Sunday, November 08, 2015

`A Serendipitous Reader, an Amateur Reader'

“He is without doubt a serendipitous reader, an amateur reader, but there has never been, in his time or in any other, a finer or more perceptive reader. Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 percent in accordance.”
Stefan Zweig saw himself in Montaigne, and his barbaric era in the great essayist’s. He wrote Montaigne (trans. Will Stone, Pushkin Press, 2015) in exile in Brazil in 1941, months before he and his wife took their own lives. Zweig was already a seasoned biographer, having written lives of Erasmus, Kleist, Balzac and Tolstoy, among others. The book is a personal essay, largely devoted to the importance of reading, lightly hung on a scaffolding of biography. He tells us he read Montaigne as a youth, prematurely. For him, Montaigne is not for the callow (a judgment I would second):
“Only he whose soul is in turmoil, forced to live in an epoch where war, violence and ideological tyranny threaten the life of every individual, and the most precious substance in that life, the freedom of the soul, can know how much courage, sincerity and resolve are required to remain faithful to his inner self in these times of the herd’s rampancy.”
Zweig rediscovered Montaigne in Petrópolis, Brazil, finding a “dusty old copy” of the Essais in the basement of the bungalow where he and his wife were living. His own library, like much else, had been lost in Hitler’s Europe. Zweig’s monograph was not published (in German) until 1960, and Stone’s translation is the first into English. His introduction is excellent. He tells us Montaigne was “the crutch that Zweig, with waning fortitude, reached for over that final winter, as any prospect of a future in which a scrap of magnanimity might be salvaged seemed lost to a brutalizing present.” The parallels with our own day can’t be ignored. The times are just as savage, but fewer people can read. What’s most moving about this brief monograph is the centrality of books in the lives of Montaigne and Zweig, and in the effort to sustain civilization. One reads a muted elegy between Zweig’s sentences:
“His relationship with books is like everything else, for here too he guards his freedom. With them too he knows no obligation to duty. He wants to read and learn, but only so far as he can savour the experience. As a young man he had read, he states, `ostentatiously’, merely to show off his knowledge; later, to acquire a measure of wisdom, and now only for pleasure, never to gain an advantage.”

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