Former Wellcome Library curator Bakewell (Creative Writing/City Univ. London; The English Dane: A Life of Jorgen Jorgenson, 2005, etc.) sketches the life of essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) and traces his evolving reputation.
The author notes that Montaigne is particularly appropriate in our time, “[a century] full of people who are full of themselves.” He was a revolutionary writer, the founding father of the personal essay and the man who realized that his own life could serve as a mirror for others. Bakewell identifies 20 Montaignian answers to her title’s question, though her treatment of each answer varies both in length and focus. Some answers occasion major biographical attention; others are dense summaries of the philosophical positions of the day. Some comprise Bakewell’s appealing summaries and analyses of the essays; others elicit her thoughts on Montaigne’s stature in the literary world. By the end of the book, readers will have a good sense of the sweep of the subject’s life and times and writing. Among the highlights: Montaigne’s notion that reading ought to be pleasurable, even exciting (he loved Ovid, Virgil, Plutarch); Bakewell’s account of the profound early friendship of Montaigne and fellow French philosopher Étienne de La Boétie, whose early death devastated Montaigne; Montaigne’s careful choreography with the church and its leaders, kings and other dignitaries; his late-life relationship with Marie de Gournay, who became his posthumous editor and whose work remains both revered and disdained. Bakewell describes Montaigne’s travels, his physical ailments (kidney stones killed his father and plagued Montaigne as well) and his fascinations with the ordinary—from eating habits to sexual practices to observations that cats and people occupy the same space and observe one another with interest.
A bright, genial and generous introduction to the master’s methods.