Book Review: Montaigne

Montaigne: A Lifeby Philippe DesanPrinceton University Press, 2017There's a finely-tuned high frequency of pitying dudgeon that can be reached by only a few book critics in these brutishly egalitarian times. But it's been the natural house-register of the New Yorker for a century, and when New Yorker fixture Adam Gopnik is in a sufficiently catty frame of mind, he can belt it out like Beverly Sills doing a Sunday matinee. Just recently in the magazine's pages, Gopnik's victim was the new 800-page biography of Montaigne by Philippe Desan, in which the author's scholarly industry is cited – always the kiss of death in pieces like this, as we immediately see:

Desan has many crudely reductive theories – the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords – but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn't see that we care about necklaces only because one of them hung on Montaigne.

This is kind of rain-soaked-cat hauteur is pretty uppity when coming from a jack-of-all-trades deadline writer and directed at the world's foremost Montaigne scholar, but in Gopnik's defense, it's probably understandable: very few writers in Western history have managed to leave behind a work like the Essays, something that feels both timeless and immensely personal. Much like the Roman poet Horace or the Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys, Montaigne is a writer who seems to speak directly to each reader's personal experience. This leads just naturally to bloviating, and in some spiky, curiously satisfying ways, Desan periodically predicts that exact response on the part of, uh, for instance, New Yorker writers:

Most often, the freedom of judgment, outside schools, is emphasized in order to prove that the subject can always understand the world by himself. This self-sufficiency of the subject, removed from his historical reality, is the trap par excellence of many contemporary commentaries on the Essais.

Montaigne: A Life is deeply disenchanted with its subject. “Throughout his life,” Desan writes as though it were an unpardonable sin, “Montaigne was able to attract the support necessary to advance his personal interests.” As might be guessed from the book's original title from its 2014 French publication, Montaigne: Une biographie politique, Desan has no patience with the standard picture of Montaigne as a dreamy intellectual who retired to his family tower in order to pen his genre-creating essays. The Montaigne in these pages (translated into very readable English by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal) is a trimmer, a striver, a place-seeker … and, as Desan pins down time and again, a liar. It becomes ghoulishly fascinating, as the book grinds along, to watch Desan take up one beloved personal anecdote after another from the Essays and shakes it until its details fall apart: the dialogue Montaigne heard between the King and the cannibals? We can determine exactly where he stood, and he wasn't close enough to hear a thing. The incident in the late 1580s when Montaigne was waylaid and nearly killed, only to be miraculously released by the gunmen's kindly leader? He leaves out the certainty that they recognized him as an envoy of the King. Almost every time Desan alights on a real-world detail of Montaigne's life, hardly a sentence elapses before you start to hear furniture breaking, and pace critics like Gopnik, that's a mighty entertaining spectacle to read. And while it's true that Desan could have shown the beloved Essais more sensitive attention befitting its status as a universally cherished work of literature, that's not the book he set out to write. Instead, his book proceeds from a deceptively simple assertion, as Desan contentiously insists:

Before becoming a modern author, Montaigne was necessarily an author of his own time. Historicizing his thought is hardly fashionable in a time when everything is supposed to converge toward the present moment – as if history, since Antiquity, had been nothing more than a long phase preparatory to our period in which everything suddenly takes place.

Montaigne: A Life does indeed breathe the cool and slightly dusty air of the archives – its critics are right about that. But it's a bracing air in this case, and the Montaigne it gives us, a self-serving, back-patting, place-seeking mercantile parvenu, is radically, fascinatingly different from the meek and inner-questioning wise hermit who emerges from a reading of the Essays. And the essays themselves emerge as equal parts fiction and fact, often with the most memorable bits and pieces cobbled together in order to make the author look good.But the Essays are undyingly wonderful. Philippe Desan can't do anything about that, and he doesn't even want to.