Paul Kent on Opening Up a Whole New World of Thinking.
Many people avoid reading the works of philosophers and great thinkers because the way their words sit on the page might not make for easy modern reading. But what if you were given a way to access those words, so that they became less daunting? Paul Kent is someone who is passionate about accessibility and has written two books to introduce Montaigne and Voltaire to a wider audience.
Tell me about yourself.
I am first and foremost a radio producer. I worked at BBC Radio Four and the World Service for 17 years. I largely made documentaries while I was with them, sometimes about literature. Later on I got drafted over to the Drama department where I started producing readings and plays.
The skillset I picked up from that was the ability to research, and being able to put over an argument succinctly, precisely and accurately, in a very small number of words. So that really helps when it comes to writing a philosophical digest, which forms the core of the two books I have written, one on Montaigne and one on Voltaire.
I stayed at the BBC until 1998, after which I ran a literary radio station called Oneword for about eight years. This meant I read hundreds, perhaps thousands of books of fiction and non-fiction, as well as interviewing a lot of authors.
After I left the station, I thought I wanted to do something different and I’d always wanted to write. So I thought I’d put something down to see what would happen. Fortunately I found a publisher who wanted to put the Montaigne book out, which he did. Unfortunately the company went under 18 months later, so I had to wait till now for both the Montaigne and Voltaire books to be picked up by e-publishers Creative Content who have republished them both as e-books. They’re both now re-titled and with new covers.
You talked about the research aspect of the job you used to do. Research for non-fiction books does have to be thorough because you are generally dealing with facts and if you don’t get them right, the contents of the book will be incorrect.
The first thing to say is not about research at all; if you’re writing about a particular author, which is the approach I take with these two books, you do need to have some imaginative sympathy with the person, or you’ll be in danger of writing something that is very dry, bland and factual. If you going to write non-fiction you have to get under the skin of the person you’re writing about. If I hadn’t felt that imaginative sympathy with Montaigne and Voltaire I doubt I would have written the books. So that was an essential prerequisite.
With regards to the actual process of research, Montaigne is pretty easy, because his essays (over a 100 of them) are conveniently collected in one volume, and there are very adequate translations to help you. Voltaire is a completely different can of worms, because he wrote so much – we don’t really know how much. His correspondence alone totals 100 volumes, not to mention his plays, histories and all the other genres he worked in. Although there are some collected editions of Voltaire’s work, none of them are comprehensive. Oxford University are currently working on a massive, definitive collected edition of Voltaire, but it’s not finished yet. So you basically have to make do with what you can get out of libraries, second hand bookshops and even bits and pieces that academic institutions post on the internet. In the end, I got a representative collection of what he wrote, but is by no means all of it. So it is tricky getting the stuff that you need to work on, but it is imperative that you don’t misrepresent the person that you’re writing about. There is so much out there which gets it wrong, (Voltaire particularly). They just don’t see the layers of humour in his writing. That is an essential perspective you need if you want to understand him fully. Montaigne also needs this to a degree, because his work does suffer a bit in translation.
Once you really get into Montaigne you can see he’s a man of many moods and he writes those moods down. He doesn’t try to gloss over who he is and what he’s feeling. He is, by his own admission, 100% honest. But if the translation you’re reading is faulty or ambiguous you will misrepresent him big time. So it’s quite a responsibility to write a book on Montaigne, because you have to develop the type of radar to get the tone absolutely right. Sometimes you think the translation can’t be right, because something’s missing or you feel he just wouldn’t said something in the way you see it on the page. So it can get quite difficult and convoluted. But having imaginative sympathy with the person also helps to develop this kind of sixth sense, about who they were and what they would have said.
Do you think getting context is important? For example, do you look at what was going on at the time they were writing and also their biographies?
Yes it is important. Montaigne’s background, in particular, is very informative, because he wasn’t just a writer. He came to writing at the age of 38, when he had done quite a lot of other stuff, so his writing was effectively a hobby. Whereas writing for Voltaire was his life. That’s all he did, almost from day one, until he reached adulthood. He was a professional writer, although he was by his own admission a dabbler, but what a glorious dabbler. Knowing that in advance is helpful.
Knowing that Montaigne was an aristocrat, and about his education (which was far from orthodox), as well as his various positions in public life, begins to help you understand the man.
