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Montaigne bilingue: le latin des "Essais."

Professor Gray is the author of two major and subtle books on Montaigne already: Le Style de Montaigne (Paris: Nizet, 1958), and La Balance de Montaigne: exagium/essai (Paris: Nizet, 1982). This time, he deals with a topic that has become more and more central in Montaigne studies during the past fifteen years, as intertextuality was turned into a key issue in Renaissance studies: Montaigne's quotations, and, more specifically, his quotations from Latin poetry. The book's first chapter is the only one truly faithful to Gray's title. There, he meditates on a crucial enigma: given that Montaigne tells us that he learned Latin before French, and with a German teacher, what did his Latin sound like? Erasmus recommended a reformation in Latin pronunciation. Did it reach Montaigne? Or did he speak it with the French -- or German -- accent that Erasmus mocked? How good was Montaigne's Latin? He claims to speak and write it excellently, but, surprisingly, he left no work in that language. In fact, despite Montaigne's ample self-portraits, there is no way out of these enigmas.

Gray then has two chapters on Montaigne's quotations in general and their functions in the Essais. While these quotations have been heavily studied, he writes that "no one has been interested in quotation as a scriptural phenomena, i.e., as one of the ways of writing of the time, and, more specifically, of Montaigne." This depends of course on what one means by scriptural, but Gray's approach is interesting less by its theoretical inspiration than by its careful analysis of many particular instances. Montaigne's quotations, which he rewrites, constitute another, underlying text. Gray lists 17 different textual, or scriptural, functions, and concludes by an interesting digression about the exclusive presence of nature in the Essais through certain quotations, whereas Montaigne never directly refers to nature.

An essential problem, however, is whether Montaigne's readers did unravel his mostly anonymous Latin quotations; that is unlikely and explains that they started being translated and attributed as early as the seventeenth century. The book's most challenging chapter touches upon the obscene quotations in the Essais, a way for Montaigne to hide and suggest, through a quotation and also an allusion to its original context, what he dared not say in French. If most of the contemporary readers did not understand Latin, then Montaigne is himself the one whom the French equivalent of his quotations would have shocked. Again, Gray proceeds through many careful examples, borrowed in particular from the chapter "Sur des vers de Virgile," where Montaigne also discusses sexuality explicitly. But, while the chapter is structured around two long and explicit quotations by Virgil and Lucretius, the anonymous quotations that constitute the secondary text are massively from Catullus, Ovid, and Martial. What is quite striking is that most of these quotations, and the most pornographic ones, dealt originally with homosexual love, but Montaigne applies them tacitly to heterosexual contexts. With the vogue of textuality and sexuality, many studies on "Sur des vers de Virgile" were instigated--Gray has another chapter on it--but the close scrutiny of its quotations still yields major conclusions, and Gray is right to claim no critic had yet shown how the two long quotations from Virgil and Lucretius are perverted by many other quotations that have neither the beauty nor dignity that Montaigne finds in Virgil and Lucretius, so that the title is yet another dissimulation. Concerning the quasi-systematic diversion of homosexual texts to heterosexual contexts, however, there would certainly be more to say.

The last chapter and conclusion draw a parallel between quotations and the fragmentation of the I in the self-portrait, the instability of the writing process, up to the last words of the Essais, which Montaigne concludes with a quotation.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
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Author:Compagnon, Antoine
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Words:622
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