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.