The course of my life has always had love for Alain de Botton in it: love for his non-fiction, his “How to” books, his School of Life, The Philosopher’s Mail, The Book of Life and his various other initiatives. The Course of Love is only his second work of fiction, although it is so shot through Alain-ness and consumed with his themes and oft-visited preoccupations that it was hard to think of it as fiction. Which is meant as a compliment, as it is his ability to identify and examine these very worries (which are common to all of us), and then to soothe and console us which makes me wonder if he might be some kind of wizard.
It follows two people and their relationship, from before they meet (the imagined versions, the premonitions of each other), to their meeting, the solidification of their relationship, marriage, kids, therapy and beyond.
As I was reading this book, I was writing a story of my own (For the Papers) about a kind of relationship of my own, and it interested and surprised me to find so many parallels. Not only because it was easy to see the synergy with Alain’s fictional relationship and my real, yet fictionalised relationship, but also it seemed that his descriptions of these two people contained every other relationship I had ever had, or borne witness to.
I also recently read the collected lyrics of Billy Bragg: A Lover Sings, and although I was introduced to him by my highly politicised parents and so have always loved him for his polemics, this book made me realise just how many of his songs are love songs: gut-wrenching, soul-tearing love songs. Lyrics like this tear at the human, therefore frail, heart:
Most important decisions in life
Are made between two people in bed
I found that out at my expense
And when I see you
You just turn around and walk away like we never met
Oh we used to be so brave
I dreamt the world stopped turning as we climbed the hill
I dreamt impossible dreams that we were lovers still
Listening, reading and writing like this all alongside one another, was emotionally exhausting, and enlightening. I’m still not sure if I find it comforting or depressing to think that we all follow the same relationship patterns: the same well-trodden paths, moths to flames, over and over again. The comfort can be drawn from the idea that – no matter at which point on that path we find ourselves – we can look back, or ahead, or around us to find that others are going through this, have gone through this, will go through this again and again: a kind of “This Too Shall Pass” of the heart, to remember in the first heady days, as in the ones of quiet resentment. The disheartening part is to remember that afterall, we are not as special as we would like to think, not so different and apart from the rest. And neither are our relationships.
At one time, I would have called this a kind of hopeless resignation, I would have called “settling”. I would have chosen, as Billy sings: crisis after crisis, with such intensity, over self-examination and insight. Ultimately Alain advocates maturity, kindness, to your partner and to yourself, and that, in the end, cannot ever be argued with as an excellent motto to love and to live by.