A Review of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays
October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Kristin LeMay
I’ve long harbored the suspicion that what’s best in Montaigne is untranslatable. His essence seems to me embodied in a diction, orthography, and syntax as unsubstitutable as any individual. To borrow Emerson’s praise for Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”
My prejudice dates to a summer when my husband and I undertook to read all of Montaigne’s Essais during an extended stay in Paris. Each day we’d set out with our respective volumes, my much-prized Pléiade—fat despite its onion-skin pages—rubbing against the shedding, leather spine of Eric’s translated edition. Before long, I’d be snorting or smirking at the man I was encountering on the page. Eric’s brow would furrow. “What’s so funny?” We’d compare passages. And every time, I’d find that the persona I so relished in the original French—the irascible man wheeling through the sixteenth-century prose—was somehow lost in the transfer. My Montaigne was not in his book.
That experience of reading comparative Montaignes primed me for After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Twenty-four of today’s essayists rewrite Montaigne’s essays. What would these interactions reveal about the essay, in his moment and in ours? And what would these writers capture of the man who seemed—to me, at least—to live in the specific moments of language that, taken together, comprise his genre-founding work?
As After Montaigne’s subtitle suggests, editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden couch the interaction between each source essay and its contemporary rewriting as a musical “cover.” They explain, “Like an album of cover songs paying homage to an influential band or composer, these essays attempt to re-envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” And what, after all, is a cover, but a form of translation in which one musician puts a fresh spin on the lyrics and melody of another? Elvis Presley translated “Blue Suede Shoes” from the style of Carl Perkins into the style of Elvis Presley, just as, in 1603, John Florio translated Michel de Montaigne from French into English (adding a fair dose of Florio along the way). So After Montaigne promises to reveal twenty-four translations of Montaigne: Montaigne by way of Gornick, by way of Koestenbaum, by way of Purpura. And yet it also occasions a more surprising, ineffable mode of translation, one that runs the other way: Brian Doyle by way of Montaigne. As much as I was eager to see who these essayists would make Montaigne out to be, I was equally fascinated to see who they would become when they essayed under the banner of their forebear.
The anthology’s diversity makes for a lot of translations, so one of its most satisfying elements is the brief coda that follows each contribution, “explaining the process through which the essayist translated, transfigured, reimagined, or rethought some of the essential ideas, figures, and motifs in Montaigne’s original.” The contributions turn out to be as diverse as you’d expect from an array twenty-four writers wide. While Bret Lott sees his essay as an “offering . . . paying homage to M. Montaigne,” Shannon Lakanen finds herself surprised, on sitting down to write, “to argue against him.” José Orduña finds in his source essay from Montaigne a “sharp edge that ruptures,” and so his response is characterized by “challenge,” “discarding,” and “struggling,” while Elena Passarello goes at Montaigne more playfully, grafting “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes” onto interviews with the musical artist Prince. “I thought it would be fun,” she riffs, “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’”
How to make sense of all this essaying? I found a useful lens for understanding and sorting the contributions once again in the realm of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher pronounces that there are actually only two modes of translation (modes which, in fact, match the two primary tacks a contemporary essayist might choose in responding to Montaigne’s source text): “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Schleiermacher advises against mixing the two modes. Any mingling, he predicts, will result in a confusing muddle that illuminates neither the original text nor the new audience’s context.
After Montaigne confirms Schleiermacher’s view. Its strongest, most memorable essays are those in which the contemporary writer has traveled the furthest toward adopting Montaigne’s style or, conversely, those in which Montaigne has traveled the furthest toward the contemporary writer. Mary Cappello’s “Of Thumbs” is the volume’s prime example of a writer becoming like Montaigne. Her coda clarifies her aim: “An essay like ‘Of Thumbs’ wishes for more contributors . . . I tried to ‘channel’ Montaigne . . . I tuned my writerly voice to meet the pitch of his.” The result is a lively, delightful continuation of Montaigne’s short essay. For an essayist who brings Montaigne all the way to her, look to Kristen Radtke. In “Against Idleness” she pulls Montaigne into the graphic mode for which she is best known. In Cappello’s essay, Montaigne might easily recognize his influence; in Radtke’s, he would likely wonder at the strange new world his work inspired. As a reader, I’m grateful for both.
So what new light do these “covers” shine upon Montaigne and the essay? Perhaps the most startling answer comes from Robert Atwan’s response to Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil.” He opens with the observation, “Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment.” This very testing is Montaigne’s most enduring legacy, since he inaugurated the naked, unadorned exploration of the self in his Essais. All of the contributors to After Montaigne write after that legacy. But Atwan’s essay also reveals how familiar, even commonplace, Montaigne’s once-revolutionary mode has now become. To mirror Montaigne’s embarrassing self-disclosures on sexuality and old age, Atwan must take recourse to quoting his own (self-professedly) bad poetry. He rightly senses that prose—even prose like Montaigne’s, confessing to a small penis or failed affairs—will no longer shock today’s readers. We’ve become desensitized to personal confessions in the personal essay. So Atwan’s contribution, in moving beyond the genre of the essay to achieve its ends, reveals both the lure and limits of Montaigne’s legacy in our moment.
Montaigne forged the essay into a genre for personal revelation and, for this innovation, he now inspires anthologies like After Montaigne. Yet paradoxically, this anthology—through both its most and least compelling pieces—hints at how the essay might now need to move beyond Montaigne’s style of confession and digression in order to channel his innovative spirit and, once again, feel “vascular and alive.”
Kristin LeMay’s book I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is available from Paraclete Press. Her translation of François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus was published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, The Cresset, and other magazines.