"Montaigne", one of the last books Zweig was working on before committing suicide with together his wife, is very sad to read. It's unfinished and it's definitely not perfect but when read across the decades, it clearly shows the signs of what was coming shortly in the future. Zweig, who suddenly discovers Montaigne, is clearly not the person he once was. He's world weary and disappointed with politics, all the hatred that surrounds him and with life in general. It is not a world he can relate to, recognize or even find himself in. It all starts when in exile he discovers a crate of books featuring the collected works of Montaigne who he never particularly liked. But still, being without his old books, he hesitantly gives him another chance only to discover so far overlooked depths. While he explores the life and works of Michel de Montaigne, through his words Zweig often feels like he's closing in on himself, reverting to the very thing he loves the most – books and letters. Like the Montaigne's tower of books embodied in his person, he's increasingly hiding from the world using nothing but words, effectively using them as shield against humanity. Sadly, we now know that he has ultimately lost his battle but “Montaigne” as an account of his final thoughts stands proud as a fragile, final monument to this literary genius - a man who lived, loved and created books.
As it is often the case with Zweig’s biographies they're not just historical documents about a certain person but rather a reflection of his own time as seen through that historical figure. Since "Montaigne" was written during the Second World War, Zweig is increasingly thinking about intellectual freedom and what it takes for people to become as cruel as they are. Especially poignant are the moments when Zweig is considering his youth and how, at the time, he thought that Montaigne's book are simply no longer relevant to his time. He honestly believed that the age of violence and incredible cruelty has been left behind in the past and will never come to light again. He thought the people are living in an enlightened age only to be proved years later that he was crushingly wrong all the time. Ironically, Zweig final plea for tolerance and peace was left unheard but even today, as we're experience turmoil again, it still holds true as it ever was. As such, "Montaigne" is both a fond farewell to a great man of letters and disarming reminder of a world we live in.
Review copy provided by Pushkin Press
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