Sarah Bakewell Michel De Montaigne Essays

How do you avoid pointless arguments? How do you get over the death of someone you love? How do you balance the need to feel safe against the need to feel free? How do you deal with fanatics? How do you make the most of every moment?

Such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger conundrum: How do you live?  This subject obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, considered by many to be the first truly modern author.

Living from 1533 to 1592, in a France dominated by bloody and miserable  civil war, he maintained as private a life as possible while writing 107 lively, revealing pieces which he called essais, or “tries” – a term he was the first to use in this  way.  He meant them not as pedantic  treatises, but as attempts or experiments upon himself.  Here are some of his titles:

By diverse means we arrive at the same end.
Our feelings reach out beyond us.
Of friendship.
Of cannibals.
Of the custom of wearing clothes.
How we cry and laugh for the same thing.
How our mind hinders itself.
Of diversion.
Of coaches.
Of experience.

Montaigne’s essays are free-roaming explorations of his thoughts and experience, filled with anecdotes and personal reflections. More than four hundred years later, his honesty and charm still draw readers to him in search of companionship and wisdom – as well as sheer enjoyment.

How To Live takes an unconventional approach to telling Montaigne’s life, through the questions he asked himself, and the very different ways in which readers have adapted his perspective over the years.

It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography in the U.S. and the Duff Cooper Prize for Non-Fiction in the U.K., and was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Marsh Biography Award.

U.K.: Chatto & WIndus, 2010. Vintage paperback, 2011.

U.S.: Other Press 2011, paperback 2012.

Available at your local bookshop, or via Amazon (U.K here and U.S. here). And I like the Guardian Bookshop (U.K), here.

Also available as a Kindle e-book (U.K. here, U.S. here), and audiobook (U.K. here, U.S. here).

Translations:

Chinese (Complex) (Business Weekly Publications, Taiwan) – follow this link.

Dutch: Hoe te leven: een leven van Montaigne. Van Gennep, 2012.

French: Comment vivre? Une vie de Montaigne, Albin Michel, 2013; Livre de Poche, 2014.

German: Wie soll ich leben? oder das Leben Montaignes  C.H. Beck, 2012.

Italian: Montaigne: l’arte di vivere , Fazi Editore, 2011.

Portuguese (Brazil): Como viver: ou Uma biografia de Montaigne … Editora Objetiva, 2012.

Slovenian: Kako živeti? Življenje Michela de Montaigna …Janez Penca, 2013.

Spanish: Como vivir: una vida con Montaigne Ariel, 2011.

Turkish: Nasıl Yaşanır ya da Bir Soruda Montaigne’in Hayatı Domingo, 2013.

Other translations are also available or forthcoming in Chinese (Simplified/Mainland), Czech, Finnish and Korean.

Reviewers said:

“A superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious, and wise. … I’d be surprised if I read a richer book in the next twelve months.” Nick Hornby, The Believer.

“A brilliant and unconventional biography. … A sophisticated mini-history of philosophy, but it reads like a late-night talk with a friend.” Kathryn Schulz, Boston Globe.

“It is hard to imagine a better introduction – or reintroduction- to Montaigne.” Lorin Stein, Harper’s.

“Splendidly conceived and exquisitely written … enormously absorbing.” James McConnachie, The Sunday Times

“A superb, spirited introduction to the master.” Adam Thorpe, The Guardian

The movie version:

The audio version (talking to Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds of Philosophy Bites):

Ms. Bakewell’s new book, “How to Live” (Other Press), is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries. The subtitle — “Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” — serves as an organizing principle.

The book has received rave reviews in Britain, where it was published this year. “A superb, spirited introduction to the master,” The Guardian wrote. Salon called the American edition “suavely enlightening.”

Montaigne is considered the creator of the essay, a form that melds the intellectual and the personal, and his musings have inspired countless writers, including William Hazlitt, Friedrich Nietzsche and Virginia Woolf. Ms. Bakewell would add every blogger, tweeter, Facebooker and YouTuber to that list.

“This idea — writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity — has not existed forever,” Ms. Bakewell writes. “It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person.”

Montaigne wrote about whatever crossed his mind: animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. “Essayer” means “to try” in French, or as Ms. Bakewell adds, “to test, or to taste it, or give it a whirl.”

“He has this way of adding things as they occur to him, even adding things into the middle of an essay,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Clapham, in south London.

Others have noted this affinity. Montaigne is “the quintessential blogger,” declared Andrew Sullivan, who writes for The Atlantic, someone who dared “to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older.”

Ms. Bakewell’s discovery of Montaigne owes something to chance. About to begin a long train ride from Budapest to London 20 years ago, she stopped in a secondhand bookshop across the street from the station.

“It only had one book in English, which was a selection of his essays,” she said. She expected a turgid, heavy-handed treatise and was delighted to find airy prose, wit and a kindred spirit who confessed to having a bad memory and being prone to vanity.

There is a haphazard streak in Ms. Bakewell’s upbringing as well. Her parents ran a guest house in the seaside town of Bournemouth until she was 5, and then the family set off for a two-year excursion through India in a camper. Later they settled in Sydney, Australia, where her father worked as a bookseller and her mother as a librarian.

Educated in England at Essex University, Ms. Bakewell, 47, started work as a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London in the early 1990s. Some of the extraordinary tales she encountered inspired her to return to her childhood habit of writing. Her first book, “The Smart,” is about an 18th-century forgery trial she came across at work.

“It was very much a story of its time,” she said. “It was an age when people were fascinated by money, celebrity and crime.” The twin brothers involved in the forgery ring were ultimately executed.

She quit working full time in 2002 to devote more energy to writing, and in 2005 published “The English Dane,” about Jorgen Jorgenson, a 19th-century Danish adventurer who ended up stirring a revolution in Iceland to break from Denmark’s control.

Montaigne was next. Ms. Bakewell learned that he was the subject of an unusual experiment in child-rearing. His father, Pierre, wanting his son to absorb the ways of commoners, had him live with a wet nurse until he was weaned, with only occasional visits by his parents.

Then he decided that Michel should speak Latin — the key to scholarly knowledge and a successful career — like a native. So although he and his wife had just a bare-bones command of Latin, he ordered full immersion, hiring a tutor to speak to Michel only in Latin, and forbidding anyone else in the household from speaking to him in any other language, including his native French, until age 6.

In Ms. Bakewell’s eyes this odd education “benefited him in exactly the areas where it also damaged him.” It set Montaigne apart, she notes, and gave him an independent mind but instilled a certain detachment and skepticism that cut him off from more conventional ambitions.

In an essay on education, published in 1580 as part of his first collection, Montaigne spoke well of his own experience, emphasizing that learning should be fun. Yet everyday advice does not capture the essence of his work, Ms. Bakewell cautions. Although other contemporary authors have turned members of the canon like Proust, Austen and even Joyce into latter-day advice gurus, Ms. Bakewell said she had something different in mind.

“The distinction between self-help and academic philosophy wouldn’t have made much sense to him,” she said.

The 20 attempts at an answer to “How to Live” that Ms. Bakewell describes in her book include: “Be born,” “Do a good job, but not too good a job,” and “Question everything.” But the one that resonates most strongly with her is “Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow-witted.”

Montaigne always complained of his “monstrously deficient” memory, so he didn’t bother accumulating facts, Ms. Bakewell explained. Much more important was the exposure to someone else’s experience and perspective. Reading and forgetting “let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led,” she writes, “which was all he really wanted to do.”

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