Tyler's Reviews > How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
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Jul 04, 11

bookshelves: biography, literature, philosophy
Read in July, 2011

Only posthumously are “authors of books” transformed into “immortal writers of literature”. As time presses on, the lives of only certain writers enjoy a succession of after-lives. A second, third, fourth, or perhaps infinite number of iterations. Such writers are reinvented with each new wave of readers, each naturally a victim of their own epoch, their own way of seeing and reading. Each reader shapes and reshapes, combines, and edits what they read into a cohesive way of seeing the world, which is as only it can be: entirely their own.

Sarah Bakewell, in “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne”, has written a well-crafted and dense book on not only the life, but also, and perhaps more poignantly, the after-life of 16th century essayist and writer, Michel de Montaigne.

Montaigne was indeed an essayist, and really the first to deservedly claim that title, for it was Montaigne himself that invented the “essay” as it has come to be known by practitioners of the English language.

In late 1569 (or early 1570 - it is unclear precisely when), Montaigne fell from a horse, and nearly died. Shortly thereafter, in 1570, Montaigne retired from his post in the Bordeaux government, awoken to a new calling as a result of his near-death experience. In 1572, Montaigne retreated to the library on his wine-making estate, and began work on what would become a revolutionary body of literature.

Bakewell structured her book in the form of “one question [how to live?] and an attempt at twenty answers.” Each chapter in the book is an “answer”, or a lesson to be gleaned from the life and/or the after-life of Montaigne’s writings- all to the question of how best to live.

This book- in its structure- is of the same family as books like “Descartes Bones”, “The Courtier and the Heretic”, and “How Proust Can Change Your Life”, for all these books are biographies that don’t stop with the life of their protagonist. They are as much about the afterlife of their subjects, as they are about life lived within the binding of birth and death.

In “How to Live” Bakewell is particularly concerned with not only how “a Montaignean sense of life” was debated and interpreted in earlier ages, but also what it may mean to live a “Montaignean” life today. For Bakewell, “a Montaignean sense of life” is above all one in which entails a certain Epicurean and Stoic skepticism, a detached bemusement with the trivialities of life, an awareness that evolving, contradictory viewpoints are a facet of the human experience to be embraced and celebrated, and so much more.

Of course, in offering the relevance of Montaigne today, Bakewell has inserted herself into the long line of people before her that have done just the same. Her interpretation is no more definitive, just as much subject to the same constraints, as those of her predecessors were.

“Even after he died, something seemed to keep pulling Montaigne back into the stream of life rather than leaving him frozen in perfect remembrance. And his real legacy has nothing to do with his tomb at all. It is found in the turbulent fortunes of the Essays...They remained alive...,” writes Bakewell in telling of the adventures of Montaigne’s coffin in the generations following his death.

Bakewell speaks from first-hand experience, as she also does when she writes of the “interpretation and reinterpretation” of writers, which “creates a long chain connecting a writer to all future readers- who frequently read each other as well as the original.”

With her book, Bakewell has indeed made a worthy claim to be part of the after-life of Montaigne; and so, also part of the after-life of Montaigne’s seemingly immortal “Essays”. She has demonstrated how, for even readers of the 21st century, the personal, original, sometimes babbling, contradictory, stoic, quixotic, wise, funny, poignant, and ever-evolving essays of a French estate owner in the 16th century are still very much alive and breathing today. In this, she has done us all a great favor.
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