How to Live: Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer


After two somewhat lacklaster reading experiences at the end of January, I'm happy for the opportunity to write about a book with which I was passionately engaged: Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is, in my opinion, how literary biography should be written. Or, more specifically, it's the way this literary biography should be written: a perfect match of subject and approach which was a joy from cover to cover.

Given that I just went into my love affair with Montaigne's peregrinatory style of "accidental" philosophizing, I won't wax lyrical about it again. Suffice to say, in starting How to Live the evening after I finished that post, I was nodding and chuckling along with Bakewell's characterizations of the Renaissance essayist, checking to make sure I myself hadn't written her book in a moment of more-than-characteristic narrative fluidity and verve. And indeed, in placing Montaigne's life and work in their evolving historical contexts, Bakewell points out over and over that this was a reaction readers often had to Montaigne himself: they found, in the Essays, a reflection of themselves and their own times, and ignored or rejected those aspects that didn't mesh with their worldviews. Thus, the same writer could be embraced by his contemporaries as a provider of helpful mental tricks in the tradition of Stoical skepticism, while seventeenth-century libertins could read him as a rebellious free-spirit, and early twentieth-century modernists find inspiration in his attempts to analyze his own consciousness.

Indeed, Bakewell's book, while incorporating throughout a thread of traditional biography (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born, grew up unconventionally, wrote steadily, died), interweaves another, equally prominent thread concerned with the intellectual conception and after-life of the Essays: fitting, since Montaigne himself said that he and his book were one and the same. These sections were my particular favorites. It's probably true that any author who is read for five hundred years will be subject to many versions and interpretations, but Bakewell makes a good case that Montaigne's own propensity to look at an argument from all possible perspectives, and chart the bending and winding of his own mind without passing judgment, has lent him to an especially large number of interpretations over the years—often ones he would never have predicted, but which, she argues are nonetheless fascinating for what they reveal of the readers' own times and characters. Two of my favorite examples demonstrate Bakewell's narrative range, which is always engaging and readable but moves with ease from clever and humorous to quite tragic.

In the chapter on late 18th-century reception to Montaigne, Bakewell relates how the Romantics basically invented the idea of literary tourism—the instinct to make pilgrimages to the homes and haunts of writers one admires. One of the sites so honored was Montaigne's château, which left his descendants a bit bemused at all the scruffy, overly-earnest young men suddenly showing up and wanting to tour the old man's tower. The post-Rousseau generation was deeply struck by Montaigne's fascination with people from the New World, interpreting his open-mindedness about the arbitrariness of custom as agreement with the idea of the uncorrupted "noble savage" (conveniently ignoring all the times when Montaigne points out cruel or unjust customs practiced by "savage" peoples). They were also drawn to the heat of his youthful passion for Étienne de la Boétie. Despite their initial enthusiasm, however, many Romantics became disillusioned with Montaigne's insistence on moderation, on keeping an even keel. Bakewell writes,

The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was one such frustrated reader. When he first came across Montaigne he hero-worshiped him, and kept a volume of the Essays always in his pocket or on his table so he could seize it whenever he had the urge. But later he turned against his idol with equal vehemence: Montaigne, he now decided, knew nothing of the real miseries of life. He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young—that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured. Perhaps, he wondered, he might return to Montaigne many years later, in old age, when even more suffering had dried his heart. For now, the essayist's sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.

Bakewell goes on to make the intriguing point that, by advocating moderation over the (perhaps sexier but unsustainable) frenzy, be it of war or doomed poetic brilliance, Montaigne was actually proving himself rebellious,

bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love.

Yet the "ecstasy" of war, something Montaigne was forced to see at close quarters throughout the forty years of France's bloody civil wars of the 1560s through 1590s, proved an understandably unconvincing answer to the question "How to live?" as far as he was concerned. A more serious yet still occasionally wry Bakewell does a remarkable job bringing these wars, with their prevalent spirit of religious extremism, to life for the reader. Of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, which left ten thousand dead throughout France, she relates this mind-bending rationale:

In most places, the bloodshed was done more chaotically [than in Bordeaux] and by people who would have been reasonable folk the rest of the time. In Orléans, the mob stopped at taverns between killings to celebrate, "accompanied by singing, lutes and guitars," according to one historian. Some groups were composed mainly of women and children. Catholics interpreted the presence of the latter as a sign that God Himself was in favor of the massacres, for He had caused even innocents to take part. In general, many thought that, since the killings were on no ordinary human scale, they must have been divinely sanctioned.

