Monday, January 24, 2022

Reading group: Candide by Voltaire

We haven't read many real classics for this reading group, and our usual lit-crit mode of discussion seemed hardly appropriate for a book (suggested by John) that is considered a staple of the Western canon, and indeed one of the most influential books of all time. Published in 1759 and the most famous of Voltaire's works, it is the picaresque tale of an ingenue, Candide, who has been schooled by his tutor Pangloss in the Leibnitzian philosophy of Optimism - the idea that, since God made this world He must have sufficient reason for its shortcomings, and that therefore it is 'the best of all possible worlds'. Ejected from the comfort of his royal home after being found paying sexual attention to the princess of the castle, Guneconde, Candide embarks on a series of travels and adventures that open his eyes to the horrors of the world and turn him against such a philosophy. An attack thus on Optimism, the book is a satirical takedown of all the established institutions and belief systems of society, most notably organised religion, but many others, including rank, the army, money systems and slavery.

Some of us had already read it, others hadn't; Doug had read it in the original French for A-level. John was pleased to experience again its biting and sometimes laugh-out-loud comedy; Jenny, who hadn't read it before said she was very glad that she now had, although she wouldn't have appreciated it properly had her edition not had an explanatory Introduction that also delineated the real-life historical events to which the novel was referring. Everyone said, however, how pertinent the satire nevertheless is to the present day, and everyone had enjoyed it. We relished reading the phrases coined in this novel that have become common currency, such as pour encourager des autres (the satirical reference here is to the 1757 court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the French from capturing a British stronghold on Minorca) and 'cultivating one's garden' (which Candide and his companions decide is the only sensible alternative to trying to make sense of a cruel, mad world). We did find that it took a bit of reading, that although it is a short work it seemed longer, which I thought was partly due to the picaresque form, which strings events out in a linear fashion (and, I find, makes it easy to forget them). Ann commented that since the book had actually been banned after its (secret) publication, one wonders how many people actually got to read it at the time, which makes it all the more impressive that it has had such an impact (which goes to show, perhaps, not just its wit and profundity, but also the unintended consequences of banning books, or maybe the power of reading elites, or both).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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