by Alain de Botton
Atlantic Monthly Press, 231 pp., $17.00
On Love is a first novel by a young writer living in London who has had the bright idea of tracing the course of an “ordinary” love affair—initial conflagration, ecstasies, domesticities, break-up, suicide attempt, beginning of new cycle, with new lover—breaking it up into numbered paragraphs (as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) and enclosing it in a dense network of cultural allusions. Dante, Flaubert, and Proust are at hand, but more pervasively the currently fashionable literary theorists and postmodernists: Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtin, Lacan, and Heidegger.
The restaurant was of no help, for its romantic setting made love too conspicuous, hence insincere. The romantic weakened the bond between authorial intent and language, the signifieds kept threatening infidelity.
Intimacy did not destroy the self/other slash.
Is it really her I love, I thought to myself as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, or simply an idea that collects itself around her mouth, her eyes, her face? In extending her expression to her whole character, was I not perhaps guilty of mistaken metonymy?
The “ordinary” couple are young, professional class, semi-affluent—she is a graphic designer on a fashion magazine and he, the narrator, is an architect—and, the “I” character contends, it is difficult for them to have a story.
Chloe and I were moderns, innermonologuers rather than adventurers. The world had been largely stripped of capacities for romantic struggle. The parents didn’t care, the jungle had been tamed, society hid its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.
Indeed they do not achieve much of a story. Their self-doubts and quarrels, and even their intimacies, are made deliberately to run to type, and all the life and adventure is reserved for the mock-philosophic commentary. The rigidity of the author’s Cartesian or Wittgensteinian form invites some neat deadpan devices, like the reemployment of the same sentences, with a few changed epithets, to render both the scene where love dawns and where it gloomily grinds to its end.
I was [Chloe and I were] sitting in the economy section of a British Airways jet making its way [our way back] from Paris to London. We had recently crossed the Normandy coast, where a blanket of winter cloud had given way to an uninterrupted view of brilliant blue waters [dark waters below]…. There was something comforting [threatening] about the flight, the dull background throb of the engines, the hushed gray interior, the candy smiles of the airline employees. A trolley carrying a selection of drinks and snacks was making its way down the aisle and, though I was neither [both] hungry nor [and] thirsty, it filled me with the vague anticipation [nausea] that meals may elicit in aircraft.
How shall one classify this novel? One is tempted at first to suppose its genre is philistinism: the vindictive philistinism of the campus novel (a tiresome genre) or of “Tom-Stoppardism”—a …