In such epochs where the highest values of life—our peace, our independence, our basic rights, all that makes our existence more pure, more beautiful, all that justifies it—are sacrificed to the demon inhabiting a dozen fanatics and ideologues, all the problems of the man who fears for his humanity come down to the same question: how to remain free?
Among Zweig’s last few works, his biography of Montaigne (1941), in which as translator Will Stone points out, Zweig takes ‘a more or less conventional biographical route’, nonetheless gives the reader insights into both the subject of the biography, Michel de Montaigne and Zweig himself, through Montaigne’s ideas that resonated with him, given the time he was living in. The introduction by Stone helps the reader contextualize and identify the connections and influences between biographer and subject.
While Zweig had read Montaigne as a young man, his thoughts came to hold relevance and meaning only later in life when the circumstances in which he was living had changed; ‘freedom and tolerance’ which seemed ‘assured’ when he was young, were no longer so. Thus, it was when Zweig was living in Brazil and reread Montaigne’s Essais that he felt that ‘fraternity’ and decided to write a biography, throwing himself into research, helped among others by Fortunat Strowski, a specialist on Montaigne who lent Zweig his books and expertise.
Montaigne had a rather interesting life, living within the parameters of society and yet in his own frame, doing all of the usual things, yet also some unusual ones; sometimes in favour with society and sought, at others side-lined. Born in the Chateau de Montaigne (and the only one to hold that name for his family name was Eyquem), he belonged to a wealthy family, but one which had worked its way up from humbler circumstances as fish merchants. As a child, his father chose to ground him by sending him to live his first few years in a peasant’s home; but after his return, both his initial upbringing and education turned out both to his advantage (for instance, he was taught Latin by everyone around him speaking to him in Latin and nothing else, contrary to the harsher education methods common at the time) and disadvantage (his inability to adjust to rote learning when he was sent to school, or indeed to deal with the practical management of his estate when it came upon him to do so; in fact, he awaits the marriage of his then new-born daughter so that his son-in-law can take over all responsibility).
Montaigne serves in public life, gets married, has children, but by the age of 38, is disillusioned by all and retires to a tower in his chateau, where he wants to devote his life to reading and to discovering himself (no easy pursuit; he seeks both the ‘I in self’ as well as the ‘human’). But then, 10 years later, after spending his time in relative seclusion (never a complete recluse) and publishing two volumes of his Essais, he realises that perhaps he has become ‘fossilized … narrow and mediocre’, that ‘his soul cannot remain in peace, when the world beyond is in uproar’. He then decides to set off on a journey, this time simply going where the road takes him (rather than for a purpose), only to be summoned back 18 months later to once again resume public responsibility. In this he faces some disgrace (abandoning Bordeaux, of which he is mayor during a bout of plague) but also great responsibility as negotiator between Henry de Navarre and Henry III.
Montaigne’s life was certainly unusual and interesting to read about and I very much enjoyed the portrait that Zweig has put together. What really stood out for me, however, was Zweig’s introductory chapter where he discusses Montaigne’s thoughts and ideas in the context of Montaigne’s time which applied equally at the time Zweig was writing, and which I felt continue to hold the same relevance today. Through science and technology, the world is becoming more connected (‘Distances, borders between people were beginning to dissolve…’), nature’s ‘secrets’ are being revealed (though perhaps, humans think they have done so more than they really have for when nature acts or reacts, humans continue to be helpless), yet ‘instead of humanism, it was intolerance that spread’. Around Montaigne is a ‘mob frenzy of fury and hate’, citizens are killing citizens (on various pretexts) until a point where the murder continues and all pretext (even religion) is dispensed with. Not much different from the atmosphere of hate and intolerance that prevails in the present. It is in this environment that Montaigne ponders on how he can preserve his true self (as does Zweig who like Montaigne is struggling with the world he is living in) for
Nothing can lower or raise yourself from outside; that which remains inwardly free and sincere easily defeats the strongest pressure from the exterior.
For Zweig (and Montaigne) one answer lies in seeking certitude beyond the homeland, in exile perhaps; but in our own present even that seems not much of an option for all the world around is experiencing pretty much the same.
These grave though relevant thoughts aside, I also very much enjoyed the chapter titled ‘The Creative Decade’ which reflects on Montaigne’s time in his tower and his relationship with books; another set of ideas which very much resonated with me, as
For him books are not like men, who impose themselves and burden him with their chatter, and of whom, it is hard to be rid.
Instead, he can converse with them as he chooses to do; and so he does, approaching them on his terms, not as a scholar or with any obligation, but reading what appeals to him, what leads him to think, which sharpen his faculty of judgement. Among his favourites are poetry and history (biography in particular). And this is the approach he takes in his later travels too!
In his rather interesting life, which Montaigne manages to live to some extent on his own terms, while at the same time struggling through and even contributing to family, social life, and the politics of his time, and in his contribution to thought through the three volumes of his Essais, Montaigne’s story as told by Zweig gives its readers much to enjoy as well as ponder, for even if he may have had his flaws, Montaigne’s ideas continue to hold relevance today, and sadly will probably do so in times to come as well. This has definitely left me inspired to pick up the Essais, as also more of Zweig’s bios of which this was the first I read.
This qualifies for three reading challenges this month; #NovNov, #GermanLitMonth and #NonfictionNovember
[Edition reviewed; paperback, Pushkin Press, 2015, pp. 153 including notes and an introduction by the translator; own purchase]