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The Accident of Montaigne

It was by accident that I first encountered the works of Michel de Montaigne – appropriately enough for a writer who called himself an “accidental philosopher”. I needed a book to read on a long train journey from Budapest, and the only book I could find that was not in Hungarian (a language I loved but could barely read) was a little English translation of his selected Essais. That was over twenty years ago, and since then his book has never been far from me – by my bed, on my shelf, or in my travelling bag wherever I go.
What first struck me about him was his familiarity. He seemed so modern, and described feelings and experiences that I recognized in myself. What kept me reading him, though, was quite the opposite : his strangeness. Just when you think you know him, he slips away. He does something so entirely sixteenth-century, or so peculiar to himself, that he leaves us moderns behind. It is the relationship between the two Montaignes – the close and the distant – that has fascinated me, as I know it has so many other “friends of Montaigne”. In the end, it led me to write about him. I don’t think I have found any answers to the Montaigne puzzle – but I have certainly enjoyed asking the questions.

Sarah Bakewell, 9 March 2012, for the Société des Amis de Montaigne
Illustration : the Danube Express