How to Live

Early in her cunning reconstruction of Michel de Montaigne's life (or perhaps more accurately, of his mind), Sarah Bakewell admits that in our age "the word 'essay' falls with a dull thud." Montaigne may have virtually created the form and with it his own fame, but the essay brings the dread high school term paper balefully to mind. It takes keen devotion and some sparkling writing to save the essay (and its sixteenth-century inventor) from its reputation.


Not that Montaigne is a bore who needs rouging up. He has disarmed readers over four centuries, as generation after generation "discover" him. In reading his musings about himself they find—themselves. "It seemed to me," Emerson wrote in baffled admiration, "as if I had myself written the book, in some former life." A century later, André Gide said pretty much the same thing: "It seems he is my very self."


Montaigne's essential discovery, still startling today, was that the self is not a problem, not even a subject, but rather a finely calibrated instrument whose purpose is to pay attention to the world. Following that hunch, he made a very modern leap, writing steadfastly from the idiosyncrasies of his point of view. He proved that individual consciousness constructs a mirror not just for the writer, but for readers to see themselves as well..Montaigne weaves his way, seemingly at random, over the sun and shade of existence, using his own consciousness as a probe to enduring questions.


Bakewell begins, as Montaigne does, with the vexing classical philosophical question of how to die well. It becomes for Montaigne the more immediate question of how to overcome fear of death, a terror that disfigured his youth. He tweezes apart the tangled strands of his own near-death experience (a violent fall from his horse), and meditates on the strangely relaxed sensation of letting go he experienced at that violent moment.


This is reminiscent of Tolstoy's description of the wounded Prince André on the field of Austerlitz in War and Peace, the uncanny calm, the free float of the self knocked off its moorings. As Montaigne writes his way around his own experience, he finds there is, after all, nothing to fear: death itself, as part of nature, supplies its own answers when the time comes.


The lifting of that terror plunges Montaigne into his essential task—How to Live, the "One Question" that Bakewell poses, organizing her book into twenty "attempts" to investigate this mystery. Her word "attempt" is a salute to Montaigne's project, for the word he gave his writing—essai—did not denote a literary form as it does for us. In French it simply meant—and means—"a try," or as Bakewell jauntily puts it, to give something a whirl.  Montaigne's essais are the opposite of set pieces. They are hops, skips, jumps. They meander, they circle back, they contradict themselves, shift gears, come to full stops and lurch off again. In this the reader sees the one essential quality of the essayist: the mind at work (or at play?), paying attention, attempting (that Montaignean word) to make sense of sensation, observation, and perception.


Bakewell's twenty "attempts" at answers (including Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Read a lot, forget most of what you read; Be slow-witted; Keep a private room behind the shop; Be convivial with others; Be ordinary and imperfect) provide staging areas where she considers Montaigne's project and life. Her tone is immediate and searching—very much Montaigne's tone. The scholarship necessary for the book is deftly tucked into the narrative, never clouding the stride of what are, after all, her own essays.


It is curious—something of a tour de force—that only at the end does it occur that Bakewell has not written in the first person. Alain de Botton's charming book, The Consolations of Philosophy (which includes a chapter on Montaigne), has many self-referential gestures, but Bakewell suits up as a literary detective, searching out the mystery of Montaigne's impulse without any autobiographical vignettes (except in the acknowledgements, where she tells how she came to read Montaigne to begin with—completely by chance, in the off-hand style of her great model).


She has managed to bring "the first modern man" (as Montaigne is sometimes labeled) to life for our age, tipping in vivid quotations from the Essais and giving the microphone to a writer who was, finally, all voice. Her book has the narrative pace and drive of a novel, perhaps because at its core a life is at stake. Whether it is Montaigne's or Bakewell's or the reader's is impossible to say, but that is the magnificent achievement of this beguiling book.


Patricia Hampl's most recent books are The Florist's Daughter and Blue Arabesque, both named among the 100 "Notable Books" by the New York Times Book Review. She is Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota.

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