23 NOVEMBER 1991, Page 41

Still a sexy bestseller

Eric Christiansen

THE ESSAYS OF MICHEL MONTAIGNE translated and edited by M.A. Screech

Penguin, ,f35, pp. 1283


Penguin, £6.99, pp.194

Montaigne and Rabelais are the only French thinkers ever to have been widely admired and read in this country, and since Rabelais is now virtually unreadable, that leaves Montaigne. Screech is an odd name for his interpreter; he was the least strident of philosophers, although noisy and loquacious in his private life. But the Professor is sympathetic with Montaigne's rambling and ironical cast of mind, and makes a bold attempt to prolong that English admiration for another generation.

Bold, because translations have been so many, and some of them so good. The first, John Florio's, is a masterwork of Elizabethan English, and the second, by Ilzaak Walton's friend, Charles Cotton, is also pure gold. It went through more than a dozen editions before Hazlitt decided to touch it up, correct mistakes, and add his °wn version of the author's Travels. It takes courage to walk in the footsteps 0.f those three; and this is the fifth or sixth new translation to be issued this century. The competition suggests that the proud, fussy little melon-gobbler is still in demand, °,11tside, as well as inside, France. Who are L'leY, the Montaignards? Can they be Pinned down to a type, like the old Balzacians and Proustians? When Mr Pond Produced his Day Book of Montaigne in 1905, with a quote from the Essays for evetY day of the year, he must have been suPPlying what more than a few members the public wanted: worldly people, per- !'aPs, with a tendency to drink wine at lunch, miss Church and vote Liberal. Bust °I Voltaire on mantelpiece in the study? verY probably.

Anyway, that's all over now. We don't ZPeet daily drops of philosophy from the ,,

aster, and if Professor Screech is the ,611,Ide, the Essays are better swallowed 'I101e, as one treatise recording one man's

intellectual development.

Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form ... I study myself more than any other subject. .. my only study is me... I have bidden myself to dare to write whatever I dare to do; I am loath to have thoughts which I cannot publish.

And more:

The worst of my deeds or qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it.

Better out than in, so to speak. That is said to be the rule among many sentient Americans nowadays, who believe that reticence is the only sin. So, is this the first Super-Bore, the first Man Who Let It All Hang Out?

Egotist, yes:

I hunger to make myself known, or, to put it better... I go in mortal fear of being mistak- en for another by those who happen to know my name.

This would be sad stuff from one with nothing but a personality to disclose. With Montaigne there is more. He exposed him- self as a stage on the road to wisdom, just as he confessed, in private, in the hope of absolution. He wanted to measure himself, not to swagger.

I crawl in earthy slime but I do not fail to note, way up in the clouds, the matchless height of certain heroic souls...

— poets, philosophers, heroes, saints; especially Socrates. That is where the party is; not here, in miserable war-torn France, or in the dreary babble of autobiography for its own sake.

Like most ironists he was misunderstood. A man with a very active brain once told me that 'Montaigne was the beginning of the end. After him, nobody could really believe in anything.' If so, that was not what he intended. Professor Screech points out more than once how limited was his disbelief. He was a sceptic in matters of reason, but 'just because I loathe superstition I do not go mocking religion.' He was a good Christian and a robust Catholic.

He disapproved of religious toleration, but accepted it in the 1590s when there was no practical alternative; the Papists and the Huguenots had fought each other to a standstill. By modern standards, he was Right of Right: rejecting indiscipline, indecorum and dissidence, fantasising about the character-building effects of the military life, and all for the Good Old Days. Within that somewhat rusty frame- work, he often thought as 'we' think. For example, that we owe justice not only to each other, but to animals, and to trees, and plants; that men and women are pretty much the same, once you discount the effects of upbringing; that nothing in nature is unnatural.

Which is not what has made him a best- seller for400 years. The reason is Sex. Per- haps he was not the first philosopher since Plato to have anything interesting to say on the subject; it depends what you think about St Augustine. But he was the first to make a virtue of discussing his own sex-life in public, as far as he could remember it. For he lost his virginity so young that he couldn't recall what it was like, and the fire raged through a lifetime of apparently considerate gallantry, until he grew old, and found it all too difficult. He believed that 'I have absolutely no other passion but love to keep me going', but in practice he couldn't stand tarts (too unfeeling) or young women (too demanding) or older women (too old). So he had to keep senility at bay by forcing himself to think about sex, as he had once had to force him- self to think about philosophy, when he was active in love. These thoughts still have the power to intrigue, if not exactly to waken the dead.

As for Screech's translation: it's good, but not conspicuously better than the last one, by Donald Frame. Sometimes (not often) he is a little too colourful. For example, there is a passage on the need for separation and privacy, even in marriage, which goes:

Es ne doibt une femme avoir les yeas si gourmandement fichez sur le devant de son marl qu'elk n'en puisse voir k derriere, ou besoing est.

In Screech:

A wife should not have her eyes so hungrily fixed on her husband's foreparts that when the need arises she cannot bear to see his backside.

I know derriere can mean bum, but Montaigne was surely saying something more like 'that she cannot endure to see him turn his back, if occasion be' (Cotton). And Montaigne's inelegant simile for the man who marries his mistress: `Chier dans le panier pour apres mettre sur la teste' gains nothing as 'shining in the basket and then plonking it on your head' because 'plonk- ing' is jocular and `rnettre' isn't.

However, the main thing is to try and write in the Montaigne spirit: above all, not like a don, or fashionably, or clumsily; like a man who thought of Latin as his first language, but hated pedantry above all. Not easy, and Screech delivers the goods; which means that we have a lively, readable and reasonably priced version of the Essays with only one serious defect: the pitifully short index. Proper names only, and not all of them, when we need a fuller version of Cotton's `Compleat Index of Remarkable Matters' every time we pick up the book, and want to find the bit about genital graffiti, or the laziness of married women, or 'doctoral ignorance', or the politeness of the tiger. A mean index is a false economy; even so, this book is worth buying, and, when you have got through 1000 pages, it will be time to consult Screech on Montaigne and Melancholy, which first came out in 1983, and is still going strong.