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February 2, 2011

Book Notes - Sarah Bakewell ("How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer has been critically lauded and was named a finalist for the 2010 Costa Book Award for biography.

I rarely read biography, often finding it too dry and lacking narrative or dumbed down and not worthwhile, but Bakewell captures the life and times of MIchel de Montaigne as fascinatingly as his philosophy of life and writing.

This book will be treasured by readers of Montaigne as well as those who only know him by name.

The Telegraph wrote of the book:

"Bakewell writes with verve. This is an intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world. How to Live offers few concessions to the general reader, yet implicit within it is an endorsement and reiteration of Flaubert's advice on how to read Montaigne: 'Don't read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed… Read him in order to live.'"

In her own words, here is Sarah Bakewell's Book Notes music playlist for her book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

Although my book How to Live is a biography of the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, a Renaissance man, I certainly didn't spend all my writing time listening to Renaissance madrigals or court music to get in the mood. I wouldn't have lasted more than an hour or two, never mind the five years it took me to write the book. Lutes and dulcimers make a pleasing enough noise (sackbuts and bagpipes a bit less so). But I am more drawn to the individualism and rebellion of later music. Montaigne himself was both an individualist and a rebel, so I think he would have understood. He revolutionized literature just as Beethoven later revolutionized composition - although, unlike Beethoven, he did it while claiming to admire moderation and tradition in all things.

When I'm writing, I have music on almost constantly. Most of it has nothing to do with what I'm writing about, yet some unexpected correspondences arise. And only some of what follows is music I listen to with my ears. Other pieces are only played in my mind – like the first one, a branle, which is little more than a name to me.

1. A branle

Montaigne was fascinated by way the world is always in flux and turmoil: he would look at his local river, the Dordogne, and imagine it carving a groove in the landscape like a carpenter carving wood. The human mind was even more variable – "our humors shift with the shifts in the weather". He described reality as a branloire, a word he derived from a French peasant dance called the branle. Pronounced a bit like "brawl", it means something like "the shake" – you could call it a "wobble" or a "shimmy". It's supposed to be a great bawdy wild rumpus – at least that's how I imagine it. I'd love to have one in my music collection. In fact, the only one I've ever heard didn't sound as I expected. Instead of being frenetic, it seemed poised and sedate. So I'd ignore the real ones, and listen only to my fantasy branles.

2. Devotchka – "Lunnaya Pogonka"

Montaigne's ability to be unconventional in literature may have been partly because he had an unconventional upbringing. His father wanted him to be a native Latin speaker, so he insisted that everyone in the household spoke to him in that language or not at all – no French was to be spoken in the boy's hearing. This sounds harsh, but on the other hand he also thought that learning should be pleasurable. There should be no constraint, no nasty shocks. And the day should start the way it would go on – so the young Montaigne was woken every morning by a lute-player, sweetly strumming near his pillow.

I would like to wake up this way too, but I wouldn't have lute music. I'd go for the music I have actually used as an alarm clock on my cellphone for the last year or two. It's a track called "Lunnaya Pogonka", by Devotchka, the brilliant band from Denver. It starts very slow, with Jeanie Schroder's double bass oscillating calmly between three deep notes. Then an accordion shimmers into view. Next, a melancholic note starts up on distant violin strings. Percussion joins the mix, and eventually – some two minutes on – the whole lot escalates into crazed dervish music. I am usually well awake by then; those first few minutes make the perfect start to the day, merely hinting at the idea of wakefulness. Just once, I might try having the band come and perform it by my bedside.

3. Pink Floyd – "We Don't Need No Education"

After his unusual start, when Montaigne was a little older and was sent to school, he found it hard to adjust. He hated the shouting masters, the insistence on rote learning, the aggression – "you hear nothing but cries, both from tortured boys and from masters drunk with rage". In fact, he went to a fairly progressive school which probably wasn't that bad, but this protest reminds me of a classic song from Pink Floyd's The Wall: "We Don't Need No Education". This was a hit when I was at school, aged sixteen, and I responded eagerly to its message that all education was thought-control and sadism. I rebelled against school, hated it, and couldn't wait to leave it (which I did that year, though I later made my way back into the system). Googling this song now, I'm amused to see that a teacher in Chicago released his own version of it, with a chorus going "We All Need An Education". Strangely, I now think both sentiments are true.

