Self recently wrote about a trip to the remote Orkney island of Rousay “fleeing a broken marriage and the physical objects of my addiction – if not the psychic furies that screamed attendance on them” and how he ended up reading Montaigne’s Essays for the first time. Here’s a little peak over the Times paywall:
“I had absolutely no preconceptions about Montaigne indeed, so ignorant was I of him that he was confused in my mind with Montesquieu, the Enlightenment political thinker (not a felicitous mistake, given that it was my failure to discourse on the latter that led to my failing the viva voce exam for my philosophy degree a decade before). And so it was without any forethought that I scanned the contents pages, listing essays on subjects as diverse as smells, silence and civil administration – then dived right in.
“Saving the feelings of three authors who have recently penned works intended to introduce new readers to the Essays, this, surely, is the best way to be exposed to him in all his joyful multifariousness. True, it’s not within everyone’s power to arrange for an uncomfortable exile simply to read a book, but then the Essays are no mere book, rather, as Sarah Bakewell makes clear with the title of her excellent synoptic biography of Montaigne, the Essays are an answer to the question that troubles all who are riddled by self-consciousness: How to live? Actually, I’d go still farther than that.
“Bakewell set herself the task of extrapolating from the Essays what biographical information is available, and others of Montaigne’s papers, the kind of answers that the sage would give to this question, as exemplified by his life and his thought. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and Bakewell’s book is a concordance almost as vivified as the work it parasitises upon. She is particularly adept at placing Montaigne in his proper milieu: the savagely roiling 16th-century France beset by civil wars of religion, and in giving us a portrait of the man in reciprocal relation with the evolving fame of his Essays. She writes brilliantly on the afterlife of the writer – in particular his involvement with his “adoptive daughter”, Marie de Gournay, who became his first great editor, working from earlier editions of the Essays, annotated by Montaigne, to produce a definitive edition of what, for its author, was always an inchoate and evolving work.
“Bakewell is enlightening also on the ways in which Montaigne has been a writer for all literary and philosophical seasons: a humanist universalist to his fellow Renaissance men (such as Shakespeare, whose signature we have in a copy of the first English translation of the Essays), a Roman Catholic moralist – if a wayward one – to Blaise Pascal a feeling romantic to the Romantics, a source of succour to thinkers as various as Friedrich Nietzsche and Walt Whitman and so on, right up to a present in which we can, if we like, characterise the seignior of a wine-producing estate on the fringes of the Dordogne, who almost half a millennium ago had Latin mottos carved into the beams of his tower library that can still be seen, as a kind of protoblogger.”