I am no theologian, but if anything does NOT say "divinely sanctioned" to me, it's little children slaughtering people in the street. Montaigne, too, rejected the romanticized furore tradition, arguing that ideally, even a soldier in the midst of battle should be able to turn away from killing a friend if he recognizes him on the field. Reading about the extremism with which he was surrounded throughout his life gave me new respect for the doctrine of moderation that was one of the most consistent elements of Montaigne's work.

Montaigne's own secularism is an interesting subject, especially in light of this ongoing religious conflict, and it's one Bakewell treats with sensitivity. Although he remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life, the essayist hardly ever takes his arguments in a religious direction, even in cases where one might expect him to do so. Among his answers to the "How to live?" question, one never finds, for example, "trust in Jesus Christ," or "Obey the dictates of the Church." This makes it easy for a secularist like me to relate to the Essays, but Bakewell points out that Montaigne's lack of religious fervor probably doesn't indicate that he was a complete non-believer: hardly anyone was, in sixteenth-century France. More likely, he was moderately religious in a way that didn't intrude much on his day-to-day life, and at the same time was likely attempting to steer clear of trouble with either set of the extremists demolishing his country, by not seeming to hew too closely to the theology of either group.

I could go on in Montaigneanly unending style about How to Live; it brings up a plethora of fascinating points about a favorite author of mine, placing him in his time and place as well as analyzing how his work has been transplanted into other contexts, including our own. There are so many juicy tidbits I didn't even touch on in this post: Montaigne's extremely unorthodox childhood, for example, or the bizarrely strong aversion certain seventeenth-century philosophers felt for the Essays. Instead I'll just say that I gobbled up every page of this book, and was sorry to see it end.


  • Ooh. This was sort of on my radar, but I wasn't really expecting it to be good. You have turned that around!

    But...what would you recommend to someone who has not (yet) read Montaigne—would this be an appropriate introduction of sorts, or should I save it for when I someday remedy this particular Humiliation?

    • Nicole, I'm positive you would enjoy Bakewell's book even having never read Montaigne. BUT if I were you I would sample a few of his essays before reading it, just because they're delightful and it would add another dimension to your reading pleasure. "On some verses of Virgil" is a great introduction to him, and you could add in some of his writing on other cultures, like "On cannibals." "Of Experience" is also one of my very, very favorites.

  • What a wonderful review. I am about 90 pages into the book and enjoying it very much, if reading it slowly. I love this trend for biography - a fascinating hybrid approach that brings in all sorts of perspectives on the subject. Long may it continue! It is exactly the sort of thing I'd like to write myself (if only!).

    • I totally agree; I love the hybrid approach to biography. Dorothy over at Of Books & Bicycles just mentioned that she is really digging this trend in bio-writing as well, after reading a book similar in some respects on Stein and Toklas. May it continue, indeed!

  • I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this a couple of weeks ago and have stored it away for the moment until I have a stretch of time to give it the attention it deserves. However, the more I hear it praised the more likely it is that I'm just going to have to snatch it up and devour it. No, I have a series of lectures to write on 'The Taming of the Shrew', not to mention a paper on Andrew Marvell. I must not pick up this book. I must not pick up this book. I must........

    • Haha, I know, I expected to wait longer to read it after receiving it for Christmas, too, but it just called my name. :-) Will you be blog-posting on Taming of the Shrew at all? Certainly one of the more controversial Shakespearean offerings - good for conversation!

  • I could have written Nicole's comment -- I had this on my radar but wasn't expecting it to be good. Thank you so much for your wonderful review! On the TBR it goes. I love good literary biography, and since I love Montaigne, this will be a real pleasure.

    I don't mean to seem greedy, but... where's the double-dactyl?

    • I already wrote one on Montaigne! I thought two would be taxing the patience of my readership. Although, since you asked, here's one I wrote about Proust. The French doesn't totally work out but I think it's funny anyway:


      Highloday heeloday
      Albertine Simonet:
      Spied out one day as she
      Hunted for shells,

      By a cantankerous
      Garçon nerveux qui
      s'appelait jeune Marcel.

  • Aren't you planning to do some Montaigne-touristing soon? How wonderful that you now know the history - that you will join the history.

    Everything has a history.

