Thursday, March 7, 2013

Montaigne and his Essais

Montaigne's tower library where he worked on his essais.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell is a brilliant book.

I will tell you why. 

It is well written and never, ever boring. It takes a look at the life of a man who lived in 16th century France, a landowner and nobleman who suffered from excruciating bouts with kidney stones, served as mayor of Bordeaux in southwestern France, was married, and advised kings. 

Not much in common with this 21st century woman of a certain age. 

And yet, he retired to the tower library of his chateau one day (wouldn't I love to do that!) and over the course of twenty years wrote about his life. Not about his life as it should be but how it was. Life with all its pains and joys, its contradictions and certitudes (of which he discovered there were few). He wrote not about his great deeds or achievements, or historical events. Instead he wrote of his own experiences with friendship, cruelty, cannibals, smells, thumbs, and how we cry and laugh for the same thing.

Montaigne managed to write a hundred and seven essays, or essais. In fact, he invented the form. 

Ms. Bakewell explains:

Essays has no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it. Montaigne lets his material pour out, and never worries if he has said one thing on one page and the opposite overleaf, or even in the next sentence.

By structuring her book as answers to the question How to Live we come to know Montaigne through historical events, his deeds and accomplishments all of which he didn't write about himself. And we come to know Montaigne through his own writings, his own accidental philosophies, as he would call them.

The answers (and chapter headings) to the question How to Live include Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Survive love and loss; Question everything; See the world; Be ordinary and imperfect; and, Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne's own answers come from studying the classical Stoic and the Epicurean philosophies. Not abstract instructions but practical down-to-earth ways to approach life. We learn what worked for him, what didn't work, what he suffered and what he enjoyed. 

The books is simply a marvelous way of learning about the man, both his time in history, his travels, and his thoughts. 

One of the nice things about reading the Kindle edition borrowed from the library is that I could highlight passages to my heart's content - something I most likely wouldn't do in a paper book. And surprisingly, when the book disappeared from the Kindle after its 14-day loan period and I checked it out again, my highlighted sections were still marked. 

Because of this book, which I highly recommend, I purchased a volume of twenty-five of Montaigne's essays and am ready to dip into them. I have tried Montaigne before but just in bits and pieces. I feel that after reading Ms. Bakewell's book I am ready to try even larger chunks of his essays on How to Live.


  1. Belle, you certainly make me want to read Montaigne and Sarah Bakewell's book!

    1. Oh Kat. This really is a wonderful, inventive book. Not in the least your dry and-then-he/she-did-this type of biography. I feel as if I really know M. Montaigne and his times. And to think his Essays have been around for over 400 years and still speak to the reader today. I especially liked that Ms. Bakewell quoted so often from them. Excellent.

  2. ...."I purchased a volume of twenty-five of Montaigne's essays"
    You wont regret it however I do warn you when you start reading his many words of wisdom you wont be able to stop.

    1. I know you commented that you have his complete works which I assume includes his letters and travel journal. What a treasure! I thought I would start off with a selection of his essays and then 'supersize' later. Any of the essays you especially love?

      As always, thanks for your thoughts, Tullik.

    2. Hello Belle!
      I loved all but one (the insightful one on Cruelty to Animals) I'm afraid I can't read anything of this nature as I believe there is a particularly nasty place in Dante's Inferno for those who would mistreat an animal. Just my personal taste and while I admire Hemingway's craft many decades ago i decided I could no longer read any of his work due to his strange love and propensity for trophy hunting.

    3. I hear you, Tullik. I tried reading Hemingway's "Green Hills of Africa" but had to stop. It was too painful.

      I don't see an essay in my collection specifically on Cruelty to Animals although there is one titled "Of Cruelty". Perhaps that is a different one. I will tread lightly.