Status Anxiety: Reviews

Luke Slattery in The Australian, 3 April 2004

Novelist and essayist Alain de Botton has a new work, titled Status Anxiety, pending publication in May; and if the book as a whole is anything like the fillet from it published in Britain’s Financial Times last month, it will make an instant mark. The subject – social hierarchies and personal status – is universal and de Botton’s treatment lucid and accessible. The people at Team Botton are confident: a television series based on the book is already being mooted.

I’m not sure what I find more interesting: de Botton’s essentially unclassifiable writing or its huge success; the literary or the social phenomenon. Two of the author’s recent titles, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), sold obscenely well in Britain, the US and Australia before translation took them further afield; Proust has sold several hundred thousand copies in more than 20 languages.

The FT’s extract from Status Anxiety addresses the question: why is the novel so important? An equally interesting question might be: why is de Botton? How, at 35, has this serious young literary insect, Swiss-born and Cambridge-educated, managed to turn himself into a cerebral superstar with global appeal? Not by tangling himself in webs of critical theory of the type encountered routinely by humanities undergraduates or by pushing a personal barrow, systematic ideology or ism.

De Botton’s art is about turning the reader’s mind around to face everyday moral and practical philosophical questions, which also happen to be the biggest and most enduring of imponderables. The chief one is simply put: How should one live? In essence it’s the Socratic project – the pursuit of an examined life – and is as old as philosophy. Perhaps the single most valuable life lesson a reader can take from de Botton is the core message of his Proust: that attention to the exact details of the everyday confers an incomparable and readily attainable richness. He turns Proust from a high-grade literary narcotic into a homely and approachable sage: no easy feat.

A form of gentle agitation, or guided cogitation, these meditations are more appealing than anything offered from the pulpit on a Sunday because, although you know exactly where the preacher is headed, de Botton is a meandering guide whom you follow for the joy of it. At one point in The Consolations of Philosophy, on the subject of Friedrich Nietzsche, the author decides to take his readers hiking in the Alps and the mode shifts seamlessly from exposition to autobiography.

De Botton’s writing sits at the busy intersection of fiction and philosophy, descriptive and analytical prose, pedagogy and entertainment. It bends all these genres into a genuinely idiosyncratic melange without losing its focus on the mass market. It is grave yet supple; plain yet elegant; incisive and endearing; like a new literary dialect freshly minted. At times it seems like a style without style.

De Botton does have serious models in philosophers such as Socrates, essayists such as Montaigne and novelists such as Milan Kundera. All he is doing, in some ways, is importing into English a literary sensibility that has flourished for centuries in Continental Europe: if it were a dish you would call it fusion cuisine.

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