On Being an Essayist

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Books Literature
Montaigne: What a life

My first thought on seeing the title and sub-title of this book was: how to irritate, in one immediately successful attempt. The thought persisted on looking at the chapter-headings: “Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss”; “Q. How to live? A. Give up control”; “Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect.” At first glance, this is just an example of an all-too-familiar modern publishing phenomenon, a Chicken Soup for the Soul-type of book, with new, added, bite-sized chunks of extra-nutritious Montaigne.

However, it deserves more glances than that. The main substance of the book does indeed consist of a life of Montaigne. And that is something worth having, since the famous essayist — despite writing so much about himself — has been strangely under-biographised, at least in the English language. But the treatment is not narrowly biographical. Sarah Bakewell also has much to say about how Montaigne has been read and thought about by subsequent generations, from Pascal to T. S. Eliot. This is a rich, wide-ranging and — inevitably — essayistic study, written with intelligence and an impressive lightness of touch.

As for the “how to live” refrain, that is mostly a presentational gimmick, and the reader quickly learns to ignore it (aided, early on, by the fatuous title of the chapter which tells the story of Montaigne’s birth and childhood: “Q. How to live? A. Be born”). Mostly a gimmick, but not entirely, though: the question was certainly one that preoccupied Renaissance thinkers, as they pondered the ethical maxims and principles of the ancient world. Montaigne did think about it too. But, as this book amply shows, he asked himself many questions and supplied few definite answers; the whole idea of turning to him for any kind of final prescriptive advice is mistaken.

Montaigne hesitated to lay down absolute rules for others, because he was simultaneously aware of two things: that he was a somewhat ordinary character, with many humdrum weaknesses and failings, and that he was in some ways quite odd. The story of his life tends to confirm this. Born into a minor noble family with estates in Guyenne (near Bordeaux), he was educated in accordance with the whims of his distinctly odd father, Pierre-an amateur gymnast who, as Montaigne later recalled, “could do a turn over the table on his thumb” when in his sixties. Pierre ordered the entire household to talk Latin to his infant son, and so Montaigne was brought up as a monoglot Latin-speaker. The experiment ended at the age of six, when he was sent to a normal school and began to speak French. But the sense of being different must have entered his soul at that time and it seems that it never quite left him.

Much of his life thereafter followed the usual pattern for someone of his class and background: legal training, then employment as a lawyer and magistrate in Périgueux and Bordeaux; a good marriage (probably not a love-match) to a girl from a respectable Bordeaux family; inheritance of his father’s estate; and withdrawal from city life to look after it. But there were also some quite distinctive things that set Montaigne’s life apart: a very intense relationship (intellectual, emotional, but not sexual) with a brilliant friend, Etienne de la Boétie, who died of the plague; and a near-death experience, from a riding accident, when Montaigne’s sense that his life was ebbing away gave him, to his astonishment, a feeling of delicious euphoria.

Bakewell presents this near-death experience as the crucial turning point in Montaigne’s life, and she may well be right. At some deep psychological level, Montaigne underwent a kind of liberation-from then on, he felt able just to take life as it came. While earnest moralists and theologians described the task of life as learning how to die, Montaigne could write: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.” Here was an example of book-loads of theory and doctrine being overturned by one precious piece of direct experience; from now on, experience would be his guide, and the nature of experience, with all its oddities — quirks of perception, contradictory feelings and so on — would be the object of his study.

Hence the Essays, which presented an individual mind and personality in a way that no individual had ever been presented before. Bakewell writes well about the impact of the Essays, both on Montaigne’s contemporaries and on later readers. She also gives a valuable account of the “editing wars” that have taken place since the 19th century, as scholars have struggled to establish which of the various versions of the text represents Montaigne’s thinking in its fullest and final form. And she describes the impact of publication on Montaigne’s own life: fame, royal patronage and the admiring attentions of his eventual editor Marie de Gournay on the one hand, and on the other hand the tut-tutting of scholarly friends offended by sexual details and Gascon colloquialisms.

Writing a life of Montaigne is a rather paradoxical enterprise: readers want to know about his life in order to deepen their understanding of the Essays, yet much of the biographical information has to be drawn from that text itself and Montaigne’s own words give us a much more vivid sense of the unique nature of the man than any biography could ever achieve. Yet, in her own quirky and roundabout way, Bakewell has performed this task unusually well. The Montaigne-ness of Montaigne is what fascinates us when we read him; and something of it has indeed been captured in these pages. In comparison with that, the little “how to live” lessons, telling us what to do in order to be like Montaigne, are neither here nor there.