My Book Of A Lifetime: The Essays, By Michel de Montaigne
Reviewed by Jenny Diski
Friday, 31 October 2008
In 1585 Marie de Gournay, an awkward 18-year-old who spent her days mooching in her father's small library, read the first two volumes of The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, then a man in his mid-fifties. She fell immediately in love. Her mother administered a dose of hellebore to bring her back to her senses, but she determined that one day she would meet the writer, because in all the world no one understood his remarkable work so well as she. Three years later, she did meet him, and he spent several weeks in her house in Picardy recuperating from an illness and wallowing in her adoration. After his death she became his editor. A reader's dream came true.
Marie de Gournay was just the first of many readers to be seduced by Montaigne and to be made to feel by his writing that he spoke directly to them. Montaigne has stood by my shoulder, and whispered in my ear, too, though, of necessity, he is more ectoplasmic these days.
It's not just Montaigne; all avid readers know that the best writers rank with the great seducers. Montaigne was quite brazen about it. He wrote about himself candidly as no one had done before: "I am the matter of my book." He described what and how he liked to eat (greedily, biting his fingers in his haste), how he preferred making love (in bed, not standing up), how often he emptied his bowels, that one must fulfil the letter of one's duty to family and work, but always keep a back room in the shop for oneself and, above all, what it meant to have had a true friend and lost him.
He retired to his tower to write about life and discovered that he was his own subject of investigation. Learning about himself was the only possible channel through which to interrogate the larger world. But in writing himself down he was also signalling – quite consciously – to someone he had yet to meet to fill the empty place that solitary writing left. "Besides this profit that I derive from writing about myself, I hope for this other advantage, that if it my humours happen to please and suit some worthy man before I die, he will try to meet me... If by such good signs I knew of a man who was suited to me, truly I would go very far to find him... Oh, a friend!" Such a person need only "whistle in their palm and I will go furnish them with essays in flesh and bone".
Of course, he meant me. Every reader of Montaigne knows that they are the very one he was speaking to. That manipulation by the solitary writer of the solitary reader is the secret, erotic space of reading. It works very rarely, but when it does, centuries don't matter, nor the actuality of the writer's life. We are their best and only reader. Montaigne – and all those others – reach out from their towers and make intimate contact and keep us mooching in libraries.
Jenny Diski's novel 'Apology for the Woman Writing' is published by Virago