Robert Zaretsky in Le Monde Diplomatique (English):
A bronze statue of Michel de Montaigne has graced the Square Paul Painlevé, a leafy refuge off the bustling Rue des Ecoles in Paris’s Latin Quarter, since the 1930s. The occasional tourist stops long enough to read the quotation engraved on the base – about how wonderful a place Paris is – but for the most part it is ignored. Except, that is, by the students at the Sorbonne just across the street who have long made a practice of rubbing Montaigne’s right foot for luck before exams. The rubbing has been so persistent that at one point the foot had to be replaced. Photos from the era show Montaigne, with the same smile hovering on his lips, footless yet fancy-free. Unperturbed and curious, Montaigne would have enjoyed this accident of history.
Readers of Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre know that a missing foot – or, more accurately, a missing leg – played a critical role in a celebrated trial that Montaigne had himself attended in Toulouse and then discussed in his essay “On the Lame”, one of more than a hundred essays, all equally rambling and ravishing, that form his oeuvre. This event – and, for that matter, the Paris statue – are among the very few details missing from Sarah Bakewell’s stunning book How to Live: or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
We can count on the toes of a foot (attached or not) the number of writers who find themselves, thanks to the richness and sheer humanity of their work, claimed by one generation of readers for reasons very different from those held by those who precede and follow. Virgil comes to mind, of course, as does Shakespeare and Montaigne. It is not a coincidence that Montaigne read and reread the Aeneid – he cites Virgil’s simile of Aeneas’s flitting thoughts resembling the patterns that dance across a ceiling when sunlight bounces off a bowl of water as an apt description of his own mind. Shakespeare, it now seems clear, read and reread Montaigne’s Essays too. (If not, certain passages from The Tempest and Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” are one of literary history’s greatest coincidences.)
While Bakewell traces the ways in which successive generations of readers each claimed Montaigne as one of their own, this is not, as the subtitle suggests, her principal aim. Instead, Bakewell wants to converse with Montaigne in the hope that it will lead to an insight into how we can best live our lives.