    • Yes I am! The funny thing is that I have this chip on my shoulder about the Romantics - I just tend to find it hard to take them seriously due to their earnestness and over-dramatic aesthetic. But whenever I'm tempted to dismiss them out of hand I come up against evidence like that tourism passage, of how influential they were and how similar, in some ways, my own mindset is to theirs. Keeps me humble, I suppose. In any case, I would not miss my opportunity to moon around Montaigne's château. Now I know I'll be walking in the footsteps of Sand and Lamartine.

  • I am so glad to hear this is so good. I have a copy sitting on my desk waiting its turn which will hopefully be soon! And when is the trip to France in which you will be a literary pilgrim visiting Montaigne's tower?

    • I predict you will really enjoy it, Stephanie. And I get to be a Montaigne pilgrim in early June (Paris in late May, followed by Normandy, the Loire, & then Montaigne's Bordeaux.) So exciting!

      • Are you going to be in Caen at all? Particularly, around lunch or dinner time?

        • Absolutely - around lunchtime. We'll be driving right through there on the way to the Bayeux Tapestries viewing & then (so predictable) Mont St. Michel. Do I sense a restaurant recommendation?

          • I'll let AR do the recommendation, but hey: Mont St Michel is never, ever predictable. Stunning. Glorious. Joyful. I never fail to be bowled over (but am easily bowled -- it's my travel philosophy -- be bowled.)

            • Yay, glad you think it's still bowl-worthy even with the hordes of tourists. We're staying overnight so we can experience it after/before the tour buses leave, which will hopefully increase the love (I am not great with packed crowds, so this was a source of slight anxiety). I think it'll be fantastic, honestly!

  • A Table - yum yum yum.

    The three-star commenter is misguided; the two-star commenter a fool. I assume that five stars is reserved for Michelin restaurants.

    A Table has an enormous advantage over a Michelin restaurant - you and I can afford to eat there!

    Bayeux, though, has Le Pommier, which ma femme says is as good.

    I'm actually cooking a signature Normandy dish right now - chicken in cream and apples.

  • I admit, this sounds better to me than rereading Montaigne! (I've only read a few but I think I'd like a biography better than the essays....)

    • I wouldn't be surprised if reading the biography gave you a new appreciation of the essays, Rebecca. For me at least, just learning about the myriad different reactions people have had to them over the years, increased my appreciation of how multi-faceted they are.

  • Yay -- great review! I loved this book too (will probably review it for another website, which is why I haven't posted on it) -- it is exactly the kind of biography Montaigne deserves, and I'm sure he'd like it. I'm very glad the book has gotten lots of good attention, and I hope it continues to do very well. It made me want to pick up some Montaigne essays again, which is amazing, since I finished him not too long ago!

    • Yay, glad you loved it too - I'll look forward to your post, wherever it appears. And yes, that does really speak to Bakewell's skill, that she could instill the desire for a re-read so soon after you just finished the essays! I'm also hankering to read them again, but it's been more like 6 years in my case.

  • Your Montaigne-pimping ways are a riot, Emily! I must read him NOW to see what all the fuss is about for you. I also like the way this new biography discussion has evolved into a gourmand/glutton direction with recipe sharing (almost) and everything. Were Montaigne and Brillat-Savarin related by any chance?

    • I know, right? This is quite the comments thread, what with calls for poetry and restaurant recommendations and everything. The meandering quality is actually quite Montaignean itself. I should really do a post soliciting France suggestions now that I have a more final itinerary.

      And just to engage in a bit more Montaigne-pimping, if you're looking for a place to start I think you would really get a kick out of "On some verses of Virgil."

  • Like some of your other commentators, I was eying this book suspiciously--but you've completely sold me on it.

    BTW--I'm writing up a family story to send you as a barter for the gorgeous Antonia cape. I love your project and have for a long time--and somehow had not connected that it was YOU. Very cool.

    • I've read some skepticism of the Bakewell book along the lines of "it seems gimmicky," which I can understand - but in my opinion it works perfectly! And I'll look forward to your family story - knitters + readers together at last! :-)

  • And what better company than book pimps? And foodies? I have a buried review copy of this book that I now need to dig out. I wanted to read it but somehow lost my way. We have discussed before my grandparents and their Montaigne obsession so a return to him always feels a little like a homecoming. Without all our show-offy quoting. :) Great post. Your enthusiasm is infectious!

    • And what better company than book pimps? And foodies?

      Haha, agreed!

      And maybe you should read How to Live after the Highsmith bio, Frances? Despite some odd quirks Montaigne does seem to have been a genuinely nice guy, which might make a welcome change after spending 600+ pages with Pat.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography