HOW TO LIVE: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. By Sarah Bakewell.

by John Boland

The title suggests that you’re about to read a self-help book, and in a way that’s what Sarah Bakewell provides for this age of diaries, blogs, memoirs and endless self-analysis – an age, as she says, that’s “full of people who are full of themselves, fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention.”

Mindful of this contemporary mania for soul-searching, she posits twenty possible answers to the vexed question of how to get through life, including such useful chapter-heading tips as: don’t worry about death, survive love and loss, question everything, be convivial, guard your humanity, see the world, reflect on everything, regret nothing.

However, the real subject of her book is the man who gave rise to these reflections, a man who was born almost 500 years ago, whose ruminations “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance” and yet who still makes readers wonder “How did he know all that about me?”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) inherited the family estate in Bordeaux and became magistrate and mayor there before embarking in early middle age on the quirkily probing and digressive autobiographical pieces that were to ensure his immortality as one of the wisest, wittiest and most honest of all great writers.

And for those of us who’ve been reading and rereading him for most of our adult lives, he’s the most loveable of writers, too, constantly owning up to his fallibility and ignorance, frequently contradicting himself and prone to ending even the most ardent of insights and arguments with the disclaimer “but I don’t know.” That’s why we recognise ourselves in the essays whose form he invented – from the French verb meaning “to try” or as Ms Bakewell puts it, “to give it a whirl.”

In his 107 essays, he gives it a whirl on such diverse topics as friendship, cruelty, cannibalism, sexual desire, smells  and the education of children, all the time being sidetracked by other thoughts that leap unbidden into his endlessly questing mind – wondering, for instance, when he plays with his cat whether “I’m not a pastime to her more than she is to me” and reminding us of the subjectivity of all his thoughts: we can walk only on our own legs, he famously observes, and sit only on our own bum.

Ms Bakewell’s sprightly and beautifully written book is a constant joy, not least for the skill with which she weaves Montaigne’s life story into her affectionate narrative – she clearly loves both the man and the writer. It makes the ideal introduction for those who are coming to Montaigne for the first time (I envy them the thrill that awaits them), but it’s just as absorbing for those of us who’ve long thought him one of our most cherished companions.

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