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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Books - How to Live - A Life of Montaigne in one questions and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

Star rating – 9/10

Two weeks ago I hadn’t even heard of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne – now, thanks to an obvious labour of love by Sarah Bakewell, I feel that I know him and like him, very well indeed. Montaigne appears to have been the first blogger, even before computers were invented. He was a Renaissance writer, who was also a magistrate and later major in his native Bordeaux, who retired to his family vineyard to write about life in general, and nothing in particular. In doing so he gained an army of fans, got his books banned by the Catholic Church in France, and had a jolly good time along the way.

Montaigne has won esteemed fans across the ages including the impressive collective minds of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire; Virginia Woolf; and Bernard Levin. Now that is a list of heavyweight thinkers if ever there was one. But what is all the fuss about? Well Montaigne was the first write to put down on record exactly what he thought about everyday aspects of his life, and what he thought about them. A veritable latter day Bridget Jones without the angst. He invented the ‘stream of consciousness’ long before the term itself was coined. As Sarah Bakewell observes, ‘most of his thought consists of a series of realisations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.’

His personal epiphany seems to have come with a near death experience when still a young man, when to outward observers he was in so much pain he was trying to rip his chest open with his bare hands; but to Montaigne himself he was transported to ecstasies of delight internally. He seems never to have taken life at face value again, but been keen to live each day as it comes, and to take each one by the scruff of the neck.

And I must confess he got my vote totally when I read about his relationship with his cat, where he tries to imagine how it must be for her to regard him, instead of just viewing the world through his own human eyes. ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’ he wonders. He ponders in his famous ‘Essays’ on what the world is like for all creatures through their own eyes, an almost revolutionary concept in sixteenth century Europe.

Bakewell brings Montaigne to life in this absorbing and delightful book. She affectionately writes about him as if he were also a modern day man with modern day failings. ‘He was the sort of man who would today keep himself busy with DIY work, and probably leave half of it unfinished.’ But he did have depths of emotion that coloured his whole view of the world, such as the deep friendship with his friend poet Étienne de La Boétie, and his utter desperation at his early death. He explains their love for one another by simply saying: ‘"Because it was him. Because it was me."

Montaigne is not afraid to write how he feels about the minutiae of life, rather than about what he has achieved – a radical concept for his day. And his skill at engaging his readers is captured by a quote from Bernard Levin, who remarked: ‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ”How did he know all that about me?”’

And I defy any reader of Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant new biography not to want to read Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ as a result – I will certainly be doing so very soon.

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