Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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Stefan Zweig: Montaigne

January 1, 2018

The more I find out about Stefan Zweig, the more he interests me. A curious character, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of time and place, but not in the same way as his contemporary Joseph Roth… an essayist, biographer, story-teller and novelist so distraught at the way Europe turned in the 1930s that he eventually took his own life, in exile in Brazil. He’s little-known or read in England, much better known in Europe.

This little book on Montaigne reflects its author, who, late in life came to know and love the sixteenth century French writer and philosopher as a kindred spirit, one who loved intellectual liberty and personal liberty and strove to hold on to it in incredibly difficult times, one who valued his mind and what it allowed him to do… a paean to a certain kind of human being in rather short supply in both centuries.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in the book, in terms of biographical detail, for Zweig takes us through Montaigne’s life and career after a fashion, his years of public life, personal retreat from the world, travels and so on. He recognises a kindred spirit, evaluates his achievement and pays tribute to him.

I love the idea of the ‘pensée vagabonde’ (roaming thought) which he attributes to Montaigne; in some ways, I’m sure both men speak to my condition… It’s an enjoyable little book for anyone who has read and enjoyed Montaigne’s Essays.

Christmas Books 2017

December 26, 2017

5178JPz9XvL._AC_US218_5190gvBe8QL._AC_US218_I’m trying – with not a great deal of success – to cut down on the number of books I acquire, so I put rather fewer new books on my wish list this year. I also look at said wish list rather infrequently, so the books I received this Christmas, only four, (!) came as very pleasant surprises, and I shall very much look forward to reading them.

For the record, I received Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, Au Pays des Sherpas by Ella Maillart, All Things Made New by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and the wonderful Explorer’s Atlas.

I have long enjoyed Montaigne’s essays, his way of looking at and reflecting on the world, and indeed the way he may be said to have invented and developed that literary form, and although I haven’t thus far enjoyed Zweig’s fiction, I have found his non-fiction thought-provoking. Some of my readers will know of my passion for the travels, writings and photography of Maillart, the Swiss traveller: here is more for me to enjoy. And having used 2017’s being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as an excuse to revisit some religious history (see this year’s posts passim), MacCulloch’s recent collection of essays will no doubt shed some more light and raise a few more questions. The Explorer’s Atlas is the nearest I get to coffee-table delights and I’m really looking forward to it.

These should keep me going until the new year, at least…

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions

January 25, 2017

41mz5m030gl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This book has been sitting on my shelves for over twenty years; its moment finally came. I read Rousseau’s On The Social Contract while I was at university and found it very interesting, and I am often reminded of the eighteenth century French literature course I did, and which I enjoyed so much, because it covered the enlightenment and its philosophers who were beginning to cut away from the religious domination of thought and ideas for so many centuries. This course came along at the very same time as I was attempting to free myself from a religious upbringing…

It’s a new genre of writing: apart from St Augustine’s Confessions, no-one else had told the story of their life and development – autobiography, if you like – in such a way; Montaigne includes a good deal of biographical material in his essays, but not in a structured, CV kind of way. Rousseau has an astonishingly detailed memory and pretty good recall of names and events from his past; he demonstrates great sensitivity towards his own and others’ feelings, and a frankness in writing about his rather curious sexual adventures that I hadn’t expected from that era (and then I remembered Diderot’s Memoirs of a Nun!). He recounts his own sins, and shameful acts, with great honesty, even seeming to expect us to admire him for this openness.

I hadn’t expected such a renowned philosopher to come across as such a disorganised wastrel, his early adult life filled with all sorts of half-hearted attempts to make a living and a name for himself; neither had I realised how much one could be dependent on the patronage and protection of wealthy aristocrats, or how easily one could get caught up in the infighting between them and end up being used as a pawn…

I found various aspects of his life shocking: his sexual relations with a woman he called ‘maman’, his handing over of five children fathered on the woman he eventually came to marry, to a foundling hospital without so much as a backward look because they would have been inconvenient…

He seems to have led a pretty chaotic existence all-in all, and his accounts of all the infighting and squabbles that were part of cultural and literary life did become rather tiresome in the end. But he did seem, as he aged, genuinely to espouse the idea of the simpler life, away from the centre of glittering French high society, although his idea of simple didn’t really match mine, rather like Mrs Dashwood’s ‘cottage’ in Sense and Sensibility.

It was a mildly interesting read but not one I’d really recommend unless you’re very keen on enlightenment philosophers. In the end, it’s writing of a kind rather too far removed from what we are accustomed to nowadays.

Note to readers who may be interested: you can keep up with what I’m in the process of reading by seeking me out on Instagram, and you can follow me on Twitter too, if that makes your life any easier..

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