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Kiss & Tell by Alain de Botton

Kiss & Tell (1995)

by Alain de Botton

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The hero/narrator, dismissed by his latest girlfriend as totally self-absorbed, determines to prove his possession of the quality of empathy by writing a biography, seeing the biographer’s mission as ‘understanding a human being as fully as one person could hope to understand another, submerging myself in a life other than my own’. For his subject he will select someone quite ordinary, to demonstrate ‘the extraordinariness of any life’. So Kiss and tell details the life of the fictitious Isabel Rogers, ‘the next person to walk into [his] life’, presented in proper biographical format. The 12 chapters begin with ‘The early years’, ‘The early dates’, ‘Family trees’; the volume comes complete with preface and index, and two sections of photographs of Isabel, her family and friends, all appearing entirely authentic.
This hybrid novel/biography/ biographical critique comprises three strands. It is at once the (pseudo-)biography of Isabel; an account of the narrator’s developing relationship with her; and much consideration of the nature of biography itself. The tenor of this can well be assessed by quoting the subheadings under BIOGRAPHY in the index:

of dead
details given in
discrepancies between author and subject
eating habits in
family research
impulse to write
lack of understanding of subject
men writing about women
private life in
psychology in
relationship between author and subject

There is reflection on the nature of family trees, adapted for this fiction, which is illustrated by a family tree conventional in layout but "tracing the passage of emotional dispositions" with annotations such as:

Christina — depressive, repressive, hysteric =
Henry Howard— alcoholic, promiscuous, authoritarian
Isabel—‘We can go into it another day. Are you sure I can’t get you anything to eat?’
Lucy—sandwich problem, masochist, intellectual insecurity
Paul — aggressive, worshipped too much by mother, neglected by father/sisters

The index — 12 pages, to the text’s 246 — is a properly detailed and structured biographical index. It fills out proper names merely mentioned in the text, and large general topics are duly specified as to aspect:

hands, taking notice of
finding way round
views of living in
men, differences between women and
continuing friendship after
embarrassment of
first experience
liberal attitude to
manual of
substitutes for
as symbol of intimacy
tastes in

with full breakdown for major characters. Isabel’s own entry fills four-and-a-half columns; that of her mother, one-and-a-half.
As an index to a hybrid fiction/biography, this must be
reckoned a most interesting example of the craft. ( )
  KayCliff | Jan 4, 2016 |
Reflective account of the practice and philosophy of Life Writing and of the particular being the key to interesting accounts of the day to day life of individuals. Not sure why this is not seen in the same way as his later works. ( )
  ablueidol | Apr 25, 2009 |
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It is perhaps as difficult
to write a good life as to live one.
Lytton Strachey
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Whatever one's experience of the globe and its inhabitants, however impartial one's judgement and varied one's acquaintance, it would be no surprise if the most enchanting person one had yet encountered, someone whose taste in love and literature, religion and recreation, dirty jokes and household hygiene all lay beyond reproach, whose setbacks were capable of eliciting inexhaustible concern and pity, whose dawn halitosis was the grounds for no quiet shudder and whose view of humanity seemed neither cruel nor naive - one might without presumption suggest this person to be none other than oneself.
One may suggest a connection between attachment and the biographical impulse ... a true biography demands a more or less conscious emotional relationship between author and subject.
The traditional family tree, emerging as it did from the feudal age, was primarily devoted to stressing lineage and dates of birth and death. But in a more psychological age, was the primary responsibility still to record such factual details? Listening to Isabel’s description of her family, I wondered if one might not inaugurate a different structure, one which traced not what lands, titles and estates moved down the generations, but rather the passage of emotional dispositions, in short, a [Larkinesque] tree of family fucked-upness?
A new form of biography, far less accurate than that of the old, but concurrently far more authentic. This genre would leave out of a person's life everything which hey did not remember of it, it would reflect how *they* understood their family tree rather than the totality of dates and facts which might objectively have been attached to it.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312155611, Paperback)

Alain de Botton has crafted a delightfully ingenious novel in the form of a biography of an unknown woman. Told by a former flame that he lacks empathy, the engaging narrator of Kiss & Tell decides to write a book about the next person he meets. This turns out to be Isabel Rogers, a production assistant at a London stationery company. The sincere effort of this would-be Boswell to make this ordinary woman fascinating cause him to fall in love with her, causing a shift in his writing from an examination of Isabel's life to a minutely-detailed account of his relationship with her. Alain de Botton's earlier work, The Romantic Movement, garnered praise from John Updike and Pico Iyer, who called him "a Stendhal of the 90's dating scene."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:28 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A man accused by women of narcissism tries to show more interest in his next one, only to discover women don't like too much attention either. A romantic comedy set in Britain by the author of On Love.

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