DH: For many years now, I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essays. They’ve won the place of honor on my night table, a highly contested space. And I’ve always dreamed of someday finding someone who could answer my questions about the mysterious M, who is my friend who lives inside a book.  But now that I’ve met Sarah Bakewell, whose new book, How to Live from the smashing Other Press, is all about Montaigne, I find myself tongue-tied.

I think my best course would be to reread Sarah’s book which is so suggestively rich with other literary pathways to follow. Reading How to Live is like wandering in a sun-dappled forest of literature. There are so many paths to take, so many hints of other great writers to explore, that you could never track them all down from one reading. This book’s a keeper, the most literate “self-help” book that you’ll ever find.

But there is one prime question that Sarah Bakewell’s WWFIL is designed to answer. And that is to get into the mind of the bibliophile who is only hinted at in her wonderfully singular  book about Montaigne.

I swear, wait till you read this WWFIL. It’s a pip.

“When we fell in love” – By Sarah Bakewell

Oct 2010

I think of myself as an impatient reader. I’m quick to throw any book aside the second it gets boring.  At the same time, I have a thing about monster-books – the kinds that make outrageous demands on the reader and defiantly outstay their welcome.  Thus, I like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.  You could pile all those up and tie them together with string, and they would make a pretty good full-height barstool.

Of them all, Montaigne is the oldest and greatest.  He lived from 1533 to 1592 in southwestern France, and spent the best years of his life writing a hundred or so elaborate, rambling efforts which he called ‘Essays’, meaning something like ‘Tries’.  He put in everything that came to mind: snippets from his reading, stories about his neighbours, witty anecdotes, political reflections, obscene classical verses, tales of his cat stalking birds or his dog dreaming by the fire, and odd rumours picked up on his travels.  Above all, he wrote about his own existence – about what it felt like to be Michel de Montaigne.  He complained about his bad memory, mused on why his tastes had changed from red to white wine and back again, reflected on what it felt like to write essays, and wondered why his whole attitude to the world seemed to change when he had a headache or a corn on his toe.

I discovered Montaigne by chance twenty years ago, when I was looking for something to read on a train from Budapest.  A selection from the Essays was the only English-language book available in the station bookshop, so I bought it out of desperation.  I was afraid it would be dull, but instead I found myself meeting a person I felt I already knew well – a person just like me.  Since then, I’ve never stopped reading Montaigne. He’s usually by my bedside, and five years ago I yielded to the obvious temptation and began writing a book about him myself.

The Essays is a barstool-book all right: in full, it runs to over a thousand pages.  But you can dip in and out of it to your heart’s content. No one expects you to read it from beginning to end, least of all Montaigne himself. As with any good barstool, you can fall off occasionally, then right yourself without much difficulty or loss of dignity.

But my reading adventures began with much smaller books, and I still love dreamlike miniatures like Kafka’s short stories (skewed gems like “The Cares of a Family Man” and “The Bucket Rider”), or Thomas Bernhard’s collection of 104 micro-narratives, The Voice Imitator.

One of my first loves was The Land of the Thinsies, by a long-forgotten 1940s children’s author called Dorothy Ann Lovell.  It was my mother’s book originally, but it crept on to my bookshelf and I read it when I was about eight.

In my memory, it tells a long and convoluted science-fiction story about a little girl who goes off by herself to catch a London Underground train.  Wearing a red cape and carrying a yellow basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, she enters the station using that strange modern device, an escalator.  (It wasn’t so strange or modern, actually: London’s first escalator had been introduced in 1911.)  She rides down, but fails to step off at the bottom, and so finds herself sucked through the crack into a weird underground world.

A subterranean sun shines above her head, and people go about their business, but everything is oddly different. At last it dawns on her: everybody is flat – and she is flat too!  They have all arrived through the escalator, which has squeezed them like laundry in a wringer.  They have become “thinsies”.

The girl tries to find her way back, but the new land’s geography is confusing, and she meets peculiar travelling companions who only compound the difficulties further. She finds herself on a railway platform, trying to buy a ticket from a flat ticket machine. Later she sets sail on a raft which sinks – but only a few inches, as the lake is flat.  Only after many adventures does she find her way back to the surface, though I forget exactly how.

