The last book I bought my grandmother, before she died on the eve of Shavuot, was Sarah Bakewell’s “How To Live, or A Life of Montaigne.” She hadn’t asked for this book, but she was under the impression I might have borrowed her French copy of Montaigne’s essays (she was always overestimating me), and I wanted to get her something Montaigne-like while we figured out who had pilfered les essais.
“How To Live,” a new kind of biography that won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year, is structured around one question — How to Live? — with each chapter focusing on a different answer. I myself had only gotten through the first chapter, subtitled “Don’t Worry about Death,” when my grandmother died. This I found ironic.
After she died, at 98, the French essays turned up at a friend’s house. I had assumed that their disappearance would be permanent, and would symbolize the loss of her. But their sudden reappearance reminded me of something she often said: People die, but books don’t.
I had expected to write this column about my search for those lost essays, but, like the contradictions of Montaigne’s essays themselves, the sudden appearance of them confused my narrative. The argument, however, is the same: Our lives are about the search for meaning, and the great books of the literary and/or Jewish traditions bleed for this ideal.
Montaigne, who wrote in southern France in the mid-16th century, was likely the child of Spanish conversos. He invented the genre of the essay, which literally means “to attempt,” as a way to both honor and articulate the humanity of his contradictions. In his essays Montaigne searched not for truth, nor for facts, but for the delicate texture of the lived mental experience. He was a modernist before his time.
Over the years I have been writing this column, I’ve occasionally mentioned my grandmother Beatrice Papo, as well as the 10 years we worked together translating and editing the Yiddish essays of her father, Avraham Coralnik. Although Avraham only wrote one essay about him, Montaigne’s spirit hovered over the work. Avraham loved the idea that Montaigne was Jewish, in part because the man who created the essay, who said the search was the answer, came from a people for whom the question was everything.
Coralnik’s intimate yet learned essays were Montaigne-like; and just as centuries of readers searched for the “real” Montaigne within the doubling of his discourses, Beatrice searched for her father — whom she had hardly known in real time — through his writings. And now I find myself doubled over with coincidences, among them the fact that I’m suddenly the age my great-grandfather was when he wrote essays in New York’s Der Tog, a precursor to The Jewish Week. And just as my columns have been imagined as conversations with this ancestor, it’s clear now that the ideal reader (but hopefully not the only one) for them is my grandmother.
After I began working more robustly with digital platforms, Beatrice was the one who, after becoming web-proficient in her 90s, pointed out the irony of the term “search” for online queries. It’s technically accurate, but misses the point. To search is to explore, investigate, examine; to hunt, to quest, to seek. What comes easy carries no wisdom. The Israelites could have Googled directions from Egypt to Canaan, and made it there in 40 days. It took 40 years, the lifespan of an ancient, because our lives are a question; the Promised Land of an answer comes only at the end, after the hard work of living.
On Passover, she made a speech in which she imagined her death at the hands of the Egyptians as she fled into the desert. On her back rested her mother’s candlesticks; in her mouth lived the stories of the Lord God. Forty days later, Beatrice announced she was ready to go. She had essayed the time between Exodus and Revelation, fought her way to the edge of the mountain; the search was over.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.