Under the influence
One question, eight writers – we asked a collection of those taking part in the Dublin Writers’ Festival one question: what writer has most inspired you?
ALAIN de BOTTON
If Arthur Schopenhauer still merits our attention today, it is chiefly because few men have ever matched him in terms of the thoroughness and relentlessness of his pessimism. Even among German philosophers, who already by no small measure outstrip French 19th-century poets for gloom, Schopenhauer stands out as an icon of despair. His motto was: “It’s bad today, and it will daily become worse – until the worst of all happens.” If Schopenhauer’s pessimism is so valuable, it is because it coincided with the birth of an age of relentless optimism which continues to rule over us to this day. From the early 19th century onwards, the west assumed a resolutely bourgeois, scientifically-based world-view where a belief in progress and technology was united with a faith that every human problem would one day find a solution. Never before had so many people believed so many cheerful things. At just the moment when such pessimism was disappearing from the public sphere, Schopenhauer gave it a new, appealing, crystalline form and, in the process, gave us much to smile about. I say smile because, however sad we are, nothing improves our mood faster than to be made aware of someone else who is enduring even greater sufferings.
* Alain de Botton will speak about his new book, Religion for Atheists, tonight at 8pm at Liberty Hall
There is no honest answer to that question. Writers usually quote their “favourite writers” for pragmatic reasons. If you say publicly that your most inspiring writer is Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, you can soon expect your own writing to be compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s. Writers are getting inspired by other writers at the age when they are not aware that they have been inspired at all. When I was a child, for instance, my absolute literary authority was Margita, a local librarian, who forced me to read Kafka because a guy who wrote so nicely about a person being transformed into an insect can’t be a bad literary choice. We are not inspired by one but by many writers. Opting for one writer, or one book, is like opting for “Bible”. Such a choice would send a strong anti-intellectual message. In that respect my answer is: I am inspired by many wonderful books.
As a teenager, I resented any interruption from my reading of Émile Zola. Between the ages of 16 and about 25, I read (most of) Les Rougon-Macquart novels and have never recovered from the experience. Not many men insist upon a honeymoon in the Goutte d’Or ghetto of Paris – Provencale in Zola’s time, Algerian by 1982 – in order to summon the ghost of Mes Bottes sipping absinthe and workers’ boots pounding the cobblestones of Rue Faubourg Poissonière – but I was one of them. Maybe that’s why the marriage didn’t last.
Zola depicted essential human struggle, epic and vernacular – love, rage and laughter – but was the foremost literary exponent of the Naturalist notion that everything is subordinate to nature, and that nature has no purpose. And neither, it emerges, do we. Two of my recent books, Amexica and The War is Dead, Long Live the War, are reportage, but share an undeclared philosophical rip tide which I draw from Zola, among others, as well as from experience: the fantasy of progress, the lie of Telos. The danger of this appalling addiction from which all political, economic and theistic thinking suffers, that “There’s a better world a-comin”, as the spiritual insists. Who matched Zola’s anti-teleological vision? Beckett (arguably) and Steinbeck in the 20th century, and Cormac McCarthy into the 21st, but certainly not the literati who sit around north London’s dinner tables and write culpably inconsequential crap while Europe – and especially their Broken Britain – goes down La Chute. If only Zola were among us now, eyes twinkling from behind those spectacles: “J’accuse.”