in her cunning reconstruction of Michel de Montaigne's life (or perhaps more
accurately, of his mind), Sarah Bakewell admits that in our age "the word 'essay'
falls with a dull thud." Montaigne may have virtually created the form and
with it his own fame, but the essay brings the dread high school term paper
balefully to mind. It takes keen devotion and some sparkling writing to save
the essay (and its sixteenth-century inventor) from its reputation.
Not that Montaigne is a
bore who needs rouging up. He has disarmed readers over four centuries, as
generation after generation "discover" him. In reading his musings
about himself they find -- themselves. "It seemed to me," Emerson wrote
in baffled admiration, "as if I had myself written the book, in some
former life." A century later, André Gide said pretty much the same thing:
"It seems he is my very self."
discovery, still startling today, was that the self is not a problem, not even
a subject, but rather a finely calibrated instrument whose purpose is to pay
attention to the world. Following that hunch, he made a very modern leap,
writing steadfastly from the idiosyncrasies of his point of view. He proved
that individual consciousness constructs a mirror not just for the writer, but
for readers to see themselves as well..Montaigne
weaves his way, seemingly at random, over the sun and shade of existence, using
his own consciousness as a probe to enduring questions.
Bakewell begins, as
Montaigne does, with the vexing classical philosophical question of how to die
well. It becomes for Montaigne the more immediate question of how to overcome
fear of death, a terror that disfigured his youth. He tweezes apart the tangled
strands of his own near-death experience (a violent fall from his horse), and
meditates on the strangely relaxed
sensation of letting go he experienced at that violent moment.
This is reminiscent of
Tolstoy's description of the wounded Prince André on the field of Austerlitz in War and Peace, the uncanny calm, the free float of the self
knocked off its moorings. As Montaigne writes his way around his own
experience, he finds there is, after all, nothing to fear: death itself, as
part of nature, supplies its own answers when the time comes.
The lifting of that terror
plunges Montaigne into his essential task -- How to Live, the "One Question"
that Bakewell poses, organizing her book into twenty "attempts" to
investigate this mystery. Her word "attempt" is a salute to Montaigne's
project, for the word he gave his writing -- essai -- did
not denote a literary form as it does for us. In French it simply meant -- and
means -- "a try," or as Bakewell jauntily puts it, to give something a
whirl. Montaigne's essais are the opposite of set pieces. They
are hops, skips, jumps. They meander, they circle back, they contradict
themselves, shift gears, come to full stops and lurch off again. In this the
reader sees the one essential quality of the essayist: the mind at work (or at
play?), paying attention, attempting (that Montaignean word) to make sense of
sensation, observation, and perception.
twenty "attempts" at answers (including Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Read a lot, forget most of what
you read; Be slow-witted; Keep a private room behind the shop; Be convivial
with others; Be ordinary and imperfect) provide staging areas where she
considers Montaigne's project and life. Her tone is immediate and
searching -- very much Montaigne's tone. The scholarship necessary for the book is
deftly tucked into the narrative, never clouding the stride of what are, after
all, her own essays.
It is curious -- something of
a tour de force -- that only at the end does it occur that Bakewell has not
written in the first person. Alain de Botton's charming book, The Consolations of Philosophy (which includes a chapter on Montaigne), has many
self-referential gestures, but Bakewell suits up as a literary detective,
searching out the mystery of Montaigne's impulse without any autobiographical
vignettes (except in the acknowledgements, where she tells how she came to read
Montaigne to begin with -- completely by chance, in the off-hand style of her
She has managed to bring "the
first modern man" (as Montaigne is sometimes labeled) to life for our age,
tipping in vivid quotations from the Essais
and giving the microphone to a writer who was, finally, all voice. Her book has
the narrative pace and drive of a novel, perhaps because at its core a life is
at stake. Whether it is Montaigne's or Bakewell's or the reader's is impossible
to say, but that is the magnificent achievement of this beguiling book.
At the beginning of this delightful book about Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), British author Bakewell (The English Dane) notes that Montaigne's essays "rarely offer to explain or teach anything." There's no moralizing. He wrote about how to live, not how one should live, unlike, for example, Francis Bacon, whose essays are from the same period. Using the question "How to live" as her framework, Bakewell gives us not only a biography of Montaigne but an exploration of the themes of his essays, a history of reaction to them both negative (e.g., René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, T.S. Eliot) and positive (e.g., Denis Diderot, Stefan Zweig, Virginia Woolf), and their implications and value for us today. VERDICT This is a rich book, both because of its subject and because Bakewell has a wondrous way with words. It's an exceptionally readable explication of serious ideas, drawn from a man whom we could all benefit from knowing better. Readers who have appreciated Alain de Botton's popular excursions into philosophy, e.g., How Proust Can Change Your Life, will love this book as well.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Former Wellcome Library curator Bakewell (Creative Writing/City Univ. London; The English Dane: A Life of Jorgen Jorgenson, 2005, etc.) sketches the life of essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) and traces his evolving reputation.