That’s as much as I remember from my childhood.  About a year ago, I wanted to read it again and tracked the title down at the British Library.  Big mistake!  The experience was so disappointing that I expunged it from my mind, which is why I still can’t remember how the girl makes her escape.  What I’d previously recalled as a great baroque castle of a book, Alice-like in its labyrinthine clarity, is actually about 40 pages long, with a story as flimsy as the thinsies are thinsy.  I still like the pictures, which are unsettlingly large, flat and washed-out.  But the story itself is too small.

I wonder now, though, whether it matters.  A book is what happens in the minds of its readers, after all.  If I can dip into Montaigne’s Essays and Proust’s for a mere ten minutes at a time, and bob around spotting a few bright fish and shells under the surface before my attention drifts elsewhere, then why shouldn’t I keep the Thinsies as it always was – a vast lake, on which I can row for hours without striking land, and forget to come home until long after dark?  Both are just ways of loving a book, and both may have very little to do with the book itself.


DH: How to Live is an offbeat biography of the offbeat writer Montaigne. If you don’t recognize Montaigne as offbeat, it’s because his eccentricity has become your own, making the previously abnormal the new center.

Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne is really offbeat twice over since it’s a very Brit view of a French writer. So much so that I would as strongly recommend it to Anglophiles as I would recommend Dickens or Virginia Woolf. The latter writer appears so prominently in the pages of this book that I thought for a few moments that I was reading a book about Virginia and Leonard Woolf and their circle rather than a book about a 16th century French writer. But many other writers also take star turns in “How to Live”, giving their take on how to read the chameleon M.

How to Live is a book about books as much as being a biography. A self-help book for bibliophiles should be a book that reads like a bibliography anyway. A book, or a blog post, that invites you take paths in many directions. So I am sorry that Borges did not live to read this biography. He would have loved it. Please consider that his ghost has made the recommendation that you read it.

Each of 20 chapters begins with the title phrase “How to Live” followed by the antiphonal response, like a secular catechism, of a provisional answer. Example: 12 Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity. I can see myself returning to these chapters at random when I need a refresher course in serious self-help.

As for who Montaigne was, I promised myself that I would not go to the Wikipedia entry or to the Bakewell biography for help. Montaigne was a 16th century guy, a total mensch, who lived on his family estate in the region of Montaigne not that far from the town of Bordeaux. His family estate produced wine. But Montaigne, after a political life with some hard knocks, preferred his tower writing room with his favorite books. art chachkas and commanding view of the countryside. I loved it that his wife had her own tower retreat on the other side of the chateau and that the family rooms were in the middle where card games were sometimes played.

M was the first modern essayist and still the best, having evolved the form himself from earlier, stiffer, models. His essays were an instant bestseller in his day. And SB has fascinating sections in How to Live about M’s roller coaster reputation through generations of writers.

It’s very hard indeed to see a book for itself and not for what you or your era are reading into it. Montaigne is a mirror. His readers are always saying that they feel like they know him personally. I feel that way. When I read his essays, I feel the presence of a best friend in the room. Some readers feel that they are reading about themselves.

M wrote about himself. That made him offbeat. And he would as soon tell you about his digestion or tell animal stories than what he thought about the Stoics or the religious civil wars that crippled his nation. He was a storyteller, weaving chains of anecdotes like a 16th century literary Reader’s Digest.

SB tells us that Thackeray quipped the titles of M’s essays were interchangeable. Or that you could have given them nonsense titles like “On Melted Cheese” and it wouldn’t have mattered. The subject was always the performance of writing which consisted for Montaigne of being himself. There is no better guide to being self-possessed without cant, without grandstanding, without ideology.

That’s why I mean that M’s “abnormality” has become our new normal. In our culture, you can’t get celebrities to stop talking about themselves, publishing books about themselves that they haven’t written, and…QUELLE HORREUR…encouraging whitewashing documentaries to be produced about themselves by their personal friends. We’ve turned Montaigne’s earthy sanity into perverse nonsense. But blogging, I hope, gives everyone the chance to have a personal tower from which to view the landscape.