Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bywater, Michael. "HOW TO LIVE, by Sarah Bakewell." THE INDEPENDENT January 29, 2010.

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. London: Chatto and Windus, 2009. Early on in this illuminating and humane book, Sarah Bakewell announces that it is not only about about Michel de Montaigne the man and the writer, but also "about Montaigne, the long party". The phrase is both apt and happy. The subject of this Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer was pleased with his Essays. "It is," he says, "the only book in the world of its kind", and I suppose it remains so even today. Rousseau made a similar claim for his Confessions but its very title placed him firmly centre-stage - he, not his book, was the unique object - while the Essays put Montaigne on a level with the reader. He doesn't instruct or boast but asks us to join him in looking at himself, wondering how one should live and hopefully becoming "reconciled to this colicky life". An essay is a gesture of imperfection, an essai - an "attempt" or a "trial". Montaigne's signature phrase is "but I don't know." He may be wrong. We may be right. It's all an ongoing conversation, across time. Hence the "long party". A common remark by Montaigne's readers has been that it felt as if you'd written it yourself. Our receptions of him change according to the times. His Enlightenment readers read in Montaigne justification for their own Enlightenment; Romantics saw their exalted super-sensibilities reflected; various bowdlerisations recast the Essays in a form suitable for the emerging brash timidity of the Victorian consciousness. Nietzsche read him with the same (and entirely different) delight as Shakespeare had. Semioticians, deconstructionists and literary psychoanalysts have all had a pop at Montaigne and found exactly what they expected. If there's one word that suits his style, it's that coinage of the 20th-century guru of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida: the punning différance, a slippery hybrid of differentiation and deferral. Montaigne was an expert at both, but deferral always won. . . . Read the whole review here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/how-to-live-by-sarah-bakewell-1882249.html.

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