We chatted by the bookshelves – she ran through my books, lugged over in batches in heavy suitcases from London, and then the ones of hers that I’d pulled out of boxes when I first moved in, to fill up the glaringly empty black Ikea shelf-space. One of hers was Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love”. “Anyone who is ever in a relationship or about to get into one has to read that book,” she said. I didn’t mention that one of her diaries, found up in the boxes along with the books, had also provided some insight on that subject – at least along the lines of reminding me that us 30-something year-old single women share startlingly similar experiences and emotions. It gave me the sense of belonging to a club, albeit a not particularly exclusive one. (Ok I shouldn’t have. But what are diaries for if not to be read by people who don’t have permission to?).
I remembered how GV had interviewed de Botton for the unsubtly-named magazine “SLANT” (tagline “Think Differently”) that we’d produced at journalism school. The first half of her article was skewed with adulation. “He walks into the room, a tall, captivating figure...”… “I gaze into his dark eyes as he considers my questions”…and suchlike. Looking at the picture on the book jacket I couldn’t quite see what she had been getting at. I read the book though, in bed a couple of nights and then on the plane on the way to Switzerland for Christmas. It's essentially a moment-by-moment account of the narrator’s relationship with a woman called Chloe, interspersed with philosophical musings and references that analyse their reactions to each other in microscopic detail. Its voice is very much de Botton's – that of a young (at the time it was published) Cambridge-graduate-confident-he-has-all-the-answers, even if when they constitute new questions. When he mentions in passing that Chloe said one of his problems is thinking too much, I wasn’t surprised. "Relax, Alain (even though yes I know the narrator isn’t meant to be you)…Revel in the moment for what it is! Stop looking for coherent meanings where there’s no such thing to be found", I felt like saying on regular occasions. That said, there are endless observations that ring true. Though the bits I related to were not those that a young LF had underlined in blue biro and annotated in the margins…perhaps our experiences and emotions are not that similar after all. Anyway, a few of the obvious but important remarks I liked were:
“The possibility of an alternative love life is a reminder that the life we are leading is only one of a myriad of possible lives: and it is perhaps the impossibility of leading them all that plunges us into sadness.”
“There is no transcendental point from which we may observe the past, it is always constructed in the present, and changed along with its movements. Nor do we look at the past for its own sake, we do so rather in order to help us explain the present.”
And re wars and relationships: “…an ingredient that might just…save both states and couples from intolerance…[is] a sense of humour.”
In the end neither the former potato-farmer nor the former-marine doula was appointed, because JH’s baby arrived early. Then just a few weeks into his life the baby landed the role of Jesus in the nativity play at Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square (near which, incidentally, I’ve discovered a cosy Belgian bar, Vol de Nuit). Where will he go from Messiah-hood?