Sarah Bakewell’s book is subtitled A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. “Superb” says The Guardian. I agree.
How to Live is a biography not just of Montaigne, but of his work. We see the beginnings of Montaigne’s essays, and their reflection of the three major classical philosophies – Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism. Each chapter presents an answer to the philosophical question of how to live, and each in turn explores Montaigne’s response to these questions – Don’t worry about death… survive love and loss.. be convivial: live with others and so on.
Bakewell explores each theme with reference to the essays and to the lives of Montaigne, of his friend La Boétie, and of his major fan, a key editor of his work, Marie de Gournay. We are given insight into life in France – the politics, the spirit of the time, the culture and geography – along with snippets of the essays, biographical episodes and detailed consideration of the validity of different editions of the text. There is humour and a vivid portrayal of life at the time, of Montaigne’s travels, and of French politics. For me it was an interesting insight into the Reformation, which I have usually seen from an anglo-centric point of view. She ranges wider, considering how different philosophies such as modernism and romanticism affected the way later generations responded to the essays.
All this might sound a tad boring – but it’s not. Bakewell’s prose is clear and lucid as a mountain stream, and as fresh. The book is stuffed with interesting anecdotes and asides, and it’s all held together with a clear and solid focus on Montaigne the man and his place in history.
Recommended. I’m going to go on and read some of the essays themselves.