Me and Michel Chapter Sixteen

‘A day without laughter is a day wasted.’

Charlie Chaplin


There is a German woman staying in the chalet just across the way from mine.

We waved to each other in a cheery way as I moved in. She is alone it turns out, and we chatted briefly as I unloaded the bike, both of us clothed. She told me she is a regular here, that this place is her sanctuary from a busy life as a teacher in Dresden, and that she likes to meditate in the evenings. I told her about the ants and I think she understood, with a little ant acting on my part. Then we waved good evening and that was that. Which I think is kind of how it is here, live and let live. Naturism might be still a little silly to me in some ways, but it does seem to engender a kind of mutual respect, and I have to say I like that aspect very much. It’s as if one has stepped back to a point in time where discretion and politesse were the way of the world. Where how one looks, or is seen by others, is far from being the most important thing about a person, and clothes, or the lack of them doesn’t count at all. Which makes it much harder to judge by appearances. The human body comes in all shapes and sizes, and with so many on view, a sort of democracy emerges from the mix.

That at least is my impression, and as I settle in to my own little chalet and prepare breakfast for myself, I celebrate with music playing on the mini speaker I have hardly used on this journey. Right now, it’s country classics, don’t ask me why, and I’m singing along to The Gambler with Kenny Rogers on lead vocals, and online. Lilly bought a family membership and allowed her father to take a share. It would have been churlish to say no, and if I am a hypocrite, I plead guilty as charged.

I’ve had earbuds with me all along, but I haven’t wanted to block out the sounds of trees and sea. At home, I have music on all the time, from morning to night and especially when I’m cooking a Sunday lunch. Though I have to admit my record collection, mostly scratched Blue Note compilations I wore out in my twenties but can’t part with, hasn’t been played, or even dusted down in recent times. I bought a record player from the charity shop that sits forlorn by my desk, a reminder of fluff and needles and counterweights and the crackle and hiss of vinyl. Les temps perdu, but time now to head to the pool in a sarong and little else, bar my straw hat. Courage mon brave.

Michel wrote a whole essai, albeit a very short one, with the title, ‘On the Custom of Wearing Clothes’, in which he says:

‘I was disputing with myself in this shivering season, whether the fashion of going naked in those nations lately discovered is imposed upon them by the hot temperature of the air, as we say of the Indians and Moors, or whether it be the original fashion of mankind.’

But it’s another of his essais that interests me today and that I’m reading again as I lie here enjoying a lazy day after a cool and deeply refreshing swim. Many people about the pool are are about my age – probably retired with no need to rush home. There are also young families with small children who presumably have not had to return for school, entirely absorbed in each other, in playing and changing nappies and doing what parents and their offspring do all around the world. My sarong is laid out beneath me and my towel makes a decent pillow. I am comfortable and happy.

The essai is called On Presumption, and it’s from Book II, situated close to the end where, like On Experience, it acts as a kind of summation of Montaigne’s assessment of himself, at the point in time he wrote it, anyway.

The reason I’m re-reading it is that I remember thinking how candid he is about his failings in particular, something that impressed me as bold and truthful when I first encountered him. Now I’m not so sure. There is a form of self-revelation that achieves the opposite if deftly deployed, and works to hide the real person behind a smoke screen, whether by accident or design. To put it another way, I’m not sure how well I really know Michel, despite our weeks together on the bike, and our long acquaintance. Because whilst he’s happy to tell us about his bowel movements and his amours in his youth, his esteem for his father and his love for his friend La Boétie, he makes hardly any mention at all of his wife and daughter, who, for the ten years he was writing, were living and going about their business just across the courtyard from his library in the tower. Even if it was customary in the day to marry for purely practical reasons – a colleague in the Bordeaux parliament records Montaigne as claiming never to have seen his wife naked, though they managed to produce six children fully dressed – it’s hard to believe there wasn’t something more to say about his wife. And having daughters myself I’m baffled by the fact that he could write a whole essai entitled, ‘On the Affection of Fathers for their Children’, without referring to his one surviving daughter, Léonore, at all, let alone by name.

