Portrait

It’s rare to meet someone so loved and so loathed – and so untroubled by cool. By Robyn Annear.

The value of simplicity

“It seems to me … just evil, really.” His hands and shoulders second the bewilderment. “I don’t think, ‘Oh whoa, maybe Chapter 3 went wrong’, because it doesn’t seem to be about Chapter 3. It’s just: ‘This guy should die.’”

There’s something Bacharachean about his preference for the word “guy”, that goes with the smart-casual apparel – sports jacket, cashmere sweater and slacks, all in soft greys and immaculate – and the uncool style of his baldness. It’s rare, in fact, to meet a person so untroubled by cool. It hints at his upbringing and education – at his class, I suppose. An absence of striving.

At 44, he’s lean, his face still youthful although hollowing under the cheekbones. His hands, plumper than you’d expect, are fluent as he talks about the vitriol – “cloyingly dumb”, “a moron”, “an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man” – directed at him by certain “cultural elites”. “That’s not criticism,” he says, “that’s bullying.”

In oratorical mode, his speech is assured and precise. But when the talk gets personal, his idiom is as ragged as anybody’s. “Like, if somebody goes, ‘God, is this guy an idiot?’, right, I actually think it’s a symptom that I am doing something slightly right: to dare to be taken for an idiot by those who have a certain vision of complexity. But I don’t think I am an idiot. I mean, I’m an ordinary idiot like we’re all idiots sometimes, but I don’t think I’m an idiot idiot.” 

His antagonists’ chief gripe is that he has created an industry out of “stating the bleeding obvious”. That accusation, he argues, fails to give credit for the skill it takes to convey complex ideas in plain, artless language – what he calls “a calculated dance with extreme simplicity”. Granted, there’s skill, even beauty, in that; but isn’t it the value more than the manner of what he does that his critics are questioning? “I think many of the important things in life are simple, have the structure of simplicity, and if you reject that you’re rejecting life.”

In contradiction of his milquetoast reputation – knockers claim he “famously” spurns stimulants such as coffee and tea – he’s ordered a Coke, full-strength. Filling his glass, he says, apropos simplicity, “That’s why, when it comes to painting, I like a still life, an ordinary scene handled well.” He sets the empty bottle to one side. “I’m a still-life kind of guy.” Past his left shoulder, a cabinet of Veuve Clicquot glows gold on the far wall of the hotel’s tea lounge. He sips and smiles, waiting for my next question.

Critics are liable, he knows, to misread his habitual positivity as naiveté. “I think there is an idea that it means you don’t know the dark facts. Whereas … of course you know the dark facts. The dark facts are so obvious. Like, I might commit suicide but actually I’ve delayed suicide because it’s quite a nice day.” For a positive sort of guy, he talks quite a lot about dying. He has said that thoughts of death are his way of getting himself to work each day – which might be taken as vainglory, an ambition to fix himself in the amber of posterity. But no, it’s stoicism: hoping for the best while expecting the worst. The advisability of pessimism as a mature, and even comforting, approach to life is a favourite topic of his. He quotes the French aphorist, Chamfort: “A man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.”

He found Proust in his teens and returned to him in his mid-20s when, struck by Joyce’s stream of consciousness, “I really wanted to understand what goes on in our minds on a very moment-by-moment basis.” He looked to those philosophers who specialise in the study of consciousness, but book after book failed to bring enlightenment. And so, back to Proust, “a describer of mental processes in a way that Daniel Dennett isn’t. He gave me a sense of the inner life.”

When he wrote of how Proust changed his life, and could change ours, he could be unexpectedly hilarious. I know people who laugh out loud (in a good way) while reading books of his, whose subjects aren’t exactly suggestive of punchlines. Even his critics credit him with being a “playful” writer. “I think that many truths, when uncovered, have a comedic structure,” he says, “because … well, what’s comedy? Comedy’s often the gap between what things should be and what they are. Or what we pretend and what they actually are. And whenever you reveal that, there is a kind of discharge of humour. But never, ever,” he insists, “have I asked myself the question: how can I be funny? I just can’t think like that at all.”

How Alain de Botton thinks is of course the basis of his best-selling books, secular sermons, and unlikely barnstorming speaking tours.

Given that a still life is defined by human absence, what’s it like for “a still-life kind of guy” to perform in front of a sellout crowd at the Sydney Opera House? He winces. “To be honest, it’s frightening. I find it very difficult indeed. It may seem like it’s normal and I’m very relaxed, but I’m absolutely terrified.” Rising to leave – another full house awaits – he adds, “And I wish it would all go away.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "The value of simplicity". Subscribe here.

Robyn Annear
is a writer based in Castlemaine, Victoria.