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!)
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.