4. Beach Boys – "Surf's Up"

In early adult life, Montaigne was morbidly obsessed with death. Later, following a near-death experience when he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious, he learned to set his fear aside. Drifting on the fringes of life, floating in and out of awareness and experiencing a soft, voluptuous bliss – even while he was actually clawing at his clothes and throwing up blood, though he didn't know it – he realised that death had its own way of taking care of things. He could rely on nature.

The song that best evokes that bleak yet blissed-out feeling for me is the Beach Boys' "Surf's Up". Written in 1966 by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks – when Wilson was in a very troubled state of mind – it combines exquisite music with enigmatic lyrics which evoke a heartbreaking sense of loss and beauty without ever quite meaning anything. Muted trumpeter swans, dove nested towers, a dim last toasting, and a call to surf that carries one away ... this one does have to be heard.

5. The Kinks – "Days"

Surely the greatest emotional experience of Montaigne's life was the loss of his best friend Etienne de La Boétie, who died of the plague after they had had just six years of friendship. La Boétie was really the love of Montaigne's life, and in some ways he wrote his Essays as a substitute for having a soulmate to talk to. Many songs convey this mourning, but The Kinks' "Days" communicates more: a sense of gratitude for what one has had, and the notion that something new can be built out of its vanishing.

While we are listening to The Kinks, I fancy that Montaigne would also have liked "Apeman", a gently ironic song about the longing for a simpler life, closer to nature.

6. Talking Heads – "Animals"

I've been a Talking Heads fan since I was eighteen or so, and first heard their album Fear of Music, from which this comes. Again, it's an ironic song abut the supposedly simple lives lived by animals. They don't need money, goes the song; they live on nuts and berries, and so they make fools of us. It's more a piece of playful dada than a serious argument about animal experience – but Montaigne would have appreciated both its absurdity and its underlying notion that animals may be more talented, even more intelligent than we are. He was an animal lover himself, and liked to imagine how we look to their eyes. He wondered, while playing with his cat, "who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?"

7. Morton Feldman – Piano and String Quartet

This strange, interminably noodly piece of music is not something I'd put on every day, and (like the branle) perhaps it's better thought about than listened to. But occasionally I forget everything else and play it on headphones. It consists of gradually shifting, delicate, skewed patterns of sound; it ebbs, flows and bobs about like a crowd of tiny surfers waiting for the perfect wave to sweep them off into the beyond. In fact, it's inspired by the patterns woven into Anatolian carpets, which Feldman collected. They are beautiful productions, but strangely asymmetric: patterns arise in one corner but get out of sync and dissolve in the other, or they turn into something bigger or smaller or completely different. Both the carpets and the music a deliberate experiment with imperfection and imbalance; yet they are beautiful.
There is something of this in Montaigne's Essays, too. He never tried to wrap up his themes into neat endings, or to make them fall into pre-ordained shapes. His essays start in peculiar places and end in even more peculiar ones, or they go off wherever the whim takes him. Yet the shape is always interesting. This piece of music makes me think of him – though he's a bit livelier – and it's the perfect end to any session of listening to imaginary music, in the shifting seas of the mind.

Sarah Bakewell and How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer links:

the author's website

California Literary Review review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
A Common Reader review
Financial Times review
ForeWord Reviews review
Guardian review
Independent review
Independent review
Kirkus Reviews review
Like Fire review
New Yorker review
Prospect Magazine review
Scotsman review
The Sunday Times review
Telegraph review
Three Guys One Book review
Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks review
The Wilson Quarterly review

Chapter & Verse profile of the author
Guardian series by the author on Montaigne
New York Times profile of the author
Other Press profile of the author
Three Guys One Book guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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