Sarah Bakewell, “How to Live”

With Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, I have strayed pretty far from my comfort zone. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction and I rarely wander beyond the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I was attracted by a friend’s recommendation, at least enough to read a chapter of How to Live. And after that, I was hooked.

Here’s what I knew about Michel de Montaigne before I began the book:  that he wrote a set of immensely influential essays in France… ummm. Now, I not only know about Montaigne’s Essays, I know also about the Greek philosophies that underpin them. I have finally, finally gained a grasp of the French religious wars in the sixteenth century. (Montaigne’s dates: 1533-1592.) I know why Henri IV thought “Paris is worth a Mass.” I know whose mother was Catherine de Medici. To my amazement I expect to retain this information but to my greater amazement I appear to have absorbed an understanding of Montaigne’s influence on European thought. (Rousseau! Nietzsche! Stefan Zweig!)

Montaigne's chateau. Photo by Henry Salome

And do I know how to live? Well, I know how Sarah Bakewell says Montaigne said to live. More than that I will not venture, for that is part of the answer: “Philosophise only by accident” and “Let life be its own answer.” In fact, the book is something of a fun-house of mirrors. Bakewell asks the question twenty times: “How to live?” In twenty chapter/responses, she narrates the course of Montaigne’s life and traces the reception of the Essays, while quoting liberally from them. One of the points she makes most strongly is that Montaigne himself was a temperate skeptic, intent on seeing every side of a question, anti-polemical, endlessly curious, insatiably personal: the last man, in short, to pronounce dogma. And as Bakewell makes clear, the Essays have endured because they are capacious. Montaigne contradicted himself constantly, proposed one opinion then another, failed to stick to his subject. Isn’t this fractured point of view exactly appropriate to our era? Gosh, maybe Michel de Montaigne was a one-man crowd-source — sometimes Bakewell suggests he reads that way.

Which brings me to a larger question. Toward the end of the book Bakewell engages in some hard-core historiography, recounting the battles between two variant texts of the essays. (She does this with irreverence, making the saga quite entertaining.) I was reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, and the way Schiff also exposes her sources and her process. Is this, in our skeptical era, how biography has to be written? We are so far, here, from the seamless authoritative narration of the expert. I suspect Bakewell might agree that this, too, is a fashion. The flaw is the loss of the continuous narrative and I must say, I miss it. But I have to admit that I have not hitherto read a (narrative, authoritative) life of Montaigne. And this one I not only read, but enjoyed. I credit much of that enjoyment to Bakewell’s intense — and thus contagious — affection for her subject.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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6 Responses to Sarah Bakewell, “How to Live”

  1. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  2. Nancy Casserley says:

    I hope you know, Carol, what an influence you have over the lives and timetables of many of us! You nudged me into reading Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff, which I would never have thought to have read otherwise and absolutely loved, and I have just spent two very happy days reading A Game of Hide and Seek and The Soul of Kindness, both by Elizabeth Taylor. And now I see that I am going to have to push myself out of my comfort zone and read How to Live. I’m not sure I have any illusions about just how many facts about French sixteenth-century religious wars I am going to retain, but it sounds like it’s worth a try.

  3. carolwallace says:

    Nancy, the great thing about “How to Live” is that Bakewell makes the intellectual heavy lifting so enjoyable and lays out those pesky facts so clearly. And she never loses touch with the rather cozy personality of Montaigne. It’s quite a feat.

  4. motheretc says:

    That does sound fascinating. It takes a lot for me to pick up some non-fiction that isn’t a memoir, but I will be making a note of this one.

    • carolwallace says:

      Well, I wouldn’t put down “Regency Buck” for it (one of my all-time faves, right up there with “Devil’s Cub”)! But Bakewell makes Montaigne very appealing. I think it could be a dip-into book, as well.

  5. Pingback: Henry Green, “Living” « Book Group of One

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