The author notes that Montaigne is particularly appropriate in our time, "[a century] full of people who are full of themselves." He was a revolutionary writer, the founding father of the personal essay and the man who realized that his own life could serve as a mirror for others. Bakewell identifies 20 Montaignian answers to her title's question, though her treatment of each answer varies both in length and focus. Some answers occasion major biographical attention; others are dense summaries of the philosophical positions of the day. Some comprise Bakewell's appealing summaries and analyses of the essays; others elicit her thoughts on Montaigne's stature in the literary world. By the end of the book, readers will have a good sense of the sweep of the subject's life and times and writing. Among the highlights: Montaigne's notion that reading ought to be pleasurable, even exciting (he loved Ovid, Virgil, Plutarch); Bakewell's account of the profound early friendship of Montaigne and fellow French philosopher Étienne de La Boétie, whose early death devastated Montaigne; Montaigne's careful choreography with the church and its leaders, kings and other dignitaries; his late-life relationship with Marie de Gournay, who became his posthumous editor and whose work remains both revered and disdained. Bakewell describes Montaigne's travels, his physical ailments (kidney stones killed his father and plagued Montaigne as well) and his fascinations with the ordinary—from eating habits to sexual practices to observations that cats and people occupy the same space and observe one another with interest.
A bright, genial and generous introduction to the master's methods.
…packed with useful information…How to Live touches on every aspect of Montaigne's thought, life and influence, and culminates in a fascinating chapter on the complicated textual history of the Essays.
The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“This charming biography shuffles incidents from Montaigne’s life and essays into twenty thematic chapters…Bakewell clearly relishes the anthropological anecdotes that enliven Montaigne’s work, but she handles equally well both his philosophical influences and the readers and interpreters who have guided the reception of the essays.” —The New Yorker
“Serious, engaging, and so infectiously in love with its subject that I found myself racing to finish so I could start rereading the Essays themselves…It is hard to imagine a better introduction—or reintroduction—to Montaigne than Bakewell’s book.” —Lorin Stein, Harper’s Magazine
“Ms. Bakewell’s new book, How to Live, is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries.” —The New York Times
“So artful is Bakewell’s account of [Montaigne] that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary…a miracle of complex, revelatory organization, for as Bakewell moves along she provides a brilliant demonstration of the alchemy of historical viewpoint.” —Boston Globe
“Well, How to Live is a superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious, and wise.” —Nick Hornby, in the November/December 2010 issue of The Believer
“In How to Live, an affectionate introduction to the author, Bakewell argues that, far from being a dusty old philosopher, Montaigne has never been more relevant—a 16th-century blogger, as she would have it—and so must be read, quite simply, ‘in order to live’…Bakewell is a wry and intelligent guide.” —The Daily Beast
“Witty, unorthodox…How to Live is a history of ideas told entirely on the ground, never divorced from the people thinking them. It hews close to Montaigne’s own preoccupations, especially his playful uncertainty – Bakewell is a stickler for what we can’t know. …How to Live is a delight…” —The Plain Dealer
“This book will have new readers excited to be acquainted to Montaigne’s life and ideas, and may even stir their curiosity to read more about the ancient Greek philosophers who influenced his writing. How to Live is a great companion to Montaigne’s essays, and even a great stand-alone.” —San Francisco Book Review
“A bright, genial, and generous introduction to the master’s methods.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[Bakewell reveals] one of literature's enduring figures as an idiosyncratic, humane, and surprisingly modern force.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)
“As described by Sarah Bakewell in her suavely enlightening How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Montaigne is, with Walt Whitman, among the most congenial of literary giants, inclined to shrug over the inevitability of human failings and the last man to accuse anyone of self-absorption. His great subject, after all, was himself.” —Laura Miller, Salon.com
“Lively and fascinating . . . How To Live takes its place as the most enjoyable introduction to Montaigne in the English language.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Splendidly conceived and exquisitely written . . . enormously absorbing.” —Sunday Times
“How to Live will delight and illuminate.” —The Independent
“It is ultimately [Montaigne’s] life-loving vivacity that Bakewell succeeds in communicating to her readers.” —The Observer
“This subtle and surprising book manages the trick of conversing in a frank and friendly manner with its centuries-old literary giant, as with a contemporary, while helpfully placing Montaigne in a historical context. The affection of the author for her subject is palpable and infectious.” —Phillip Lopate, author of The Art of the Personal Essay
“An intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world.” —Saturday Telegraph
“Like recent books on Proust, Joyce, and Austen, How to Live skillfully plucks a life-guide from the incessant flux of Montaigne’s prose . . . A superb, spirited introduction to the master.” —The Guardian
“[How to Live] is written in the form of a delightful conversation across the ages with one of the most appealing, likeable writers who ever lived.” —Independent Mail
"More than just a straightforward biography of Michel de Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell cleverly breaks away from chronology to explore the fundamental questions of living through the philosophy, beliefs, essays and experiences of the French master we often reference as the “father” of “essay.”—Cerise Press
"[A] must-read in its entirety." —Brainpickings
"Bakewell’s writing style is equal parts fluid and fascinating." —The Flâneur’s Turtle
Read an Excerpt
The riding accident, which so altered Montaigne’s perspective, lasted only a few moments in itself, but one can unfold it into three parts and spread it over several years. First, there is Montaigne lying on the ground, clawing at his stomach while experiencing euphoria. Then comes Montaigne in the weeks and months that followed, reflecting on the experience and trying to reconcile it with his philosophical reading. Finally, there is Montaigne a few years later, sitting down to write about it – and about a multitude of other things. The first scene could have happened to anyone; the second to any sensitive, educated young man of the Renaissance. The last makes Montaigne unique.
The connection is not a simple one: he did not sit up in bed and immediately start writing about the accident. He began the Essays a couple of years later, around 1572, and, even then, he wrote other chapters before coming to the one about losing consciousness. When he did turn to it, however, the experience made him try a new kind of writing, barely attempted by other writers: that of re-creating a sequence of sensations as they felt from the inside, following them from instant to instant.