Literary daybook, Sept. 13

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published September 13, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Sept. 13, 1986, Evelyn Couch smashes a Volkswagen; she announces she has more insurance.
-- "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" (1988)
by Fannie Flagg

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1592, Michel de Montaigne died. Montaigne came from a patrician Bordeaux family, one that obligated him to many political responsibilities, but in his late 30s he retreated to the tower rooms of the family estate to write the first two books of his "Essays." When these were published in 1580 -- a third volume was published in 1588, after a return to political life as mayor of Bordeaux -- they introduced a new literary genre to European letters.

Montaigne's tower retreat or "solitarium" has evolved into something of an icon for bibliophiles, and is today a popular museum for the literary traveler. On the first floor Montaigne had a chapel; on the second floor he had his bedroom (though he had others, and five daughters); on the top floor, a round room "of sixteen paces in diameter," amply windowed and 1,000-volumed, was his library. Here he would read, write and dictate, carving into the roof beams 48 quotations from what he had written. The dedicatory carving, taking its special place above the fireplace, might cause a sigh in all book lovers:

"In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of 38, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public enjoyments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [Muses], where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat, and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure."

Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof beams convey the view, though not the charm of the "Essays":

"The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge.
I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine.
Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head.
Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool.
Man, a vase of clay.
I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me.
What inanity is everything!"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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