Several years ago I read Zweig’s biography of Balzac and it remains one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Balzac led an impassioned, rigorous and tragically bumbling life that is great fun to read about. But what was so gripping about this book was the tension between Zweig who was evidently a writer of high ideals and his subject Balzac who was a brilliantly gifted writer with frivolous values. Zweig was a man dedicated to art and a freedom of spirit. Balzac desired status and fortune and only wrote so prolifically to get himself out of the enormous debts he accrued through get-rich-quick schemes. Thus reading Zweig’s intense frustration at Balzac’s indifference to his obvious talent and foolish striving for material goods and pretentious society is incredibly compelling to read about. Zweig is a thoroughly subjective biographer who makes his opinions known in a way that works so well more than a biographer trying to present an objective portrait of a life. He sticks to the facts, but focuses on aspects of his subject’s personal history and the statements their work made which he deems important to our culture and that have the most relevance to where he was in his own life.
“Montaigne” is a biography which is almost more compelling for what it says about Zweig than it does about his subject. Translator Will Stone gives a thorough and intelligent introduction to this brief book which is more a sketch of Montaigne’s life than a comprehensive account. (His biography of Balzac was much more extensive.) Normally I get impatient with such introductions and want to get to the real text of the book I’ve bought. But Stone’s account gives vital information about where Zweig was in his life when he wrote about Montaigne and why he was so drawn to this subject at this point in his life. Zweig famously retreated to a house in Brazil to escape the increasing influence of Hitler’s rise to power and the authoritarian forces threatening Europe. Despairing about the state of the world, he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.
This biography was written in the crucial year before this act and the psychological cracks show in the text. The first section of the biography is an impassioned account of Montaigne’s high ideals. The values which he believed Montaigne exhibited are ones which felt so crucially relevant to Zweig’s own life that he seized upon him as a subject for the highest reverence. Zweig feverishly states: “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.” It’s as if he’s leapt upon Montaigne as a life raft in a time where he felt hemmed in by the ideological forces of his time which threatened the civilization Zweig valued so highly.
Zweig focuses on only the most crucial facts of Montaigne’s life, those which are relevant to him, and skips over huge chunks. What he seizes upon is gold and wholly engaging. No doubt if Zweig had lived longer he would have written much more extensively about this famous essayist. I can feel very sympathetic to Montaigne’s abrupt removal from his family and public life in his late thirties since it’s the same age I’m at now. Montaigne retreated to a tower to study, read and write while blocking out the everyday distracting realties of the world as much as possible. As a great reader Montaigne felt “Books are my kingdom. And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.” It’s interesting the way that Montaigne’s life played out – because, of course, however much we try to completely retreat into books the world draws us back into it. Montaigne’s reading tastes suited Zweig perfectly as he remarks “Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 per cent in accordance.” Thus Zweig found in Montaigne an intellectual kinship across centuries and found strength to stand against the tyranny of his own time. More disturbingly, it’s possible that Montaigne’s reasoning might have heavily influenced Zweig’s own decision to end his own life. This can be intimated in the line: “the last freedom: in the face of death. Life hangs on the will of others, but death on our own will.”
This is such a fascinating book for what it says about both its biographer Stefan Zweig and its subject of Montaigne. I’m now inspired to go out and read more by both of these fascinating authors.