‘Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.’ So wrote Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, whose literary reputation owes a considerable debt to Marie le Jars de Gournay, the subject of Jenny Diski’s latest novel. Diski is an intelligent writer, author of travelogues that segue intriguingly into memoir and self-analysis, and of impressively original novels, including Nothing Natural and The Dream Mistress. She is also evidently an admirer of Montaigne. Her previous book, On Trying to Keep Still, consists of a series of musings on the problems of solitude, stasis and stupor inspired by Montaigne’s essay ‘On Idleness’.
In constructing her fictionalised life of Montaigne’s ‘adoptive daughter’, Diski eschews reverence and opts for ridicule. Her ‘defence’ (the classical interpretation of the term ‘apology’) of de Gournay portrays the woman writer as a figure of fun. The Parisian fops who competed to mock the spinster they nicknamed the ‘thousand-year-old