July 12, 2010
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.