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A Life
Philippe Desan
Translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal

Hardcover | 2017 | $39.95 | £32.95 | ISBN: 9780691167879
832 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 2 halftones. 19 line illus.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400883394 |
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One of the most important writers and thinkers of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) helped invent a literary genre that seemed more modern than anything that had come before. But did he do it, as he suggests in his Essays, by retreating to his chateau, turning his back on the world, and stoically detaching himself from his violent times? In this definitive biography, Philippe Desan, one of the world's leading authorities on Montaigne, overturns this longstanding myth by showing that Montaigne was constantly concerned with realizing his political ambitions—and that the literary and philosophical character of the Essays largely depends on them. The most comprehensive and authoritative biography of Montaigne yet written, this sweeping narrative offers a fascinating new picture of his life and work.

As Desan shows, Montaigne always considered himself a political figure and he conceived of each edition of the Essays as an indispensable prerequisite to the next stage of his public career. He lived through eight civil wars, successfully lobbied to be raised to the nobility, and served as mayor of Bordeaux, special ambassador, and negotiator between Henry III and Henry of Navarre. It was only toward the very end of Montaigne’s life, after his political failure, that he took refuge in literature. But, even then, it was his political experience that enabled him to find the right tone for his genre.

In this essential biography, we discover a new Montaigne—caught up in the events of his time, making no separation between private and public life, and guided by strategy first in his words and silences. Neither candid nor transparent, but also not yielding to the cynicism of his age, this Montaigne lends a new depth to the Montaigne of literary legend.

Philippe Desan is the Howard L. Willett Professor in Renaissance Literature and History of Culture at the University of Chicago and the author of many books.


"Philippe Desan, in Montaigne: A Life (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography . . . insists that our ‘Château d'Yquem' Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish--and Desan's project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne."--Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

"The ‘Essays,’ Montaigne informed his readers, were written for a ‘domestic and private’ end and not for ‘either you or my own glory.’ He presented himself ‘in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.’ Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life is animated by the purpose of detonating this carefully cultivated image. It is an effort at disenchantment. Montaigne’s informality and transparency, in Mr. Desan’s telling, were rhetorical strategies and triumphs of artifice. Montaigne’s exploration of the private self was not a natural impulse but an adjustment required by the defeat of his considerable political ambitions. . . . [Desan] seeks to drag the solitary genius back into his social milieu, exposing his conventionality. Montaigne claimed to have portrayed himself ‘naked’ to posterity. Mr. Desan removes the last of his garments."--Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal

"Desan, an expert on French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), takes readers on a detailed yet sweeping journey through the world of one of the Renaissance's most important literary figures."--Publishers Weekly

"Revisiting the public and private life of the extraordinary humanist in light of religious divisions of the 16th century. . . . [Montaigne: A Life is] a hefty biography."--Kirkus

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