Also knowing what history was going on at the time is very useful, because as we all know France has had a very turbulent history, particularly at the time when Montaigne was alive in the 1500s, because there was a de facto civil war going on. Yet by sheer force of his personality, intelligence and sensitivity, he came out of it alive at a time when you could be randomly butchered for airing your views. If you stuck your head above the parapet, you stood a very good chance of having your head lopped off.
You need to understand what’s going on around Voltaire for a very different reason, in that he was part of the ebb and flow of history, and his writing does reflect this. Montaigne is effectively writing for himself, Voltaire is writing about himself shot through the prism of contemporary history. So you do need to know that history, or what you’re reading will make no sense at all.
Having said that, the context of a lot of what Voltaire wrote is lost to us, because he goes into the absolute minutiae of local squabbles and disputes with individuals, which means nothing to us now, because we don’t know exactly what they were about. Much of Voltaire (as one of his biographers says) is like reading an edition of Private Eye from forty years ago. You don’t understand many of the references and in-jokes unless you are an incredibly well-read historian.
One of them is a writer and the other isn’t and they’re situated historically at different times, so what sort of differences do you see in their style of writing and the way they’re approaching their subjects?
Montaigne is sincere, there’s no question of that in my mind. He never writes down what he doesn’t mean. In fact, part of his stated aim is to write down his feelings and thoughts exactly as they come to him.
By contrast, Voltaire wrote under a bewildering number of aliases (something like 190). So you never know if he’s the person doing the talking. He had to do this because he was persecuted by both church and state. He was imprisoned in the Bastille twice. If you were caught propagating subversive material, as Voltaire very often was, you could be in serious trouble and even executed. People were executed in France, at that time, for far more trivial things than Voltaire wrote. This is why his writing is chameleon-like. He never seemed to take anything seriously, so on the surface his writing appears comic and yet it’s not. He’s a very different animal to Montaigne, with regards to how he approached the craft of writing. I think they would have got on well, because they both have a shared appreciation of the truth and how difficult it was to write with integrity.
Neither author published in English and their first language was not English. So how can you recognise the best translation of their work, because as you said a translation may greatly vary in interpretation and therefore may not capture the accurate essence or nuances of the original work?
It’s a difficult one. I have a reasonable grasp of French, but Montaigne was writing in the sixteenth century, just as old French was emerging into modern French. Having said that, French is a language that stabilized far more rapidly than English, so by the time Montaigne was writing it was much more bedded in than English, which was still in the process of radical development.
In addition to knowing the words, it’s all part of knowing your subject, because you come across things where you think ‘Well Voltaire couldn’t have possibly said that, because he wouldn’t have believed it, unless he was playing a game’ (which of course he sometimes was). Then you go to a second translation of the same thing where you think ‘Ah yes, now you have got it. That’s what I was expecting. That fits with my picture of Voltaire.’ You can make an educated guess.
You’re not an academic. There is a big discussion about who has the right to put over this kind of work to a reading public. What is your view on this?
It gets me very angry when people say ‘Oh, you’re not an academic, so how can you possible know anything?’ Well that’s rubbish. I’ve been to university, but I’m not a professional academic sitting reading books all day. But I have lot of friends who are academics who do fantastic work and do amazing things to help people understand all sorts of subjects. But the trained perspective is not the only perspective. It doesn’t really matter who you are, if you have a love of your subject, it guarantees that you will write about that subject as well as you can. This will mean that some people’s treatments of a subject will be better than others, but I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a democracy in writing about philosophers, or any other subject. The philosophers were human beings and we’re all human beings, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to understand them.
In terms of Montaigne, try reading a few of the reviews on Amazon (which I quote in the book) regarding his work, which aren’t written by academics. These are heartfelt reviews from people who love Montaigne and get him. They want you to read and understand him too, so they write these glowing reviews of the editions of the essays they’ve bought. These are people who have stumbled on the essays by chance and who aren’t professionals, but that’s not to say they can’t enjoy what they’re reading and communicate that joy to other people.
So I’m not a literary snob at all and I think anyone can do it. Obviously some people do it better than others, but why not have a go? Basically, research is a mechanical procedure anyone can do if they want to. Research is not difficult. What is difficult is ordering the things you find into a coherent whole. That can be tricky, and it comes with practice. You either have an aptitude for that or you don’t.
