We readily acknowledge in others an advantage in courage, in bodily strength, in experience, in agility, in beauty; but an advantage in judgment we yield to no one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
I can easily maintain an opinion but not choose one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
All our efforts cannot even succeed in reproducing the nest of the tiniest little bird, its contexture, its beauty and convenience; or even the web of the puny spider.—Michel de Montaigne, “Of Cannibals” (and re:)
I have often noticed this flaw, that instead of gaining knowledge of others we strive only to give knowledge of ourselves, and take more pains to peddle our wares than to get new ones. Silence and modesty are very good qualities for social intercourse.
—Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children”
Si on me presse de dire pourquoi je l’aimais, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer qu’en répondant : parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi.
–Michel de Montaigne, “De l’amitié”
The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much daily and well-combed as vehement and brusque.
—Michel de Montaigne
An able reader often discovers in other men’s writings perfections beyond those that the author put in or perceived, and lends them richer meanings and aspects.
—Michel de Montaigne
I’ve wanted to read Montaigne’s essays for awhile but the sheer size of the volume has been an obstacle to getting started. My edition, which is trade size and has very small type, runs to 1,336 pages. So leaping in is a commitment, and one I’ve put off for a couple years now.
A friend who knew I was balking gave me Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne a few years back as a kind of stand-in for the real thing I think. He also suggested I just read a few of the essays. This wasn’t what I wanted. I couldn’t explain it, but if I was going to read one or two, I wanted to read them all and in the order Montaigne had arranged them.
Well these past few weeks, I’ve finally taken the plunge and am shocked how much I like them.
The first few essays are rough going. They are impersonal and analyse political hypotheticals that feel disconnected from my world. But slowly things shifted, and by the time Montaigne was talking about lying or speaking slowly or quickly, I’d become caught up in his digressions, his comparisons and his odd leaps from one subject to another.
Several hundred pages in—which barely makes a dint in the book—I’ve realized that I really like the person on display in these essays. If he was like this in real life and alive today, I’d want to be his friend.
I suspect my commonplace book may be univocal for a bit.
The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle for those who want to learn.
—Cicero (cf. Montaigne)
It is good that he should have his pupil trot before him, to judge the child’s pace and how much he must stoop to match his strength. For lack of this proportion we spoil everything; and to be able to hit it right and to go along in it evenly is one of the hardest tasks that I know; it is the achievement of a lofty and very strong soul to know how to come down to a childish gait and guide it. I walk more firmly and surely uphill than down.
—Michel de Montaigne (cf. Cicero)
My style and my mind alike go roaming.
–Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
I’d wanted to read How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer but kept putting it off. It just seemed outside of everything else I was doing. But then I was given it by a friend, read it in only a few days and was astounded by it.
First, Montaigne himself is endlessly interesting. Engaged in his world and cut off from it too. Social, friendly, loving, but introverted and solitary too. Sophisticated but common. Second, his essays are magnificent. I’ve always been put off by the very first one every time I’ve tried to read them. The form and the context were simply too distant to be casually accessible and I’ve only ever tried to read them casually. But Bakewell works through them in a way that makes them inviting and essential. I come away from this book desperate to read these essays. Finally, the history of Montaigne’s reception is more interesting than it has any right to be, and reading about it, I picked up a quick history of modern France that I was sorely lacking.
Any one of these would probably have made the book worth reading, but it offers all three and–and this is the astounding part–it offers them in a carefully but lightly and beautifully written prose that is a pleasure to read.
Reading, I couldn’t help noticing that Bakewell writes the kind of book that I wanted my dissertation to be but was unable to pull off. Memory was the ingredient that was missing and holding me back–and that in fact suggests that intensity of work was the problem: I worked too slowly, too much in the corner of my life to remember as carefully as I needed to to write what I aimed to write.
I loved this book.
This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.
If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.
Thus reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.
–Michel de Montaigne
A huge novel that is carefully written and that I often enjoyed. But it’s not easy going: partly because of the length, partly because of the pacing (“carefully written” often reads “slow”). But partly too because it was hard not to side with the protagonists’ critical friends while also disliking them intensely. There’s not obvious place to stand in this story, and I frequently felt uncomfortable reading this book.
There was a lot to like here…and I’m going to read another book by Pamuk in the coming months because I’m curious now. But hesitant too.
N.B.–The references to Proust and Montaigne at the end make sense of a lot of what came before. This is an intensely intellectual book hiding in the sentimental novel it pretends to be. Aside from a brief moment (one paragraph) in the engagement party (an incredible, long chapter, pure tour-de-force) the novel’s intellectual project is withheld to the very final pages, where (as in Proust) the status of what you have been reading is revealed. Making sense of that will take rereading and I’ve not done it. So for now, my judgment is “interesting,” “enjoyable if frustrating” and “I’m curious.”
July 2011. Mysore/Chennai, India and Montreal