on 14 July 2015
This is a review of the Pléiade edition of les Essais (ISBN: 9782070115051).
I first came to Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, as have many others, through Donald Frame’s very good translation. I’d found a master, or, as Nicolás Gómez Dávila called him, a patron saint. I read the Essays intermittently; later, I taught myself how to read French. (I used "French for Reading.") After I’d read a great many books in modern French, in me, naturally, grew a desire to cast aside a translation and read les Essais in French. First, I browsed modern French translations. Then I took a look at the University of Chicago’s extensive Montaigne Project. I concluded that I, with some help, would be able to tackle les Essais in the original, sixteenth- century, French. I was, in personal correspondence, encouraged by a prominent Montaigne scholar. Still, I hesitated after I’d read Frenchmen’s complaints about the difficulty and obscurity of Montaigne’s style.
Now, a year after starting my journey, I read – slowly but comfortably - les Essais in their original language. I’ve found that it wasn’t so hard as I’d first feared. Would you like to do the same? If so, here’s my advice.
1. Sample les Essais at the University of Chicago’s extensive Montaigne Project. If you like what you read, continue to the next steps.
2. Preview ‘Lire les Essais dans une édition du seizième siècle,’ which is found at the University of Virginia’s website. In particular, read
‘Quelques difficultés de la langue des Essais.’
3. Bookmark ‘Randle Cotgrave's 1611 French-English Dictionary.’ I consult this wonderful dictionary if I encounter an unknown word that’s
not elucidated at the bottom of the page.
4. Download Guy de Pernon’s rendition of les Essais in modern French. It’s available for free. I consult this sometimes.
5. If you don’t have it already, buy Donald Frame’s translation of the Essais. As a last resort, I read this to check my understanding of
difficult passages. (Read his biography of Montaigne, too. M.A. Screech’s “Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays” is a
6. Finally, buy the Pléiade edition of les Essais (ISBN: 9782070115051). After long hours researching the various original-language
editions of Montaigne’s Essais, I decided that this was the best. Below, I shall explain the reasons for my recommendation.
(7. Also, you can carry a Kindle version of Montaigne’s masterpiece in your smartphone.)
This edition, by la Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, is a serious and beautiful book, as are all the Pléiade’s. It’s small and thick, printed on Bible paper. It’s expensive, but it will last forever, look stunning in your hand, and, most important, give you everything you’ll need to read Montaigne’s Essais in their original, audacious language. (I purchased mine from Amazon.fr when the price was somewhat lower than it is now.)
First, the text. La Pléiade presents the posthumous edition of 1595, with Marie de Gournay’s preface. I shall not touch the disagreements about the various editions of the les Essais; I can say only that the editors argue strongly that the 1595 edition is closest to Montaigne’s intent. The "layers" of the additions that Montaigne made at different times are not signaled in the text. It is presented as it was first printed: without any paragraphs. The reader faces blocks of text, uninterrupted but by quotations, usually in Latin. At first, this is daunting, but I’ve became accustomed to it. In fact, it pushes me to focus and follow more closely the threads of Montaigne’s discussion. The text has been closely edited. The original spelling has been retained; only in a few cases has the orthography been regularized and made internally consistent. I shall give but a few examples. Ou/où, la/là, and a/à have been distinguished, but adjectives that end in ‘– ez’ remain. Variants from other editions are noted and given in the back of the book. Les Essais account for 1167 pages, after which come the notes.
Second, the apparatus. At the foot of each page are translations of all quotations in foreign languages and notes on vocabulary and syntax. These are essential. In the back of the book, there are 736 pages of notes, printed in a small font, which describe the sources of the quotations, references, and textual variants. In addition, erudite introductions to each “chapter,” as Montaigne called them, are placed at the back of the book. (I usually read them after I’ve finished the relevant chapter.)
This edition is a truly magnificent way to partake of Montaigne’s wise, Christian humanism.
on 15 December 2014
This book does not come up easily on an Amazon UK search, so I bought mine from Amazon France without realising it was available here. There is also some misinformation here that I'd like to correct.
As originally published, Montaigne's essays present problems even for native French speakers. Various approaches have been tried.
1) Modernise the spelling and punctuation. A big improvement but there are some words that have disappeared from the language and many more where the meanings have changed, so you're often unsure of the intended meaning.
2) In addition, change those words for the modern equivalents. Better still.
3) Reorganise and edit the material to form an anthology. More manageable but at the expense of losing the structure.
This edition follows option 2 and it is very well done.(Francais moderne does not mean 21st century French by the way; it means the written language as it has existed more or less since the early part of the 17th century.) The text has not been altered any more than necessary, so we still have the recognisable voice of Montaigne. The typeface is pleasing and a decent size and there are useful footnotes. This would be an excellent choice for anyone who can read modern French.
Now for the misinformation. The essays are complete, the note by Amazon about a reproduction of an earlier edition is inapplicable and the Kindle version appears to be of another edition.