Philosopher Alain de Botton, the author of On Love, now moves into fiction to continue his reflections upon the nature of love. De Botton's second novel traces the arc of a romantic relationship, from a couple's first meeting in Edinburgh, the excitement of their early days, through the joys and tribulations of marriage. The Course of Love is more than the story of one couple's relationship: it explores what happens to romance between a man and a woman under the pressures of an average existence.
Why did you write The Course of Love and why did you structure it the way you did, as a novel with a philosophical overlay?
There's a huge emphasis on Romantic love in our culture and I wanted to write a novel about what happens after the obviously "romantic" bit. It's a study of a long-term relationship in which a couple gradually learn to adjust to and love one another, despite all the tensions and difficulties that typically go with marriage. It's a book that's on the side of love, but questions some of the Romantic assumptions with which people enter relationships. It's also a book where the chief interest isn't so much outward drama as the close observation of the characters' psychology. It will appeal to people who love to dissect relationships and are fascinated by what drives us emotionally.
Who are your literary influences?
I love novels where not much "happens" but where the interest is in the ideas and analyses of characters. So that's Milan Kundera, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Adelle Waldman, Sheila Heti (in no particular order). I’m also fascinated by novelists who play around with the structure of their novel, shaking up the norms of the 19th century novel in some way.
What do you want readers to take away from reading The Course of Love?
I'd love them to feel hopeful about their capacity to manage long-term relationships and be more forgiving towards themselves and their partners for the difficulties they are liable to encounter as they try to do so. I'd love them to have observed my characters and to feel reassured that human nature is very tricky and that it's completely normal to have suffered all sorts of difficulties and griefs in the course of love.
Marriage used to be a business transaction, rather than an institution based on romantic love. Are you advocating perhaps for a return to thinking of marriage in terms of a business transaction?
You're right that the idea of a Romantic marriage is very new, at best 250 years old. What preceded it was what seems to us a rather mercenary tradition of the "marriage of reason." This doesn't seem either desirable or possible as an alternative, but what does interest me is what we could call a psychological marriage, in other words, a union where two people try to meet the expectations we all have of love by committing themselves to acquiring a set of psychological skills, to do with communication, self-understanding, and the generous sympathetic interpretation of the partner. I don't want to say that our expectations of love are too high; it's just that if we're to meet them, we have to become a little more self-aware. As one of my characters in the novel says: "Love is a skill, not an enthusiasm."
Are couples inevitably doomed to be as predictable as Rabih and Kirsten?
I wouldn't say that my couple is predictable, more that some of the issues they run into have a universal quality. For example, the tensions of the bedroom, arguments around childcare, the impact of work on the quality of the relationship, and so on. What I was trying to do in the novel was to tease out points where the reader would feel a sense of kinship with the characters: that they would find in fiction aspects of their own lives illuminated and, in some ways, resolved.
Do we perhaps live now in a post-marriage world and thus should adjust our social norms accordingly?
The death of marriage has been announced so often and would seem so normal, in a sense. So what's surprising is the sheer longevity and tenacity of this institution. I think it survives for a few good reasons: most of us are interested in long-term relationships and most of us also know that the issues that bedevil one relationship will likely be present in all others; therefore, we're better off working through things in a single relationship rather than across a chaotic succession of them. Despite everything, I don't think we're through with marriage yet--and therefore, nor are we quite done with novels about the institution either.