I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through Edelweiss. Montaigne was originally written in German in 1941 and this English translation is done by Will Stone. This is my second contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.
Stefan Zweig was forced to flee his home in Austria as the Nazis were taking control of his motherland. For years he wandered around Europe as a nomad with no real place to call home. As Europe is ravaged by war, he finds his way to the German community of Petropolis in Brazil and in 1941 he decides to write this brief biography of Michel de Montaigne with whose life he identifies on many levels.
Montaigne comes from a long line of hardworking ancestors. His father’s family were fishermen and made their fortune by eventually owning their own fleet of ships. His mother’s family were Jewish bankers from Spain who fled that county to avoid the Inquisition. Montaigne’s grandfather buys a chateau and a vast estate in Bordeaux and intends to further the family’s aristocratic status through his purchase of land and a title.
Montaigne is brought up in the lap of luxury and it was very important to his father that his eldest son receive the best education possible. As a result it was mandatory that Montaigne be fluent in Latin, for which purpose his father hired a German tutor when Montaigne was only four years old. Montaigne was only allowed to speak in Latin and even the rest of the family and the household servants were required to learn some basic Latin phrases in order to communicate with the young boy. As a result of this immersion in the language Montaigne is said to have been more comfortable speaking and writing in Latin than in his native French. As a classicist I couldn’t help but simile at and appreciate this part of Montaigne’s story. If only it were possible to educate all of my students in this way!
When Montaigne’s father dies he takes over as the head of household.. This foists a large responsibility on a man who sees his familial and civic responsibilities as mundane and tiresome occupations. Zweig highlights Montaigne’s detachment from his family whom he even seems to view at times as a burden. He never has fond words for his wife or the institution of marriage and at one point Zweig says that Montaigne is not even really sure how many children he has that are still alive. Montaigne’s isolation from his family is further deepended when, at the age of thirty-eight, he decides that he wants to retire from his life, lock himself in the study in his tower, and read the precious books with which he has surrounded himself.
Montaigne’s view of books and reading is also noteworthy in Zweig’s account of his life. Montaigne wants to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible and he scribbles notes in his books as various thoughts occur to him. Montaigne states about his collection: “Books are my kingdom. And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.” It is during this time of self-imposed retreat and isolation that Montaigne tries to attain individual freedom and seeks to know himself as a man and as a human being on a deeper level. His intentions, like other philosophers, is not to give his readers a specific ideology to follow. Instead his thoughts and writings are introspective and intensely personal.
Ten years later, at the age of forty-eight, Zweig decides that he has had enough of his retirement and so decides to travel across Europe. This journey becomes very painful for him since he suffers debilitating pain from kidney stones. While he is away on his journey, the citizens of Bordeaux elect him in absentia as their mayor so at this point he decides to go back and serve his people. Zweig reminds us, though, that Montaigne is no hero and his selfish habits come to the forefront once again when the plague breaks out in Bordeaux and he abandons his people to find for themselves.
Whether or not one is familiar with Montaigne, Zweig’s account of him is definitely worth a read. Zweig was at a critical point in his life where he saw the world erupt in violence because of fascism and communism. He commiserated with Montaigne who also saw his world torn apart by religious wars and fanaticism. Zweig commits suicide in 1942 and this was one of the last things that he wrote. Many believe that Zweig took Montaigne’s advice as far as death is concerned and decided to die on his own terms instead of living through a miserable exile imposed on him by outside forces.
About The Author:
Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.
Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.
Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.