A week ago I decided to write something about every book that I finish in June, and so far–not surprisingly–I’ve only written a few half-finished but already-too-long pieces on several books, starting with one that I finished toward the end of May: Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live – or – A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
Before reading How to Live, I didn’t know much about Michel de Montaigne. I knew he was French, that he lived a long time ago, that he’d written essays (one or two of which I’d read in anthologies) and that the English word ‘essay’ comes from his use of the French word ‘essai,’ a nominative form of the verb ‘essayer,’ meaning ‘to try.’ I also knew that he must have written a lot of essays because every time I sell his book to someone I notice that it is very, very thick.
And that was about it.
But now I know much more, not only about Montaigne, who lived from 1533 to 1592, but also about the history of France during his lifetime, about the tradition of philosophy and particularly philosophical skepticism, stretching back to the ancient and forward to the post-post-moderns, and about the influence Montaigne had on his contemporaries and continues to have on writers and thinkers today.
In How to Live Bakewell creates not only a portrait of the man behind the essays but also a full and dynamic panorama of the world in which Montaigne lived, both personal and political. She writes of the wars, plagues and political unrest which wracked France in the 16th century, describes the layout of Montaigne’s chateau (complete with its separate his and hers towers) and painfully details the incredible agony of the kidney stones Montaigne suffered from, complications of which eventually led to his death.
This is one of the best and most enjoyable biographies I’ve ever read. From the first paragraph I felt like Bakewell was a really talented writer, and like I was about to be immersed in, if nothing else, a thoroughly well-written book. But How to Live is more than simply well-written–it’s well and subtly structured, a book that sweeps you along within a narrative so disarmingly loose and conversational that the great ingenuity and attention involved in its creation could easily go unnoticed. Each chapter offers a different answer to the question of “How to live?,” but though the chapters themselves seem titularly unrelated, together they form a cohesive and compelling whole, thus echoing Bakewell’s descriptions of the structure (if that’s the appropriate word for this gigantic and digressive body of writing) of Montaigne’s essays .
And beyond creating a biography of Montaigne and of the world he lived in, Bakewell clearly intends How to Live to be a biography of the essays themselves. She follows their evolving critical reception throughout the past 400 years, chronicling the attitudes of their most ardent admirers and passionate detractors. One of the most fascinating aspects of Montaigne’s writing, in Bakewell’s account, is its ability to act as a mirror into the souls of readers from different countries, languages and eras. Montaigne is a favorite of so many of my favorites (Virginia Woolf) that I wasn’t surprised to like him, and in Bakewell’s skilled and agile hands, it wasn’t hard to come to love him, either.
It was also fascinating to read this book about a man who spent years of his life documenting his own mental state in an ever-expanding, constantly-revised and enormous opus, and then to relate that creation to our era of electronic self-revelation. As Bakewell points out in her introduction, Montaigne—who might be one of the world’s first and most prolific over-sharers—is a predecessor of some sort or other to all of the blogs, LiveJournals and Facebook pages on which people present and reveal themselves today.
From here all sorts of questions occurred to me: is the simple act of writing about yourself, recording your activities, moods and thoughts, etc., inherently valuable? As an activity or as a product? As both? Valuable to yourself? To others? And what was it about Montaigne–about his reflections, the originality of his writing both in style and content, and perhaps about the unique texture of his mind, that has made him such a lasting figure in Western thought? Can we still learn from him? In her twenty attempts at answering the single question of “How to Live,” Bakewell’s attempts to answer–and to ask–so many other questions, many of the same ones Montaigne started asking over four centuries ago. How to Live is a thorough explanation of why such questions still matter, why trying to answer them is still worthwhile, why Montaigne was and continues to be influential, why his biography is fascinating, why his essays continue to be read, and why they should be.