, to compensate, I feel I’m a great admirer of the beauty of other people and places and things.

What is your current state of mind? 

Wondering how much South African readers might want to know about me.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? 

Kindness, intelligence and a capacity to forgive me.

What do you most value in your friends?

An unsentimental confrontation with the brute facts of life, mixed with a great sense of humour and a kind nature.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

My two children, who are adorable and unusual and always surprising.

When and where were you happiest?

I was very happy in 1997, after I published my book How Proust Can Change your Life. It changed my life, it became a bestseller around the world, and I was able to buy my own house and start to lead more of an adult life.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I wish I’d been an architect; I love beautiful, calm, well designed buildings.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

To have made a career as a writer, to earn a living from my pen.

Where would you most like to live?

Anywhere warm and sunny and peaceful and well ordered.

What is your most marked characteristic?

A desperate awareness of how short life is and a desire to make sure that I use whatever talents I have to the full in the time that remains.

Who would be your ideal dinner party guests and what wines would you serve them?

I’d invite American actress Natalie Portman, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust and Lord Norman Foster. We’d begin with a Champagne Jacquart Mosaïque Rosé NV apéritif, then would move on to a delicious white Burgundy like Saint-Véran En Crêches Domaine Jacques et Nathalie Saumaize 2011, ending with a gutsy New World red, such as Wirra Wirra The Widow Hen Shiraz Cabernet 2010.

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