Both they, and his mother who lived nearby and merits only two mentions in the Essais, would go on to outlive Montaigne by many years. He had six younger brothers and sisters who don’t get a look in, and in that sense, he doesn’t talk about family at all. That’s interesting to me, and a little frustrating, because my life is so wrapped up with family. Nor does he have much to say about love, romantic love in particular. Though late is his life a woman thirty-three years his junior became hugely important to him and if he referred to her as his ‘adopted daughter’ that too only indicates a certain deaf ear when it comes to his own daughter.

In passing, it’s worth noting that as always with Michel, the essai has almost nothing to do with presumption. The habit of naming his work and then pursuing whatever takes his fancy might seem arbitrary, but the more I read him, the more I come to appreciate that he’s doing something more akin to a jazz musician; taking a familiar tune and improvising around it the better to explore the ideas that follow on and give them fuller rein to lead to others, and so on. Often, towards the end of the piece, he’ll remember the originals theme and give it a mention, but that’s only to remind us of how far we’ve travelled with him in search of fresh interpretations and riffs that surprise both him and us, the readers.

So what does Michel tell us? A lot, is the short answer, in what is a relatively long piece of thirteen thousand words, but perhaps not as much as he wants us to believe. From an early age, he says, his bodily carriage and certain gestures ‘revealed a vain and foolish pride.’ He admires confidence in others because he has none, he is slapdash and diffident, and values himself for nothing, he says, except that he knows his own value. He has never produced anything of intellectual merit, and whilst he loves poetry, he writes it like a child, his style is rough and ready, his conversation lacks sparkle or wit, he speaks both French and Gascon badly and has forgotten most of the Latin he once knew fluently, and to cap it all, he’s short, which he feels does nothing for his status as a man. ‘It is most vexing,‘ he says, ‘if you are standing among your servants, to be asked the question: ‘Where is your master?’ and to receive only the fag end of a salute…’ I told you he’s funny, and he is, the kind of person you’d be happy to have a pint with.

His more attractive physical qualities – regular features and teeth, a thick beard and well-shaped head and an odourless body, do little to compensate, he says and whilst his health has generally been good, now he has entered what he calls his ‘old age’, things are not quite as they were. Whilst he was pretty good at running, anything requiring agility eluded him. He has a tin ear and cannot sing or play an instrument, and he describes himself as ‘extremely idle and extremely independent both by nature and intention.’

In contrast, the second half of the essai is about some of his better qualities, thought he’s careful not to brag. He sounds as judicious as ever in telling us how ‘his soul shuns a lie’, how hates flatterers and reveres candour, though he confesses he has an absolutely terrible memory, a characteristic he mentions elsewhere in his work, claiming he should be famous for its defects.

Montaigne concludes with a short list of brave folk he’s encountered, and gives over an entire paragraph to singing the praises of Mde de Gournay, the young woman he dubbed his adopted daughter, ‘for whom,’ he says, ‘I centainly feel more than a paternal love, and whom, in my solitary retreat, I cherish as one of the best parts of my own being.’

Were they lovers? Did one exploit the other? And if so who was doing what to whom? Does it matter? I think not, but what does matter to me is that Montaigne had deep feeling for this young woman and that her presence in his life did soemthing to ameliorate his loneliness. In the same essai, he writes with equal feeling about La Boétie, and some have specualted on that relationship too because it was so deeply felt. His friend had been dead for more twenty years by the time Montaigne met Mde de Gournay, a loss that he never quite got over, but it seems the old friend and the young woman are linked in some way, if only in their importance to Montaigne.

