Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Essayist

I was delighted to see, in yesterday's New York Times, this Conversation Across Centuries With the Father of All Bloggers, by Patricia Cohen. The "father of all bloggers" is, of course, Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth century master of the essay. It's true that we all walk in his shoes. Or rather, we stumble along as best we can in shoes that are way too elegant for most of us. It's to him, in good part, that I owe my love of this particular literary form.

I first read Montaigne when I was a student at Cambridge, now more than fifty years ago. His Essais, published in 1580, were required reading for my degree in French Language and Literature, and I'm sure that I treated them with the lofty disregard of the typical undergraduate--well, at least the lazy ones, amongst whose number I must surely have been counted. But something must have sunk into my numb skull, because I have thought about them ever since. Just recently, I formed the intention to re-read them (hoping, now that my French is so rusty, to be able to find a good English translation. Any ideas?) thanks to a generous review of my book Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad With Commerce--a review in which James Scarborough, the author, was kind (rash?) enough to mention me in the same breath as the master.

I have not yet re-read them. I have not even laid my hands on a copy of the book, either in French or English. I hereby promise myself that I will do so.

Here's the thing about Montaigne: aside from being a writer of supreme elegance, who manages to say what needs to be said with absolute precision and economy, he had the courage to write about... himself! All of his essays are just that, "attempts" to come to terms with himself, his ideas, and the world around him. As I remember them they constitute, all 107 of them, a scrupulously honest examination of the contents of his mind, an observation of the way it worked, its byways as well as its highways. Nothing was so insignificant as to escape his notice; whatever he noticed became subject matter for his writing; and his writing was not simply his analytical tool, it was itself the process. He is the prime example of one who practiced my favorite, often repeated adage as a writer: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say

So it's good to see this great writer back in the swim of things after more than four centuries, acknowledged for his 16th century contribution to the 21st. It's clear that I now have another book to buy and read--the book that is the subject of this article: Sarah Bakewell's How to Live. I'll report back when I've had the chance to fulfill both promises to myself.

1 comment:

mandt said...

Harvard Classics, Vol. 32: Literary and Philosophical Essays