How To Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell

April 25, 2011 at 2:35 am (Book review, books, France)

  At the beginning of How To Live,  Sarah Bakewell recounts the story of a horseback riding accident suffered by Michel de Montaigne, in either 1569 or 1570. He was in his mid thirties at the time, and the accident almost killed him. He was thrown violently to the ground and knocked out. When he at length regained consciousness, he had to fight for every breath; in addition, he was vomiting up blood. Yet in his mind, he was elsewhere entirely:

He suffered no pain, and no concern at the sight of those around him in emergency mode. All he felt was laziness and weakness. His servants put him to bed; he lay there, perfectly happy, not a thought in his head apart from that of how pleasurable it was to rest. ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’ He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away. . It was going to be ‘a very happy death.’

Only it wasn’t. To everyone’s amazement, including his own, Montaigne made a full recovery. But he reflected a great deal on the meaning his near death experience and came to a provocative conclusion on the subject:

In dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’ Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips…. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.

(Reading this, I was put in mind of the concluding lines of The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy:

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.)

In later years, Montaigne offered this summation of his thoughts on the subject of death:

‘If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.’

Adds Bakewell: “‘Don’t worry about death’ became his most fundamental, most liberating answer to the question of how to live. It made it possible to do just that: live.” And this is why a book entitled How To Live begins with death. In fact, this book opens and closes with this same subject. Montaigne’s own death was excruciating and very hard to read about; especially since, in the course of Bakewell’s recounting of his life, I had developed a real affection for the man. While it is true that Montaigne’s final illness was anything but “an aimless reverie,” he faced it surrounded by family, friends, devoted servants. He displayed extraordinary courage throughout. I finished How To Live in tears, thinking “Ave atque vale” – Hale and farewell to a truly noble spirit!

Michel de Montaigne 1533-1592


How To Live is a sort of dual biography, of the man Michel de Montaigne and of his masterwork, The Essays. It is a crowded canvas, filled with interesting characters and fascinating highlights of the history of sixteenth century France. This latter consists primarily of religious wars and is very dispiriting to read about, but it provides a vital context in which to appreciate the life and singular achievements of Montaigne.

Initially, I got this book from the library. By the time I had finished the first chapter, it was already bristling with post-it flags. I was going to have to buy it.

This is what my own copy now looks like: .

Sarah Bakewell has done a marvelous job of distilling a complex subject into a comprehensible  form. She writes with great energy and intelligence, and her prose is seasoned with more than a soupçon of wit. Here she is, accepting the National Book Critics Circle’s award for best biography of 2010:  .  (One of the finalists in the biography category was Selina Hastings’s superb life of Somerset Maugham. These were both such terrific books; I would have been hard put to choose  between them.)

I’ll have more to say about How To Live in future posts.

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