Life in an ivory tower? It's not for me, says author Alain

HIS name sounds like a French aristocrat's and his subject matter should really appeal only to Britain's upper-classes.

But philosopher and author Alain de Botton is Swiss, of Sephardi descent, and likes carefully to feed the masses teaspoons of culture and literature.

"I often become impatient with the literary world - they can be quite snobbish and vulgar," he told me. "I do not want to sit in my ivory tower - I want to interest the general masses."

Born in Zurich and brought up in St Gallen, De Botton's father Gilbert de Botton was born in Egypt, as was his mother, Yolande Gabai, while his grandfather was an active Zionist in the North African country.

Alain, 39, explained: "My surname is apparently a Spanish Jewish one and the family spent years wandering the Mediterranean.

"They settled in Alexandria in Egypt, but my father, like most of the Jews, was kicked out in the late 1950s by Nasser."

However, Alain did not have a religious Jewish upbringing and he was not barmitzvah.

He recalled: "My parents felt that if I was barmitzvah, it would have been hypocritical.

"The upside of it would have been lots of presents, although learning the piece would have been a big downside."

Alain said he feels Jewish in a "vague, cultural way" and his wife Charlotte was educated in a convent.

He said: "I was very much excited by Christian life. It seemed exotic to me - it was very much 'the other'".

But Alain has still been targeted by antisemitism.

During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, he was a guest on BBC Two's Newsnight to discuss Israel's raids on terrorist strongholds in the country.

He said: "It was a pretty sobering experience - I had grown up thinking antisemitism was always 'somewhere else'. I never felt part of a minority.

"I thought my opinion on the situation was pretty neutral, but I received a barrage of hate-filled emails. It was a wake-up call for me. I am anguished by Israel's situation and it is not a country I can feel proud of at the moment.

"I do have many relatives in Israel and we used to go and see them at Pesach time."

He spent the first eight years of his life in Switzerland before being sent to the Dragon School in Oxford and he then boarded at Harrow School.

Educational success was just around the corner and Alain gained a double first in history from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, before completing a Masters degree in philosophy at King's College in London.

A writer of nine books, Alain dreamed of becoming an academic.

He recalled: "How I wanted to write would not have fitted into the academic world.

"You have to drill into one topic and specialise in one area, which I did not want to do, so I reluctantly gave up the dream."

His first novel, 1993's Essays In Love, deals with the process of falling in and out of love.

It was his fourth book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, that gave him international fame.

A bestseller, it was based on the life and works of the French philosopher Marcel Proust and was a mixture of a self-help and analysis of Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

Alain explained: "It is based on humour and paradox and sails quite close to the absurd.

"Man thinks and God laughs - that is what Proust said - and that scepticism has always been attractive to me."

Proust had a difficult relationship with his father, as did Alain with his financier father, who died in 2000. He said: "He was very demanding and easily dissatisfied with himself.

"Nothing was ever quite good enough for him, but I guess that what just his character."

And despite his father being hugely rich, Alain and his sister Miel, now a psychologist in Paris, were made to know the value of everything.

His father left a 200 million trust fund to the family when he died, but Alain has preferred to live off the sales of his books.

He continued: "I had a complicated relationship with my dad.

"He was a big name, but he did not necessarily open any doors for me. Dad was not keen on my becoming a writer. He was not happy - he was may be even a little envious.

"But having said that, I know he did send copies of my books to his friends, so it was all rather odd."

He may only admit to a vague cultural Jewishness, but his most Jewish book has to be 2004's Status Anxiety, a statement which he agrees with when I put the point to him.

Alain said: "Yes, it is probably my most Jewish book.

"Jews are very much anxious people - we never feel THAT comfortable wherever we are. Our ancestors were always haunted by the thought that they could be kicked out of where they lived any minute and carted off.

"The one thing I love about Jews is their passion and shouting and love.

"I have been to many gatherings and dinner parties full of English people and there is just none of that - they are different, there is an insincerity, a coldness.

"Judaism can be an adjective beyond religion that you can apply to a way of life."

Status Anxiety was another hit despite criticism from the literary world.

Alain added: "I am interested in the general audience, but people have said I dumb down. I am interested in seducing the reader, I am not interested in just being respected by six literary academics sat round at a university."

Previous to the Status Anxiety, he asked what the point of travel is and the psychology of travel is in The Art of Travel.

Looking into people's psychology in regard to the buildings around is the main theme in The Architecture of Happiness, which was released three years ago.

He argues that it is architecture's task to stand as a reminder of our full potential.

Alain, who lives in London, explained: "One thing I found out while researching the book was that many people hate British modern architecture.

"Post-war housing in Britain was so bad but, of course, there are many beautiful well-designed buildings and architecture in this country."

But Alain ends up defending modern architecture, claiming it gives voice to aspirations and suggests possibilities.

He said: "Many people make money and buy an expensive old country house and pretend that their family owned it for generations - I do not like that.

"People are suspicious of modern architecture, but they should try it out."

His latest tome, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, looks at 10 different jobs, including accountancy, rocket science - and biscuit manufacture.

Alain recalled: "I wanted to get out of reportage and write about the modern workplace. It is not all about going to the office any more or going on business trips.

"I spent time in a biscuit factory and at the National Grid - it stripped away a lot of my preconceived prejudices. I went up a pylon and it was amazing.

"In today's world we do not really think about all the people doing the jobs, which helps earth to tick over."

It is not just Alain's books and ideas which he has tried to have an impact with and he seems keen to develop other projects.

One of these is the School of Life, which was set up in London last year. He and his fellow teachers hold seminars on subjects such as politics and love.

"Our aim is to inspire people to change their lives through culture - people go to university and learn about history, economics or whatever," Alain explained.

"They are not taught about how to deal with life."

"London can be a huge and lonely place and people have asked if the school is a cult, but it is not - we offer courses on various aspects of life."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph