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Michel de Montaigne.

A biographical sketch included in early seventeenth-century editions of Montaigne's Essais announces that it is entirely drawn from his writings and "very much in conformity with the truth." It reorganizes in chronological order personal anecdotes Montaigne relates in his book and quotes almost verbatim from the Essais. In her preface to the 1617 edition of the Essais, Marie de Gournay pointed out that such a biography was superfluous, since the life of the author is "complete in the volume itself." She thus raises a fundamental question: why read a biography of Montaigne based on the Essais when one can read the Essais themselves? One might well ask the same question about many later biographies of Montaigne. Though they may appear less naive because they paraphrase, con-textualize and explicate the Essais, they still depend on the essayist himself for their information about his life. When a biography claims some kind of interpretive value, another essential question is raised: to what extent does the biographer extrapolate the life from the work and then use this constructed life to explain the very work from which it was drawn?

Madeleine Lazard is undoubtedly aware of the first of these biographical dilemmas since she mentions Marie de Gournay's remark. Lazard offers a three-fold justification for her own biography of Montaigne: to provide knowledge of the diverse experiences of the author which "devrait aider a decouvrir, ou redecouvrir, son livre unique" (10); to fill gaps or "zones obscures" which remain after the publication of R. Trinquet and D. Frame's biographies (8); and to "dissiper les legendes tenaces qui deforment encore la personnalite de [Montaigne]" (10). The nature of these persistent legends suggests that Lazard's book is addressed not to scholars of the Essais as much as to a general literate public. Was he a homosexual? a misogynist? What did he mean by "que sais-je"? Such issues are not currently the objects of scholarly inquiry, though her biography also echoes the main issues of interest to scholars that Frame treats in his biography of Montaigne. Scholars who have read Frame's work will find relatively little new in Lazard.

Lazard's book is informative but not excessively documented, explanatory but not overly polemical. The presentation is both literary and historical; Montaigne's statements are explained in terms of the historical events and personages to which they allude. (Those interested in more detailed historical analyses of Montaigne should consult Geralde Nakam's two exhaustive studies.) Lazard explicates several canonical essays; devoting an entire and quite insightful chapter, for instance, to the intellectual and political history relevant to l'Apologie de Raimond Sebond.

In her treatment of Montaigne's later essays (1588), Lazard adopts an "evolutionist" scheme in which philosophical, moral and even physical changes in the author are reflected in his text. According to this logic, the progressive abandonment of direct quotations from Stoic thinkers would indicate that Montaigne had at last found his own voice. "Le dessein de Montaigne s'est precise au fur et a mesure de [la] redaction. Il a pris conscience de ce qu'il voulait faire" (362). Such a "man behind the text" reading has for some time been a matter of debate among literary scholars. Lazard does not enter the critical fray, but her adoption of such a scheme may raise yet a third issue for biographers: to what extent does one use the book to know its author when this author's life is largely constituted from the book in the first place? But readers of Montaigne know that he leads us all into the circular trap: "Tout le monde me reconnoit en mon livre et mon livre en moy" (362).

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Author:Neal, Lisa
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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