Our ability to pick up and learn new things is of course amazing, but perhaps just as astonishing is how quickly we can manage to fall in love when we least expect it. Over the past month I’ve had cause to experience both to a profound level, and the learning and love all centres around one sixteenth-century philosopher, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
A month or so ago I’d never heard the name Montaigne – which is perhaps surprising given the role that history has in my life – but in all honesty he was an unknown to me. Then, through the recent publication of the book you see pictured above, How to Live by Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus), I began to become more knowledgeable of the man, and subsequently my love and respect for him has deepened.
Bakewell’s book itself is wonderful. And although I’ve not done anything more than dip into it over the past few weeks, the author’s presentation of Montaigne in this biography-cum-philosophical meditation, is nothing short of exquisite. What could easily have been dull and boring actually turns out to be quite the opposite, as Bakewell explores the life of the sixteenth-century writer through his own musings and observations, and she does so with much colour and flair.
The lion’s share of the credit for my newly-found connection to Montaigne however, of course comes from the man himself. Known by many as the man who popularised the essay as a literary form (essays in French means attempts or trials), Montaigne’s real talent lies in introspective reflection i.e. talking one’s self. It’s true that the real subject of Montaigne’s essays was usually Montaigne himself. But he possesses an incredible ability for communicating this – in a more general way – and it becomes more of a musing on man himself, rather than straightforward personal memoir. Very readable and very enjoyable.
Of course it’s difficult for me to expand much more on Montaigne than I have, because as I said I didn’t know him a month ago. But since being introduced to him he now seems to pop up everywhere in my reading. For instance he appears quite prominently in one of my other recent purchases, the other book you see in this shot, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (Anchor Books) by Philip Lopate.
Now if I were to rate this essay anthology on a scale of one to ten, I would rate it eleven, even though, as with Bakewell’s Montaigne, I’ve yet to do anything more substantial with it than ‘dip reading’. It’s a beautiful book, filled with the most wonderful of essays, from the classical ‘pen’ of Seneca and Plutarch, right up to modern-day offerings from Annie Dillard and Philip Lopate himself. So far I’ve discovered some wonderful essays, such as Max Beerbohm’s contemplation on the futility of walking (Going Out for a Walk), extracts of Kenko’s fourteenth-century work, Essays in Idleness, and of course, the man of the moment for me, Montaigne, in a remarkable and outspoken account of infant deformity in Of a Monstrous Child. All wonderful essays and all hugely enjoyable.
So in closing dear reader all I will say is this. If you consider essays to be scholarly and stuffy then I think either of these books may make you change your mind. Lopate’s anthology is of course pure essay, while Bakewell’s Montaigne-flavoured creation is more biographical. Regardless, both contain material from the great Montaigne, and that to me at the moment, is the most joyous of their qualities. Onwards now to hunt down a good priced copy of Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works (Everyman’s Library). Do the joys of reading never end?
Over to you fellow reader. Are you fan of Montaigne? Have you been a lover of him for ages now? And what about essays in general. Do you consider them to be dull as ditch water or as dazzling as newly cut diamonds? I’d love to hear your thoughts!