Monday 25 January 2010

Loving Montaigne

I love the work of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, one of my favourite literary forms; a man who wrote in a beautiful, self-effacing, humorous and precise fashion, expressing in limpid prose some simple and universal truths. Here is my favourite passage on memory and its defects;

Memory is the receptacle and case of science: and therefore mine being so treacherous, if I know little, I cannot much complain. I know, in general, the names of the arts, and of what they treat, but nothing more. I turn over books; I do not study them. What I retain I no longer recognize as another's; 'tis only what my judgment has made its advantage of, the discourses and imaginations in which it has been instructed: the author, place, words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

I am so excellent at forgetting, that I no less forget my own writings and compositions than the rest. I am very often quoted to myself and am not aware of it. Whoever should inquire of me where I had the verses and examples that I have here huddled together, would puzzle me to tell him, and yet I have not borrowed them but from famous and known authors, not contenting myself that they were rich, if I, moreover, had them not from rich and honorable hands, where there is a concurrence of authority with reason. It is no great wonder if my book run the same fortune that other books do, and if my memory lose what I have written as well as what I have read, and what I give as well as what I receive.

You will find this in the Penguin edition of his Essays in the section On Presumption.

Now Sarah Bakewell has written a biography of the great master, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a wonderfully whimsical title that I feel sure he would have appreciated. I haven’t read it so I can’t offer a review, but the reviews I have read are all very positive. So, acting on their recommendations, I have now added this to my ever growing ‘to buy’ list. Once acquired – and consumed – I shall add my own assessment.


  1. A good recommendation!

    He was very influential and used, of course, by Shakespeare who plundered anything that was good and made it his own.

    I think we can all adopt that final sentence you quote and resolve to write as well as we read.

  2. A man after my own heart, Ana. I like his refusal to be a 'student' of what he reads and hears. He keeps his mind subtle by allowing his knowledge to take on its own life in his mind. No dogmatism for him, or at least no air of dogmatic finality in his opinions. The epitome of a good essayist, a good generator of ideas. Well, that's if I have read him right from your summary. :)

  3. Yes, thanks, Greg. Sorry, I miised your comment initially because the email landed in my junk box for some reason.

  4. Montaigne has been a favourite of mine since I chanced upon an old edition of his 'Essays' some twenty-five years' ago. I had originally intended only to sample one or two, but ended up reading them all. However, I much prefer the ornate and vivid Elizabethan English of John Florio's translation, which would have been available to Shakespeare and Jonson, to blander, if technically more accurate, modern versions. Montaigne's discursive and expansive style contrasts nicely with the terse and concise prose of Francis Bacon, whose own 'Essays' are another great masterpiece of the period.

  5. It's an old copy of a 1950s translation that I have, Allectus, I forget by whom. Mention is made of Florio in the introduction and the imperfections of Florio. I shall look out a copy in the college library notwithstanding.

  6. MONTAIGNE. By W. H. Auden.

    Outside his library window he could see
    A gentle landscape terrified of grammar,
    Cities where lisping was compulsory,
    And provinces where it was death to stammer.

    The hefty sprawled, too tired to care: it took
    This donnish undersexed conservative
    To start a revolution and to give
    The Flesh its weapons to defeat the Book.

    When devils drive the reasonable wild,
    They strip their adult century so bare,
    Love must be re-grown from the sensual child,

    To doubt becomes a way of definition,
    Even belles lettres legitimate as prayer,
    And laziness a movement of contrition.

  7. He knows the man, the essence of the man. It really does take a poet to beat to the heart of the matter with a beautiful economy of words. :-)