On Presumption works hard on all kinds of levels. Montaigne does so much more than paint a picture of himself , ‘naked’ as he might have put it. There is so much more to his art, which explains why the Essais have proved so perenially popular, and why they bear re-reading. He draws a distinction between himself and his times, casting himself as a truth teller against the current fashion for ‘pretence and dissimulation’, and in an era when criticism of the state or the regime was not welcome and putting your head above the parapet could be lethal, he effectively challenges the orthodoxy to defend itself without ever appearing confrontational. He reinforces his reputation as an honest broker between power blocks and vested interests by characterising himself as thoroughly ingenuous, a rough and ready character from the provinces who tells it like it is. At the same time, he portrays his judgement as sound and subtle and worthy of the most adept politico. H rusn himself down, only to build himself up again, remaking the portrait as a likeness of the man he believes himself to be behind the scenes. And into the mix, he throws tantalising hints of an inner life that was isolated but passionately felt. I’ve no doubt that Montaigne was also of his times and any talk of family or love was simply not part of the conversation for a man, a husband and father, a siegneur and a statesman.

But it occurs to me as I close my selected edition and contemplate another swim before the sun sinks lower in the sky, that if he were here beside me, I would want to ask him about his feelings and compare notes with him on both family and love. I would ask his advice about Lilly in particular. I’ve been thinking a lot about her and I texted her this morning in the hope that we could have a chat whilst I’m here. She wrote back to say that she’s around tomorrow, and so that’s what we’ll do…I hope. Because I miss her and there’s something I want to say to her that I’ve never said.

I have a funny feeling that Michel, the man who has a reputation as the first to reveal all, would choose to keep his secrets, probably with a gallic shrug and the few familiar words that that allowed him a little distance, a refuge, and something of a smokescreen; ‘Que Je sais?’


I’ve finished eating my pasta with a tomato pesto sauce and slices of something very like pepperoni, that isn’t quite. I’m sitting at my little table looking out of the open window, aware the air outside is cooling rapidly. The seasonal change to autumn is upon us and carries with it a sense of time passing and a just a hint of melancholy.

Though I’ve worked hard to avoid emails and any hint of the news, I’m caught off guard after a good supper and wine, and on a reflex, I open up the mail program on my phone. Gone are the days of a full inbox, thank the gods, and as I’m assiduous in unsubscribing from anything and anyone who wants to send me useless information, so there’s only twenty or thirty emails, mostly irrelevant, at least for now, bar one that comes as a huge surprise.

It’s from Charlotte. We met online when I was living in France more than eight years ago now. We corresponded for a while and because we’d met on a dating site, there was always the possibility we might become more than friends, but it was not to be. When I returned from France because my father was dying, we met for lunch in Woodstock, half way between her house in Gloucestershire and the bungalow on the outskirts of London where I was staying and where I would soon begin taking care of my mother. She was keen to meet, I was not, but I went anyway.

Whatever might have happened between us didn’t, and for good reason. A carer’s life is not the kind of life that allowed of romance, especially long distance. She was still hurting from a divorce and needed to move on, which she did, and for a long time we’ve had no contact. She tells me she was passing the sign to our little town on the way to her brother’s house and thought of me. She wants to know if we can meet for lunch, again.

I don’t know how to respond. There is no reason not to meet, but nor is there a good reason why we should, unless one counts curiosity. I wonder if that’s enough. Some things from the past are best left. Like Michel, I try to gauge what’s going on in my mind and how I feel, and like him, I find it’s not an easy thing to divine.

But what harm can it do to say I’m currently in France, yet again, though only for a few weeks this time and when I’m back, we could make contact then. A few minutes later, she responds, which catches me by surprise, again. In our correspondence, which lasted for a year or more, she was literary and a little sad. When we met in person, she was immaculately dressed, quite beautiful, and oddly nervous for someone who clearly likes to be in control. This insistent Charlotte is making all the running. Her proposal is that I come to her house, and I’m not sure I have the option of saying no or hedging at this point. So, as we appear to be communicating in real time, I try for humour. I tell her where I’m staying and suggest I may have forgotten all about polite society and dress codes.

‘Convention is overrated.’ she writes back, ‘but what do you say we make attire weather dependent?’