But you can read stuff written by academics and it’s absolutely rubbish, because it makes no sense. It’s just so up itself you think ‘Well what was the point of all that?’ In fact the book I’m writing at the moment is trying to demystify what goes on in a writer’s head when they’re writing novels, because there’s so much rubbish written about the subject. It is a complicated thing, but it’s not that complicated that you can’t write about it in words of one syllable.
So why not use that approach to look at philosophy – because philosophy is a part of everyone’s life, and informs just about every decision we make, whether we realise it or not. So why shouldn’t we understand it, given that it’s all about us?
You’re now giving Montaigne a new spin for the modern mind. He talks about some very mundane things and expresses irritation. How do you stop your version turning into nothing more than a rant and a medium for getting things off your own chest?
All I wanted to do with the book was get as close to the spirit of Montaigne’s writing as possible. There are actually a couple of places where Montaigne does start ranting, particularly about people who hold opinions without any knowledge or experience to back them up. He goes off on one on that subject, and in fact all the way through there are mini rants; he is a man of strong opinions. This is because he tries to write about every side of the story, because he feels it’s your duty as a sentient human being to see every side of the story, or as many sides as you’re capable of seeing, before coming out with a pronouncement. What you actually see in Montaigne is him exploring subjects. He doesn’t start writing having thought about everything exhaustively and having pre-formed opinions, he is exploring his own mind. What he is writing is a biography of his own imagination. All I thought to do was mirror that process through twenty-first century sensibilities. So if I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll say I don’t know the answer to something. If I feel passionately about something, I’ll rant about it, because that’s exactly what Montaigne did.
Most of the time Montaigne lives up to the task he sets himself, which is the balanced and open-minded approach, but he’s only human and sometimes he knows he’s failed but his bashes it down anyway. This is why there is a refreshing honesty about his writing, which I was very drawn to. So I thought all I had to do was to be honest about how I feel, which is why Montaigne is an ideal subject to write about because all you have to do is to be true to yourself.
Do you think this is why Montaigne appeals to a modern audience?
I think that’s exactly why he appeals to a modern audience because, even at a remove of five hundred years, you can say ‘That’s me. I recognise myself in him.’ You can’t often recognise yourself in Voltaire.
Are the type of books you’ve written likely to help people access these works more easily than if they had looked at the original works?
That’s the aim. Both my parents were teachers, so I think the teaching ‘genes’ have transported themselves to me. If I have a talent, I think it is explaining things in words of one syllable. I think it is important that each generation has people who are prepared to do that, so that you can actually put history into a contemporary context. It’s very important to do that.
When I was at Radio 4, I would offer programme ideas to commissioning editors and they’d say ‘Well we did that twenty years ago’ and I would reply ‘Yes, but that was a generation ago and the current generation haven’t had a programme on that subject and we need to keep re-explaining these things, so they see it in the context of our time.’ I think it’s a perfectly valid thing to do.
So, say people have read your books on Montaigne and Voltaire and they want to start looking at the original works, how would you suggest they start getting into them?
Montaigne is fairly easy because you can buy a copy of the collected essays and that’s it. So he’s a very cheap author to get to know because everything is available in one volume. There are about half a dozen perfectly good translations and some of them you can download for free, because they’re out of copyright. There are currently two Penguin Classics translations, and they’re both excellent.
Voltaire is another story. As I said in the book, I went to a shop in Key West called Voltaire Books and they didn’t have a single one by him because there are very few in print. The only work that most people know Voltaire wrote is Candide. He’s like the proverbial iceberg, because 7/8ths of his stuff lies deep beneath the surface. If you happen to be a member of the British Library or go to the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford, you stand the best chance. But if you want to buy a uniform edition of Voltaire, there’s no such thing. All that has been published in popular editions has been his philosophical Contes, which are the mini fables like Candide. Penguin Classics do an edition of his Letters From England and The Philosophical Dictionary, which is an amazing piece of work, and helps you to get a very clear sense of who Voltaire was. Beyond that, there’s very little generally available and you’d have to go to a library or a specialist shop which specialises in old editions. If you wanted to take it further then you would really have to start working at it!