Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland, went to school in England, then studied in Cambridge, London and Harvard. He published his first book Essays in Love in 1993 aged 23, and his career as a bestselling writer and public philosopher began. Alain’s been writing and teaching about the philosophy of everyday life for 25 years, from love to work, travel to religion, founding the pioneering School of Life in London ten years ago. Alain de Botton tells Rosie Goldsmith how his Swiss heritage influences his life and writing.
Rosie Goldsmith: You are one of 35,000 Swiss citizens living in the UK. But most people here don’t know you are Swiss. Do you hide your Swissness?
Alain de Botton: No, I’m immensely proud. A proud patriot. But my relationship with Switzerland is complicated. I lived there until I was twelve, grew up speaking French in German-speaking Zürich and had a polyglot upbringing. When I was eight I went to boarding school in England, commuting from Zürich to London. The work of many psychotherapists is still unpicking that! As a child in England I longed for home. Switzerland is therefore for me enveloped in powerful sentimentality, and love. But a child’s love. The love I have for Switzerland is that of an eight-year-old boy. It’s not focused on Switzerland’s economy or its politics, but on memories of Zweifel paprika crisps, Thomy mustard and Sugus sweets. It’s sensory, not intellectual.
You live in the UK, so how does Switzerland feature in your life?
For me Switzerland offers an imaginative escape from some of the tensions of British life. The UK always seems to be riven by conflicts around class, without much middle, only extremes. Growing up I found this distressing, frightening. Switzerland became for me a model of a bourgeois society – happy in itself, a civilization that defends ordinary life and the values of the middle class – a derided term in the UK, but in Switzerland the norm. I find this exotic and compelling.
Which language do you dream in or are you fully anglicised?
I don’t dream in any language. I do though dream of Switzerland. Zürich airport comes up a lot in my psychotherapy as the site of unimaginable pain, that of an eight-year-old boy leaving home for three months. The airport is literally the moment I am ripped away. When I land at Zürich Airport it is like coming home.
Which Swiss languages do you speak?
I still speak French, the language of my childhood, and it’s no coincidence that when I was in my twenties I was reading only French books and wrote a book on Proust, How Proust Can Change Your Life, about the power of literature to change our lives. It’s all about nostalgia for childhood in a way. German though is quite literally my mother’s tongue – she is from St Gallen. But I only discovered German at school in England. I’m not a good German speaker but I love it and find it a playful language to speak. It has a beautifully articulated construction. Many philosophers have been German, so it’s useful to me. Let me read you this piece I wrote about the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Most philosophers have had little interest in travelling… It is the mind, not the body that counts. Fortunately, there is one glorious exception to this consensus; Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest traveller in the history of philosophy – a man who not only lived in a variety of countries, but was also convinced that where you are, what hotel you stay in and what the temperature is like, has a profound influence on how happy you can be. Aside from the seaside, it was the Swiss mountains that Nietzsche loved… He was – both in a practical and spiritual sense – of the mountains. Having taken citizenship in April 1869, Nietzsche may be considered Switzerland’s most famous philosopher… From the age of thirty-five onwards, he began spending all his summers in the Swiss Alps, in the small village of Sils-Maria, 1,800 metres above sea level in the Engadine region of south-eastern Switzerland… Nietzsche spent seven summers in Sils-Maria in a rented room in a chalet with views onto pine trees and mountains. There he wrote all or substantial portions of The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals and Twilight of the Idols. He would rise at five in the morning, and work until midday, then take walks up the huge peaks that necklace the village, Piz Corvatsch, Piz Lagrev, Piz de la Margna, jagged and raw mountains that look as if they had only recently thrust through the earth’s crust under atrocious tectonic pressures. In the evening, alone in his room, he would eat a few slices of ham, an egg and a roll and go to bed early… Today, inevitably, there is a museum in the village. For a few francs, one is invited to visit the philosopher’s bedroom… Yet to understand why Nietzsche felt there to be such an affinity between his philosophy and the mountains, it may be best to skirt the room and visit instead one of Sils-Maria’s many sports shops in order to acquire walking boots, a rucksack, a water bottle, gloves, a compass and a pick axe. A hike up Piz Corvatsch, one of his favourite mountains, a few kilometres from Nietzsche’s house, will explain better than any museum the spirit of his philosophy. Bluntly summarised, this philosophy suggested that we can only be happy if we accept that we first have to suffer a lot; it’s a lesson exemplified by mountain climbing, Nietzsche’s favourite sport.” (Abridged extract reprinted with the kind permission of AdB)
Do you have a home in Switzerland?
