How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted! I’ve been teaching January Term at my university, and it’s an intense class: three hours a day every day, plus all the concomitant prepping and grading, plus I’m still department chair and all that. I haven’t stopped reading, but blogging kind of went by the wayside. Time to catch up a little! I hope you are all well out there in the snow.

how to liveSarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is not typically or linearly biographical: birth, life events, death. Her style is lively, even sprightly, and the structure (as you can tell from the title) is more like a set of Montaignean essays than anything else. And, just as Montaigne’s essays on thumbs and nudity and Socrates revealed nothing so much as his own generous inner life, Bakewell’s essays on Montaigne and Montaigne’s reception over the centuries reveal something about her, too.

The best part of this biography is… well, the biography. Everything that we learn about Montaigne himself reveals him to be exactly what you will discover if you are ever fortunate enough to read the Essais, in whole or in part: a lively, curious, humane man who was fascinated in the human condition by way of his own soul. Bakewell discusses his marriage, his deep friendship with La Boétie, his writing, his administrative duties in Bordeaux, and his passionate and even obsessive interest in everything he saw around him. Montaigne was a man who could imagine himself in the place of anyone and everyone: women, Tupinambas from Brazil, priests, and even cats:

When I play with my cat, who knows whether I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

This imaginative and empathetic facility is so rare in human beings that his readers have often felt they found their own hearts exposed on the page. Montaigne has never really fallen out of fashion (except for about a hundred and fifty years with the Catholic church), because he is you; he’s me; he’s all of us.

The place where Bakewell falls down a bit in this biography is precisely that imaginative facility, though. She is such a fan of Montaigne that she can’t be sympathetic to almost anyone else. She is snide about Françoise, Montaigne’s wife, even though it leaps from the page that Montaigne was oh-well-useless about the kind of duties that would be necessary to keep his estate thriving. Françoise doesn’t even get any sympathy for having lost all but one of her children, as Bakewell seems to subscribe to the inexcusable theory that people didn’t really mind losing babies since it was so common. (Recent research has put paid to that theory; let’s get rid of it.) Bakewell doesn’t spare more eminent characters, either: she writes such unpleasant summaries of the way Pascal and Descartes reacted to Montaigne that you would imagine both those philosophers to be the nastier kind of imbecile. The only people who don’t come in for this kind of treatment are those like Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, who loved Montaigne passionately and found in him a mirror for their (immensely different) age and experiences.

This was a wonderfully interesting book with regard to Montaigne himself and his way of approaching how to live. I happen to be very fond of Montaigne, and I would recommend his Essais to anyone, even if you can’t or don’t want to read all of them. He was the inventor of our well-beloved personal essay, and from that moment there was no turning back: we reveal ourselves differently now, from memoirs to podcasts. He was human and humane, living on a small scale because he believed it was the only possible scale to live on, repelled by cruelty, interested in every passing moment. He’d have made a lovely dinner guest (rather like Voltaire or Benjamin Franklin). Invite him to your house sometime — and this biography might not be a bad companion, at that.

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10 Responses to How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

  1. Your post reminded me how long I’ve intended to read some of Montaigne’s essays! I could have sworn I had an edition of selected essays, but I just went looking and couldn’t find it on my shelves. I’ll add it to my list of books to look out for at the Enormous Book Sale coming up in March.

    • Jenny says:

      I love the Essays. Some of them are mostly classical allusions (which of course was very elegant at the time) but most of them are so fantastically digressive and full of Montaigne himself. They’re hilarious and astute and make wonderful reading.

  2. My husband loves Montaigne. I have tried him, but failed. It was me. I will try him again. C.J. also loved this biography, too.

    BTW I’ve moved to jamesreadsbooks.com. Something went wonky with Ready When You Are, C.B. and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh no! Were you able to save your posts? Ready When You Are should certainly be saved.

      And Montaigne seems like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, you know. Do try it again, but don’t force it. It’s the sort of thing you can dip into and out of, not the sort of thing to read in a sustained flood.

      • Thank you. The blog is still there, but for some reason no one can find it anymore unless they go looking. I’m migrating most of my old posts to the new site. It’s kind of nice to get a chance to review them all and select the ones worth keeping.

      • Thank you. I’ve saved all the posts. They are still there, but no one seems to be finding them anymore. I’m moving the better ones to my new blog.

  3. Montaigne is so fascinating, and as someone with a literary blog, I really appreciate your in-depth analysis of this. Great writing!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! And yes, Montaigne is wonderful — it’s nice to have a good biography to point the way. (Quand le doigt montre le ciel, l’imbécile regarde le doigt.)

  4. Stefanie says:

    I have this book on my shelf and have been meaning to read it for ages. I love Montaigne. Thanks for reminding me I need to get to it!

    • Jenny says:

      I remember when you were reading Montaigne! Your reviews were fantastic. This biography won’t tell you much you don’t know, but you might enjoy it anyway.

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