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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer [Paperback]

Sarah Bakewell
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 7 2011
Brilliant, original, funny and moving — a vivid portrait of Montaigne, showing how his ideas gave birth to our modern sense of our inner selves, from Shakespeare's plays to the dilemmas we face today.

How to get on well with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love — such questions arise in most people's lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honourable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?

This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92), perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them 'essays', meaning 'attempts' or 'tries'. Into them he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog's ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller, and over four hundred years later, Montaigne's honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come to him in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment — and in search of themselves.

This book, a spirited and singular biography (and the first full life of Montaigne in English for nearly fifty years), relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing (made to speak only Latin), youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Etienne de La Boétie and with his adopted 'daughter', Marie de Gournay. And as we read, we also meet his readers — who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, 'how to live?'

From the Hardcover edition.

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"With this splendidly conceived and exquisitely written double biography - of both Montaigne the man and Montaigne the book - Sarah Bakewell should persuade another generation to fall in love with Montaigne" Sunday Times "How to live is a superb, spirited introduction to the master, and should have its readers rushing straight to the essays themselves" -- Adam Thorpe Guardian "Sarah Bakewell has written a marvellously confident and clear introduction to Montaigne...a rare achievement. Sarah Bakewell deserves congratulations for opening Montaigne to new readers so very appealingly" Evening Standard "Illuminating and humane book... It's rare to come across a biographer who remains so deliciously fond of her subject... How to Live will delight and illuminate" Independent "Bakewell writes with verve. This is an intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world" Daily Telegraph

About the Author

SARAH BAKEWELL had a wandering childhood in Europe, Australia and England. After studying at the University of Essex, she was a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before becoming a full-time writer, publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart and The English Dane. She lives in London, where she teaches creative writing at City University and catalogues rare book collections for the National Trust.

From the Hardcover edition.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Novel but interesting approach to biography Aug. 13 2011
By Paolo TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533. His early education was entirely in Latin leaving him with little way to communicate with his family except through the shaky Latin of his father and conversational Latin of his servants. He lived in a tower overlooking his estate, was a magistrate and sometime mayor of Bordeaux. It is hard to see how lessons on life from this mediaeval French philosopher can be relevant to a modern audience and yet throughout the centuries many people have read the Essays and seem themselves in their pages for the simple reason that he is so brutally honest and open about his life that one begins to look on Montaigne as a friend. We learn about his bowel movements, his sexual exploits, what food he likes and about his relationship with his cat.

Montaigne was a true man of the Renaissance. Carved into the roof of his library were maxims of his Greek and Roman heroes, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil and Socrates et al. His philosophy melded the Hellenic schools of Scepticism, Epicurianism and Stoicism holding key the two key principles that unite them all, eudaimonia, the pursuit of a good life and that of ataraxia, having a tranquillity of the mind. This means not being overcome by extreme emotions, and preparing oneself mentally for all the pitfalls life can offer, meeting them with a level head.

Bakewell's unconventional approach to biography pays off as one can see how fond she is of her subject, a trait which is quite contagious. Whilst Montaigne's philosophy can appear to be cold and unemotional, you can see that he is trying to save us from emotional pain, perhaps of the kind he underwent himself when he lost the closest friend of his life, his soul mate Etienne de la Boetie to the plague. But the highest compliment that can be paid to this book is that it makes you want turn to its source, the Essays themselves and for that reason alone I feel I can highly recommend this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid biography and history of a work June 30 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book. It ties a biography of Montaigne into a history of his masterpieces, Les Essais, and a study of the ideas treated in his book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars How to Live and Die Dec 1 2013
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Live and Die, Dec 1 2013
By The Rideau Reader - See all my reviews
This review is from: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Paperback)

Sarah Bakewell's new biography of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is a delight. Although not a "life and times" biography, Bakewell successfully enters Montaigne's 16th Century world, which turns out to be quite a mess, even by the standards of French history.

Montaigne lived through France's religious wars when Protestants and Catholics tore the country apart. Montaigne was a Catholic with many Protestant friends and he did what he could to promote moderation. Being an aristocrat he knew and counselled leaders on both sides without seeking political power for himself. He was happiest on his rural estate writing introspective essays in his famous tower.

Because of his essays, one of the glories of French literature, Montaigne is a biographer's dream. Simply put, he spent a large part of his life writing about himself. Bakewell imitates Montaigne's own methods by trying to illuminate the man through 20 essays that address how Montaigne chose to live.

I found one aspect especially haunting. Montaigne wrote that one could not take the full measure of a man (yes he was sexist) without knowing how he met his own death. I'm sure Montaigne hoped for an easy death but this was not to be. He slowly choked over several days and it took all of his courage to bear it with the stoicism and dignity that contemporaries described.

This biography is well worth reading and will prompt you to get a copy of the great man's essays and read them for yourself.

John Mundy "The Rideau Reader"
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