Living with Montaigne in the mountains
I was reading Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, How to Live, on the writings of Montaigne, today. You can imagine it; me laid out on my French terrace, blue skies, rearing mountain cliffs behind me, spring blossom from the Wisteria above, the ratcheting croaks of carrion crows in the woods and a particularly tuneful blackbird mimic on the very top of the pear tree. I suppose being only three hours from where Montaigne lived adds a certain piquancy to reading about him. He was extraordinary. Possibly the first blogger – because that is how we might view the ‘common place diary’, today – he wrote about what was happening about him and wanted to know why. Why do we feel the things we feel, what is life, how do we know the experience of another person? How do you live a good life? I find it riveting and a little chastening that what he has said and inscribed is as pertinent at this moment as it was then. Apparently, it is the experience of most of his readers over the last few hundred years, from the finest philosophical minds to the every day person keen to extend his/her view of existence, that we all feel we could have written exactly what Montaigne wrote. He plumbs the business of being human.
One vignette jumped off the page as I was indulging in this sun and silence. He talks of a historical event. A man is found guilty in court and is due to be hung. Just before the execution another man confesses but the justice of the time ignores the new evidence. They go on with the hanging because they don’t want the the judge’s verdict to be brought into disrepute.
As I was saying, the relevance to today is striking. In every western, so-called developed society, police and judicial criminality is regularly covered up in the interests of ‘trust in the law’ or ‘the national interest’. Meanwhile, politicians of all persuasions, judges, senior police officers and the rest are outed and held to account by bloggers or the media (when it suits them) with appalling frequency.
In A Woman Who Kills, my new book to be published later this year and set in a dystopian future Britain, corruption is everywhere. Rather than have my characters fight a holier than thou war against the pervasiveness of their cancerous culture, I found them refusing to seek insurrection. Instead, they choose to chip away at the rottenness and not risk a complete breakdown of stability. Better the semblance of justice than none at all.
While I absolutely hate it as a notion, this is the way that societies exist and flourish. Something in me as a writer was rather pleased to be in accord with old Montaigne. It’s murky out there. Murkiness is part and parcel of our lives. We know this even as we strive to bring clarity, tolerance and harmony to our societies.