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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 505-508
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Montaigne's Career, by George Hoffmann; ix & 188 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, $75.00.
This book has an unexpected title. Roger Trinquet's La jeunesse de Montaigne has gaps, but these will remain unfilled unless further evidence is forthcoming. Madeleine Lazard's Michel de Montaigne expands on Frame's standard biography to the extent that it establishes firmer links between the essayist's life and his book, whilst Jean Lacouture's Montaigne à cheval does no more than demonstrate that, unless an author has something new to offer, there is little point in going over old ground. George Hoffmann does believe that he can meet this condition, though he is rightly reticent, claiming only to paint "a Flemish picture of Michel de Montaigne as he laboured to create the Essais" recovering "subdued hues [...] partially concealed when Montaigne painted himself."
Chapter 1 is devoted to a discussion of Montaigne's estate and emphasizes the bustle that will have surrounded him as he worked on his book. Chapter 2 takes us into the "librairie" with an analysis of the role of Montaigne's secretary and the impact of dictation on the writer's style. Chapter 3 takes us to Bordeaux where, Hoffmann argues, trade conditions influenced the book's first edition. Chapters 4 and 5 then build on this, emphasizing the way in which Montaigne's involvement in the actual printing of the Essais and the need to justify a new privilege could have impacted on his work. Hoffmann argues notably that the decision to omit the Servitude volontaire may have been confirmed just before publication, when the Bordeaux parlement burned the Mémoires de l'estat de France, i.e. in May 1579 rather than after the opuscule's original publication in the Reveille-Matin in 1574. This will have aggravated the problems created by the loss of the essays stolen by the secretary since Millanges composed the book by formes, this non-consecutive process requiring precise calculation of the total number of pages to be set. Hoffmann thus casts new light (as does Claude Blum in Editer les Essais de Montaigne, Paris, 1997) on the pressures that made the first edition so unreliable. His study of parts of the text which were corrected twice enables him to go beyond Auguste Salles's rather despairing efforts and to argue (pace Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in their standard work, L'Apparition du livre, Paris, 1958) that this author [End Page 505] at least remained firmly involved in the production of his book after the manuscript had been given to the printer.
The value of studying the Essais in the context of sixteenth-century publishing practices is further exemplified by Hoffmann's analysis of the famous addition in "Of vanity," where Montaigne argues that, though his book is "always one," he allows himself to add to it "so that the buyer may not come off completely empty-handed." It is hard to agree with Hoffmann when he argues that the traditional reading (in which the buyer is the reader) "makes so little sense [...] that it is a wonder that it has stood so long." As he himself argues, books cost a great deal of money--and those who had already purchased the 1580 edition might have wanted convincing that buying the new edition in order to get the third book was a good investment.
However, Hoffmann is right to draw our attention to the fact that legal practices made it imperative to update books to prevent them from falling into the private domain. On this basis, he argues that, with the first privilege being valid for eight years, it is plausible that Montaigne had always planned to have a second edition in 1588.
Hoffmann attempts in his final chapter to broaden the discussion to include an analysis of Montaigne's career, arguing that, despite his protestations, Montaigne was not only a "maker of books" but also that his literary activities were designed to enhance his position in the ranks of...