French exchange trips are rarely successful. Mine was particularly grisly, spent in the early adolescent fug of thirteen years old, with an exchange partner who refused to acknowledge my presence and his parents who were glacial and spent the dinners glaring alternatively at each other and at me as the cutlery chinked. It was in Périgueux, a town of unprepossessing architecture and limited interest for a spotty and rather studious teenager. The two weeks dragged their heels dreadfully, enlivened only by a book that was left by my bed in an uncharacteristic moment of thoughtfulness by Monsieur Le Van. It was an English translation of the Complete Essays of Périgueux’s most famous son, Michel de Montaigne. I read it voraciously – it was a lifeline – and was therefore interested to read about the life that inspired these essays.
Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live – A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer was initially concerning. The idea that dressing up the life of one of the Renaissance’s great thinkers as some sort of a self help manual struck me as a shallow publishing scam of the lowest order. Montaigne does offer a wealth of advice to the reader, some of which spoke particularly powerfully to the Nirvana-listening teenage me (“Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death”) but these words of advice are wrapped within so much intellectual foreplay in the essays that to isolate them would surely deprive them of the setting which allows these stones of sympathetic guidance to sparkle.
For where Montaigne is at his most powerful is in showing us the structure of his thinking, and in doing so allowing us to identify the workings of our own minds. In her essay on Montaigne, Virginia Woolf recognised that it was his capacity to show us ourselves that made Montaigne a master of his craft. He allows us into the deepest recesses of his mind, and we join him in questioning and then re-questioning the assumptions by which we live our lives. I opened the book with a degree of trepidation at the thought that I was about to embark on a version of Montaigne fed through Tony Robbins.
I needn’t have feared. Bakewell has used the question and answer structure as a very loose base for a wonderfully enigmatic and compelling biography. It is as if the great man himself is guiding her hand as she skips with engaging abandon between episodes from Montaigne’s life (and it is extraordinary to think that such a very modern writer was born in the same year as Elizabeth I) and thoughtful explorations of the essays and the philosophy behind them.
Bakewell correctly recognizes that it was an early (although at the time not unusual) encounter with death that shaped Montaigne’s thinking. He was mentored by the poet La Boétie in his youth and then watched as his dear friend died of plague. Several of his children died in their early years and he was almost killed himself when an unwary servant crashed into his diminutive master whilst they were out riding. Montaigne dealt with these crises by developing a form of benevolent skepticism with which to address the world. Bakewell situates this philosophy well both in terms of its antecedents in classical philosophy and its inheritors.
Any Cop?: Absolutely. How to Live is a joy to read: elegantly expressed and delightfully gripping. Whilst Bakewell sometimes struggles with identifying exactly who her audience is, (I wonder whether anyone reading a life of Montaigne needs quite so basic an introduction to Descartes and some of the classical philosophical schools) this is a minor complaint. Bakewell sets out to respond to the book’s title question with “an answer that Montaigne might be imagined as having given”. She succeeds convincingly.