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“But I am wandering away from my theme…” #montaigne @NottingHillEds

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Back to Montaigne! Having refreshed myself with Golden Age crime, I’ve had the chance to let Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book settle in my mind; and it really was a most thought-provoking work. As I mentioned, I’ve intended to read Montaigne for some time, and I have a lovely little selection of his essays in a beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions. It’s entitled “Drawn from Life” and is introduced by Tim Parks (who’s previously made an appearance on the Ramblings, back when I reviewed his “Pen in Hand” last year). The translations are by the wonderfully-named M.A. Screech (who gets an honourable mention in Bakewell’s book, so I feel happy trusting his work); and the book collects 13 essays over 185 pages (which is a fraction of what the man actually wrote!)

The subjects of the essays range far and wide, over Fear, Cannibals, Smells, Clothing, Drunkenness and Cowardice, to highlight a few; but the fact is, Montaigne *never* sticks to a subject. He’s a man who likes to digress, and digress he does, at the drop of a hat. So he’ll start off at one point, tell you a tale of someone else, take a diversion to another story, tell you how he feels about something else, and so on. Does he get to the point? *Is* there a point? That’s perhaps debatable, or maybe that *is* the point – that there’s no point, and Montaigne is just representing the unstructured nature of human thought (he was certainly very keen to never commit himself to a single, rigid point of view!)

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, what’s particularly revelatory when it comes to Montaigne’s essays is that they’re basically about himself; a very modern concept and perhaps one which has made him dip in and out of favour over the centuries (something which Bakewell covers in her book). However, it means that no subject is taboo, from high philosophical musings to the pain in his prick (as he describes it) when he has to pass kidney stones (ouch)!! This makes his writings very relatable and very entertaining; and may well have a lot to do with the fact that he’s often taken to be a good guide to life.

It’s absolutely fascinating following the meanderings of Montaigne’s mind, and this little selection of his essays is a wonderful introduction to him. Rather than go on a lot, I’ll instead treat you to some quotes from his writings below and encourage you to explore further. Montaigne still seems a relevant and entertaining thinker, and maybe when I finally retire I can sit down with a complete volume of his essays and make my way slowly through them!

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Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform. (from We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means)

It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature, our great and powerful Mother. We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises… (from On The Cannibals)

A man’s worth and reputation lie in the mind and in the will: his true honour is found there. Bravery does not consist in firm arms and legs but in firm minds and souls: it is not a matter of what our horse or our weapons are worth but of what we are. (from On the Cannibals)

Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it. What we decided just now we will change very soon; and soon afterward we come back to where we were: it is all motion and inconstancy… (from On the Inconstancy of Our Actions)

What a stupid nation we are. We are not content with letting the world know of our vices and follies by repute, we go to foreign nations in order to show them to them by our presence! Put three Frenchmen in the Libyan desert and they will not be together for a month without provoking and clawing each other… (from On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty)

“… he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.” #montaigne @Sarah_Bakewell

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Back in June I was in that wonderful position of being able to choose exactly what I felt like to read next, with no book making particular demands on me and any number of volumes ready and willing to be picked up. In fact, I shared an image of the ones I felt most drawn to on Twitter, and the ambience was predominantly French! In the end, I plumped for “How to Live” by Sarah Bakewell; subtitled “A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, it had come highly recommended and as I had a selection of his essays also standing by, it seemed the perfect choice – which indeed it was!

A French-themed pile…

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (usually just referred to by the last part of his name) is himself a figure I’ve been skirting round for quite a while; a 16th century French nobleman contemporary with Shakespeare, he’s best known for popularising the essay as a literary form and espousing some wonderful views on humanity and the best way to live. His works are incredibly influential, affecting writers as wide-ranging as Shakespeare himself (possibly), Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Woolf, Zweig and even Asimov. According to Wikipedia, he wrote some of the most influential essays ever – which is some legacy!

Bakewell sets out to tell his life story, but in an intriguing way; she asks the question which Montaigne himself was posing – How to live? – and examines his story broadly chronologically in 21 chapters which look at his life in relation to the answers his essays provide. It’s a very clever concept, because it allows her to not only relate his life events but also explore his philosophies, the wider world in which he lived and what it really means to be a human being.

Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl. One seventeenth-century Montaignist defined it as firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight, or trying out a horse to see if it handles well. On the whole, Montaigne discovered that the pistol shot all over the place and the horse galloped out of control, but this did not bother him. He was delighted to see his work come out so unpredictably.

Montaigne lived slap-bang in the middle of the Renaissance, a period when Europe was going through a cultural, artistic, political and economic revival following the grimness of the Middle Ages. Humanity was starting to explore the world physically and intellectually, the arts and sciences were developing, and the question of how humans should live was considered really important. Montaigne’s essays were ground-breaking in their free-ranging quality; no tightly-controlled arguments, clear-cut answers for this man; instead, he allowed his throughts to roam freely, jumping from one idea to another almost at random, pulling in all kinds of concepts and analogies as he went. This format was revolutionary at the time, and popular; Montaigne’s essays were instant best-sellers, and still are.

