Candide by Voltaire
This short novel is another one of those influential classic books that I had always planned to read. I’d bought a copy in preparation, and ten years later it was still sitting on the shelf. I was really pleased that we chose it at book group, and I’m mighty glad to have read it for it was really funny and not a chore at all – a verdict we all shared.
Candide, or Optimism as it is subtitled, is a fast moving romantic adventure published in 1759. Starting off in Westphalia, young Candide falls in love above his station – with the Baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde, but is driven out of the castle, gets press-ganged into the Bulgarian army, flogged, shipwrecked then caught in the Lisbon earthquake (of 1755), tortured by the Inquisition (which wasn’t ‘expected’), he gets separated from his beloved again, goes to El Dorado, gets rich, gets robbed – suffering ever-worse calamities in his journey to get home and find Cunégonde again. Through all of this hardship, Candide fervently believes that he will eventually be reunited with his love.
Along the way he has many companions, the foremost of whom is Doctor Pangloss, the teacher, philosopher, and believer in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a personal philosophy he spreads far and wide …
One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in the little neighbouring woods, which was called a park, she saw through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects. She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the deire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficing reason for young Candide, and he for her.
Yes, this is the first of many occasions when Voltaire gets slightly saucy, rather than satirical, and very funny it is too. I must admit, a lot of the direct satire was lost on me and the rest of the group as we were unfamiliar with the times the story was set in. It appears that the German philosopher Leibniz was a particular target as he believed in a benevolent God – however, we could all get the general themes. This was where an edition with good notes came in rather useful. One of our group who is a linguist read the book in the original French and was amused to find that the novella is billed as ‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph’, Ralph being Voltaire.
In the end Candide’s optimism may have been tempered by the hard reality of life, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Candide’s travels and encounters may owe a lot to Gulliver’s travels which preceded it, but what struck our book group most was the surreal edge to the humour – where else would you encounter an old woman with one buttock? This led our book group to decide that Voltaire’s heir is none other than Monty Python, who in The Life of Brian, also simultaneously espoused and satirised optimism – here’s Eric Idle …
Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best ….
And … always look on the bright side of life…