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A Fine Biography of a Very Important Writer
on February 8, 2017
Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 2010. It is a fine book, one that will engage the attention of all readers interested in the subject. That subject, of course, is very wide-ranging. Inspired by the philosophers of antiquity, Montaigne is one of the principal French writers of the Renaissance. To a degree he created the ‘essay’ form and his work has been pivotal for later thinkers. John Florio’s English translation was taught—in my day—as a work of literature itself and it helped to popularize a writer ‘adopted’ by the English as one of their own, at least in interests, spirit and unique personality. Montaigne was claimed by the romantics; he influenced Nietzsche, heartened the postmodernists and remains a writer of global importance and influence.
SB’s biography answers the question, ‘how to live?’ in twenty chapters, each of them keyed to a theme in Montaigne’s work. Hence, chapter 9: “Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others.” The themes, however, do not trump the biography. This is not an endless examination of thematic content with an occasional look at the events in Montaigne’s life. It is a systematic biography held together by thin thematic divisions.
It is also a very learned biography, expanding at length, e.g., on the civil wars of the period, the driving ideologies, weaponry and specific details, both personal and political. It studies, e.g., the manner in which the texts of the Essays have come down to us, (what we would call) the copy texts, the emendations, the condensations, and so on. There is comparatively little on the content of the Essays themselves, ‘comparatively’ being the operative word. We learn a great deal about Montaigne’s classical influences, the nature of his pyrhonnism, the dimensions of his political associations, his personal relationships, his estate, its winemaking, and so on, but the only essay that is discussed at some length is (as one would expect) the longest of the essays, the Apology for Raymond Sebond.
It is sometimes said that the first requirement for a great biography is the author’s love for her subject (balanced, always, by a willingness to speak the truth, wherever its elements might fall). SB clearly admires Montaigne and wishes that today’s thinkers, writers and politicians (Montaigne served in all three capacities) would read him, be inspired by him and take lessons from him.
The writing is crisp and clear, direct and candid. While it is undergirded by a great deal of scholarship that scholarship does not drag the book down and bore the reader with tedious details. It contains a bibliography, index and series of endnotes, sufficient to guide the reader to other texts and explore/verify issues that have come under question.
The book is very much like its subject—a pleasant, human and humane read that takes on difficult subjects with a light touch and details experiences that will find echoes in the reader’s own heart.