Essays in Love: Reviews

Francine Prose in The New Republic, 27 December 1993

In the preface to his treatise On Love, Stendhal breezily takes off running past those indolent earlier writers who dropped out of the game after cataloging only “400 or 500 of the successive emotions, so difficult to recognize, which go to make up this passion.” Stendhal way overshot the 500 mark in his own effort to categorize and to analyze, to qualify and to refine, to collect every anecdote and trenchant word ever uttered about l’amour.

Now, in a smart and ironic first novel, also entitled On Love, Alain de Botton picks up the torch, so to speak, more or less where Stendhal left off. De Botton’s On Love reads as if Stendhal had lived into the ‘90s, survived modern critical theory (as he clearly has), thought it was funny (as he likely would have), but retained a novelist’s sympathy for the impulse – which he shared – to deconstruct and to dissect in search of some higher understanding.

Divided into titled chapters (“Romantic Fatalism,” “The Subtext of Seduction,” “False Notes,” “Romantic Terrorism” and so on) and brief, numbered sections separated by space breaks, de Botton’s novel is a mock and serious philosophical inquiry into the grand passion that Stendhal compared to the Milky Way, “a bright mass made up of thousands of little stars, each of which is often itself a nebula.” What launches the novel’s obsessive, self-conscious and rather sweetly cerebral narrator on his own astral explorations is an intense and ill-starred love affair with a woman named Chloe.

He and Chloe meet on a shuttle from Paris to London and have a flirty conversation over the airplane safety diagram card. They dine in restaurants with names like Les Liasons Dangereuses and Lao Tzu, seduce each other, make love, fall in love, partly combine their busy London lives (he is an architect, she a graphic designer) into a sort of third life with a history of its own and recurrent leitmotifs based on shared experience (a corpse they discover in the street, a stranger who passes Chloe a mash note in a bagel shop). They go on lovers’ holidays that are at first ecstatic, then markedly less idyllic as their passion falters, until their romance crashes and burns on a flight from Paris, slyly written as the evil twin of the flight on which they met.

One of the novel’s nervy jokes is how perfectly ordinary, how unexceptional, all this is. (The course of this affair would doggedly follow the parabola we can imagine the narrator drawing along with the visual aids – diagrams and charts – that he scatters throughout the text.) De Botton is well aware of this. And the narrator knows it, too. But that doesn’t keep him from making his textbook-case romance the center of his life, and the improbable springboard for his metaphysical triple flips. So each mini-step forward or setback in his love moves him to microscopic analysis or flights of heroic abstraction.

At moments he succumbs with almost giddy abandon to passages of loony post-structuralist rhetoric, sheer bombast and quasi-academic absurdity. Fearing that Chloe has begun to fake orgasm, he plots a logarithmic measure of the sincerity of her response:

It was at first hard for me to imagine an untruth lasting 3.2 seconds fitted into a sequence of eight 0.8-second contractions, the first and last two (3.2s) of which were genuine. It was easier to imagine a complete truth, or a complete lie, but the idea of a truth-lie-truth pattern seemed perverse and unnecessary.

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