How to Live, By Sarah Bakewell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

How to Live is as much a biography of Montaigne's ideas as of Montaigne the man – though, indeed, the two are not always easy to separate, for, like no other writer before him, Montaigne poured himself into his writings.

No fact was too personal – we know, for instance, that he had a smallish penis, since he ruefully confesses as much. He enjoyed sex, though not particularly with his wife. He was terrified of death, until a fall from his horse nearly killed him; thereafter, finding the experience far less dreadful than he'd feared, he viewed death with equanimity. He was liberal, sceptical, tolerant, well-read, lazy, kindly, a hater of cruelty and a lover of cats.

In many ways, he was the first modern writer, in his attention to the minutiae of life, his empathy for others and in his emphasis on the personal – Sarah Bakewell sees in him an ancestor of all the confessional blogging, tweeting, column writing and bare-all reality TV of today's culture.

But every age finds its own Montaigne: there was an Enlightenment Montaigne, a Romantic Montaigne, even a Nietzschean Montaigne. Each of the 20 chapters discusses a Montaignesque answer to the question of how to live – see the world, question everything, philosophise only by accident, give up control, be convivial, wake from the sleep of habit etc – and by the end, one has a composite answer to the book title's question, of which Montaigne would surely approve.

Bakewell writes elegantly, her affection for her subject comes over strongly, and like Montaigne she has an exuberant interest in the world, evidenced by the eclectic nature of the index – one finds "remora fish" next to "Reformation" and "semen" next to "Seneca". Reading this might well send you to read or re-read Montaigne's Essays. Good. But don't cut out the middleman.