No longer, but one of the things I miss most is the architecture. I grew up in a very nice, but brutalist 60s concrete building in Zürich, the kind you see all over Switzerland. So solid a bomb wouldn’t blow it up; and so different from the Victorian architecture which still dominates British life. I hated the rattling Victorian windows, the general feeling that one was living in the 19th century. So I thought that if I can ever afford it I want to live in a Swiss house in England. A few years ago my wife and I found a plot of land and built a house. Again here’s something for psychotherapists to unpick: the whole house is decked out in Swiss design! The door handles, windows, carpets; everything is Swiss in that house.
Do you have a cuckoo clock?
No, it’s not that kind of Switzerland. It’s a Switzerland of Max Bill, of modernism, of the heroic Swiss architects of the 50s who redesigned how we should live. I’m part of an organisation called Living Architecture and we invited Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and other architects to build houses around the UK which people can rent and experience what it is like to live in outstanding modern design. Our environment influences our happiness.
You also started up the School of Life here in the UK. You have brought philosophy into our homes and onto our TV screens. It is a great gift. Do you think any of that comes from your Swiss background?
Yes. Here’s another bit about my early life: I have a beloved mother, but I also had a nanny, a real heroine of mine. She came from a little village in central Switzerland. I still go and see her every summer. She is 87 now. My parents were very intellectual but this uneducated woman with her native common sense is very close to my heart. A friend of mine once said, you are trying to write books for your father and for your nanny, aren’t you? And I thought that’s absolutely right! If both my father and my nanny could understand my work, that’s OK. The School of Life is about developing emotional intelligence in everyday life and tackling life’s big questions. I am more proud of this than anything. This autumn we hold a conference in my home city Zürich. So, to conclude I’d like to read you my story about Zürich.
“Zürich is exotic. We normally associate the word ‘exotic’ with camels and pyramids. But perhaps anything different and desirable deserves the word. What I find most exotic about the city is how gloriously boring everything is. No one is being killed by random gunshots, the streets are quiet, the parks are tidy, and, as everyone says (though you don’t see people trying), it is generally so clean you could eat your lunch off the pavement. What most appeals to me about Zürich is the image of what is entailed in leading an ‘ordinary’ life there. To lead an ordinary life in London is generally not an enviable proposition: ‘ordinary’ hospitals, schools, housing estates, or restaurants are nearly always disappointing. There are, of course, great examples, but they are only for the very wealthy. London is not a bourgeois city. It’s a city of the rich and of the poor. People are happy to be ordinary in Zürich… In Switzerland’s largest city, the urge to own a car and avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers loses some of the urgency it may have in Los Angeles or London, thanks to Zürich’s superlative tram network – clean, safe, warm, and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess… This commitment to the ‘exalted ordinary’ continues in architecture. Zürich has very few iconic buildings. The museums and the opera house are sedate. Nothing is flashy. And yet this is a city with some of the best architecture in the world; ordinary buildings have to them a quality and thoughtfulness at the level of design that in other places would be accorded only to the icons. Visitors will notice beautiful detailing in the window tracery and concrete finish of schools and railway stations. There are parking lots that should be winning prizes, and primary-school buildings that display world-beating approaches to the innovative use of timber and brick. For a rent that would buy you a dilapidated one-room box in New York, you can live like a merchant prince in a brand-new apartment building. Zürich’s distinctive lesson to the world lies in its ability to remind us of how truly imaginative and humane it can be to ask of a city that it be nothing other than boring and bourgeois.” (Abridged extract reprinted with the kind permission of AdB)
Thank you Alain for sharing your thoughts and readings on Switzerland and for helping us launch Literally Swiss. Final question: Roger Federer or Andy Murray?
Roger Federer of course! But also the Swiss national football team. My young son and I are avid supporters and travel the world to support them!
ALAIN DE BOTTON was born in Zürich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries. Alain also started and helps to run a school in London called The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education. Alain’s latest book, published in April 2016, is titled The Course of Love.