Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “How to Live or A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell

July 18, 2014

Good writing sets off a conversation in the mind of the reader paying attention. Sometimes the conversation devolves into an argument, and other times the questions push the reader into researching, reading more, and perhaps writing. That’s what Michel de Montaigne, a French provincial official who lived from 1533 to 1592, did; he was also, famously, the inventor of the personal essay. As Bakewell puts it, someone had to come up with the idea of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity,” resonant though it is today in this age of memoirs and personal blogs. Not only did he invent the genre, but Montaigne was good at it, so good that no less a person than Gustave Flaubert advised a friend:

Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.

Bakewell reports this instruction in her preface. What follows is a discursive trip through the life and work, each chapter arranged around one of Montaigne’s themes – birth, illness, death, solitude, conviviality, the joys of remaining home, the joys of travel, and sex – to name just a few. Threaded throughout are a biography of Montaigne and a biography of the essays as they were enlarged and revised by Montaigne himself, and then interpreted and translated by succeeding generations of writers and readers.

Montaigne was born in Bordeaux, where he spent most of his life, both managing his family’s estate and, as a younger man, working elsewhere in the province. His education, as Bakewell describes it, was unique: Montaigne was sent to board with his wet-nurse, rather than her living with his family, so that he would understand their ways. Once Montaigne returned home around the age of seven, no one spoke to him in any language other than Latin. This drastic step required hiring a tutor who spoke very good Latin, and everyone in the household learning (or improving) enough Latin in order to communicate with a child. The treatment paid off: Montaigne spoke, wrote, and read very good Latin indeed. Bakewell suggests that Montaigne did not always get along so well with his wife, so perhaps there was a downside. Nevertheless, Montaigne was well-prepared for a life of the mind.

He retired at age 37, having had his fill of government and provincial work. Besides, Montaigne’s father had died, and he had an estate to run, friends to speak with, and children to raise (and bury). Montaigne began writing two years later. He wrote and rewrote the essays several times, adding new ideas, layering them with second, and often third and fourth thoughts as he continued reading, thinking, and living. He contradicted himself often, but didn’t really mind. Lots of readers, and writers, read, thought, and wrote about him. Bakewell says of Montaigne’s influence on Nietzsche, for example:

Montaigne apparently managed the trick of living as Nietzsche longed to do: without petty resentments or regrets, embracing everything that happened without the desire to change it. The essayist’s casual remark, ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived,’ embodied everything Nietzsche spent his life trying to attain.

Montaigne came by this acceptance of life’s vagaries both by hard experience – many of his children died before he did, and he lost a very dear friend at a very young age – but also from his study of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism which, Bakewell says, “[l]ike everyone else, Montaigne mixed and matched . . . according to his needs.”

It’s a wonderful book, a terrific introduction to the Essays, and creates a conversation that will live on for many readers. The last word goes to Bakewell:

Over the centuries, this interpretation and reinterpretation creates a long chain connecting a writer to all future readers–who frequently read each other as well as the original. Virginia Woolf had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how “minds are threaded together–how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides . . . It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the word is mind.”

Which chapter spoke to you most? Do you remember? Let us know in the comments.

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