What takes Bakewell’s book into a different realm, however, is the breadth of it. Yes, there is a roughly chronological look at Montaigne’s life, and that in itself is fascinating. But as well as this, she discusses at length the philosophies – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic – which informed his thinking; she reveals in depth the world in which Montaigne lived, its beliefs, its wars and its problems (plague!!); and she draws out of Montaigne’s writings lessons which can still be relevant and helpful to how we try to live today. All of these elements make for a compelling and fascinating read, and the book really opened my eyes to what that period of time was really like.

One thing which was a bit of a revelation was the state of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant religions; I don’t know if I’d quite appreciated quite how rabid, bloody and bitter the dissent between the two strands of Christianity actually was, but the behaviour of both sides as related by Bakewell was shocking. Whyever can’t human beings learn to accept that other people have different beliefs and let them get on with it; we don’t seem to have learned from the past (correction – we *definitely* haven’t). And it does seem that France has been in a constant state of conflict and revolt through most of its history, which I hadn’t quite taken on board before.

I was also taken by Montaigne’s general tolerance and humanity; and in particular his views on animals and the natural world and his hatred of cruelty in general. Bakewell quotes this from one essay, and it’s a timely and still relevant view:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We own justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

As well as his essays, Bakewell relates how Montaigne kept a journal whilst on an extended journey, some written by his secretary and some by himself. It obviously gives a different view of the great man, and sounds entertaining in its own right – she says of it at one point:

It makes for a better read than any number of overblown Romantic travelogues, precisely because it remains so tied to detail. It has little beds under big beds, messy Swiss sauces, room-sized birdcages, circumcisions, sex changes and ostriches: what’s not to like?

I may have to track it down, because his travels themselves are entertaining too (he used them as a way to dodge political duties…); and the section of Rome oddly took me back to Bowen’s thoughts on the history of the city and its constantly changing architecture.

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might have realised, I loved this book; as well as being a fascinating biography, it takes in so much history and philosophy that there’s a danger of going off exploring down any number of wormholes. Bakewell’s coverage of the legacy of Montaigne is also revealing; so many later philosophers and writers worked themselves up into a right lather over his wonderfully laisser-faire attitude and refusal to stick to any kind of fixed opinion. He was a real rambler – so obviously a kindred soul…

“How to Live” turned out to be a real winner; thoroughly enjoyable, very stimulating, beautifully written and extremely erudite, it was also often very funny. Bakewell’s wonderful book has made me very keen to pick up my little selection of Montaigne’s essays soon; and fortunately I also have her “At the Existentialist Cafe” lurking, which promises equally marvellous delights… ;D

Festive incomings at the Ramblings!

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I do hope everyone has had a lovely seasonal break; if you’re anything like us at the Ramblings, there’s been a lot of food and drink and silly games and laughter with family, which has been quite lovely. There were also plenty of parcels to unwrap, and inevitably there have been books – in fact, rather more than I might have anticipated!

Things were slightly complicated by my birthday also being a December one, and so I thought I would split the arrivals into the two categories and share some of the bookish arrivals! 😁

This rather modest pile is the birthday books. My BFF J. presented me with another beautiful Beverley for my collection (which gets larger daily!) and the Vegan cookbook was from a local friend. “Dayglo”, about the amazing Poly Styrene, was from my brother in law, and the rest of the books were inspired gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. There is an intriguing sounding book about D. H. Lawrence in there which will become particularly pertinent as this post continues… I was very excited to get the new translation of the Bruno Schulz stories too!

Well – let’s get on to Christmas… Here’s the rather daunting pile of new arrivals!

I must admit I wasn’t anticipating quite so many bookish gifts – here’s a little more detail… ;D

This impressive pile of D.H. Lawrence titles comes from my BFF J., who has obviously decreed that 2020 will be the year that I read DHL! Let’s hope I like him… She actually lugged them all the way round London when we met up at the end of November, which is no mean feat – thanks J.!

These books are from other pals! “The House with the Stained Glass Window” comes from my old friend V., and as a fascinating translated work, it sounds right up my street! The Vita and Carter books are part of my Virago Secret Santa this year, and my Santa turned out to be Simon at Stuck in a Book – thanks Simon! 😀

And this stunning pile comes from family – including the Copenhagen trilogy from Middle child, Montaigne, Oscar Wilde, the Cold War, Buzzcocks and the wonderful behemoth at the bottom – The Penguin Book of Oulipo. I am ridiculously excited about all of these, and the Oulipo book is the icing on the cake!

So I’m obvs going to have to rearrange the shelves and have a bit of a clear out to house these wonderful volumes – and fortunately Mr. Kaggsy rather cleverly gifted me something which will be the perfect aid:

This is a rather wonderful library stool/step (the bottom bit slides out when you want to use it as a step) which I can keep in the spare room where the books live and use to hop up and down from the higher shelves, and sit on to have a quick sneaky read whenever I want! It’s absolutely fab and will no doubt help my investigations of some of my top shelves (and may even help me locate my missing Shostakovich books…)

So – I have been thoroughly spoiled over recent weeks with books and am now going to have even more issues deciding what to read next! I’m very lucky to have been so gifted. I hope all my bookish friends have had some wonderful Christmas arrivals, and do share what lovely books have been incoming at your homes! 😀

 

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…

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I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. 😉

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

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