Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

Review: On Bowie by Simon Critchley

Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession: no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie. Of course, maybe this says a lot about the quality of my life. Don’t get me wrong. There have been nice moments, some even involving other people. But in terms of constant, sustained joy over the decades, nothing comes close to the pleasure Bowie has given me.

bowie

How could I resist this opening paragraph? Here was someone who understood me perfectly, who felt the same way I did. This slim volume of essays (although that seems too pretentious a word, perhaps ‘meditations’, as they call them on the blurb, or ‘riffs’ would be more suitable) is perfect for Bowie fans to dip in and out of.

Each chapter is quick and easy to read, but provokes you to think deeper, with references to Roland Barthes (bane of my student days), Nietzche, Georg Buchner, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett. This is a philosophy professor with a passion for music, after all. Yet he keeps it all very down-to-earth and accessible, simply talking about his own personal emotions and thoughts while listening to and watching Bowie. In describing these, however, he touches upon the universal:

What’s striking is that I don’t think I am alone in this view. There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self… Bowie was not some rock star or a series of flat media cliches about bisexuality and bars in Berlin. He was someone who made life a little less ordinary for an awfully long time.

This was a library loan, but I think I will buy a copy for myself.

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Ms. Adler?

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There is no mystery to what book blogger and literature student Elena likes. Her Books and Reviews blog states quite clearly that it’s ‘crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism’ which rock her boat. I love the fact that she reads and reviews so-called serious literary fiction but finds crime fiction equally riveting and worthy of recognition. It’s thanks to Twitter once again that I got to know Elena – where she is better known as Ms. Adler (see the Sherlock reference below to understand why). I’m delighted to welcome Ms. Adler to my blog to answer some questions about her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was 12, I was at that awkward reading stage where children’s books were not enough and adult books were too grown-up for my taste. I was given three anthologies of classical novels adapted as comics and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quickly became my favorite. After reading it a few times, I asked my parents to buy the novel for me and I have been a crime fiction fan ever since.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love reading contemporary crime fiction because the authors are still alive. It thrills me to know that such works of art are being written right now, while I am writing my own academic articles or watching TV. I find it very inspiring! Also, I get to talk to them about their writing, their inspiration and their characters… I think that is a luxury.

I also have a more than a soft spot for women investigators. Actually, I am pursuing a PhD on women investigators. It is very easy to see them working long hours and suffering from everyday sexism, which is something that, as a young woman, one can very easily relate to.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I loved Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. I think crime fiction is about much more than merely solving crimes and Hilary nailed the social criticism part. I am a huge Kate Atkinson fan as well, because even though Life After Life is not typical crime fiction, it overlaps with the social criticism. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly has a delightful psychopath as a main character.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson would be in competition with the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. Two very different styles, but equally good. Atkinson is much more philosophical and explores psychology, while Cornwell has been exploring forensic science since 1990. I grew up with CSI on TV, so reading about how DNA and mobile phones were once not part of crime-solving amazes me.

girlonthetrainWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I have been hearing about a new novel, Girl on the Train published by Transworld that I can’t wait to read. Mind you, I usually spend two hours a day commuting by train, so I think it could very interesting to see how someone like me would fit on a crime novel. Of course, my To-Be-Read pile is huge. My lovely boyfriend is in charge of buying me all the Scarpetta books in the series as I read them, so I have two Scarpetta there. Mason Cross’s The Killing Season is there as well; he created a kick-ass FBI female detective! (Could you name another FBI female agent? I could not).  [Clarice Starling is the only one I can think of.]

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I am a die-hard fan of Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood. Anything they will ever write will be a favorite of mine. Alias Grace and Life After Life might be the best books that I have ever read; I never get tired of recommending them to others.

I am an English literature graduate, so I love postcolonial literature (produced in territories that were once part of the British empire), because it deals with very complex constructions of identity, especially for women. My latest discovery, and one I had the pleasure to meet in person, is Australian author Simone Lazaroo. She writes about moving to Australia from South Asia and how her looks did not fit into “Australianess”. These works usually remind you that racism and prejudices are still part of people’s lives.

Philosophy comes high on my list for everytfeministsundays2hing: personal interest, reading, classes that I dream of attending… So I try to incorporate as much philosophy as I can to my reading. My latest was Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the construction of gender in our society (and how to defy it).

Finally, I’m all for empowering contemporary women writers, so I try to read as much works written by women as I can. I think there is still a gap in the industry even though I mostly talk to female publicists, publishers and authors. I think the stories women have to tell are still considered “by women, for women” and it is not fair at all. I am so excited for the initiative #ReadWomen2014! It really tries to fight bookish sexism by creating an online community that reads, reviews and recommends women writers. We have the power to change things and initiatives like this one gives us back the power to do so.

 

Thank you very much, Ms. Adler, for your very interesting self-portrait as a reader. Incidentally, for those of you who share a passion for women writers and feminist literature, Elena has created a weekly meme, Feminist Sundays, a place of tolerance and mutual respect in which to discuss feminist issues (and sometimes just downright funny things in advertising!).

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. As usual, if you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions! I will be taking a break with the series during August, because of holidays and other commitments, but that just means you have a longer time to ponder these questions.