by Sarah Bakewell
Chatto & Windus, 2010, 387 pp., $26.88
Can a retired 16th-century French provincial magistrate teach us how to live today? Sarah Bakewell’s engaging and idiosyncratic biography of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne suggests that the answer, in some quite subtle and interesting ways, is that he can. To judge by the enthusiastic reviews and healthy sales for Bakewell’s book since it was published in Britain early last year and this past October in the United States, many critics and readers would seem to agree.
The success of Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is perhaps less surprising than it initially appears. It’s not hard to see how a writer whose main subject was himself might appeal to an age as marked by individual self-absorption as our own. Modern Western readers, apparently torn (or lurching endlessly back and forth) between crippling self-doubt and exaggerated self-belief, display an insatiable appetite for anything promoting what has come to be thought of as self-help. That explains, I suppose, why my own paper, the London Times, ushered in 2011 with a two-part special features section offering readers “quick boosts” for minds and bodies supposedly worn out by another year of just being alive. “New Year, New You”, it optimistically proclaimed.
I’m not sure Montaigne would entirely have grasped this sort of thing. The refreshed mind part, perhaps; the body boost I suspect not, especially not in some of its more elaborate contemporary forms. Bakewell, a British-Australian Jill of many trades turned serious writer, instructs us further that even some of Montaigne’s contemporaries and subsequent admirers were unsettled by his frank interest in his own bodily frailties and appetites. He wrote about things that many other writers preferred not to mention, so much so that Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one, while acknowledging his enthusiasm for Montaigne, nevertheless felt obliged to concede somewhat apologetically that “his French freedom runs into grossness.” I suspect, however, that Emerson’s gross 16th-century Frenchman would have found some of the early January delights on offer in the 21st-century Times (“threading and tweezing” for “perfectly groomed eyebrows . . . with minimum pain and fuss”) no less exotic than he famously found human cannibalism, if rather harder to understand.
Bakewell, cleverly, has nonetheless managed to tap into the booming modern market for such “quick boosts” of wisdom (not all of them by any means as harmless as tips on eyebrow shaping), while actually writing a serious biography of a serious thinker from an age less like our own...