On the bright side

Candide: or, Optimism
by Voltaire
translated by John Butt

This wasn’t as intimidating to read as I feared but it’s definitely intimidating to write about! On the one hand a short picaresque novel about the many adventures of a young German, it’s also a study of philosophy, humanity and life itself.

The story is ridiculous and the characters entirely wooden, but that’s not the point here. Voltaire is witty, ironic, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, always clever. Briefly, Candide is the ward of a rich baron who is thrown out when he is discovered kissing the baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunégonde. As his tutor Pangloss had always taught him that “all is for the best” he approaches his series of misadventures with a sort of naïve cheeriness and hardy resilience. He travels the world making his fortune over and over, only to lose it again and again. He is repeatedly arrested, robbed, cheated, whipped, banished and otherwise mistreated. His beloved companions die or are otherwise taken from him, yet to the last page he is determined to find a man who is truly happy and dogmatically discusses his philosophy with anyone who will join in.

One of the many ironies of the story is that Candide actually finds a true paradise in South America – Eldorado – but chooses not to stay because he is restless and because he is concerned for Cunégonde, who last he knew was in the hands of a dastardly king.

The story reminded me of Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. A lot happens but even the worst (rape, disembowelment, hanging) is dealt with matter-of-factly. A running joke is Candide’s challenge to find a man who does not think he is most ill-treated man alive. Everyone he encounters has a terrible back story.

Voltaire mocks every religion, nationality and philosophy, which makes the moral message a bit unclear. Is he saying life is inherently awful and we should have no hope? But then why have a hero who survives through so much and remains optimistic?

Definitely worth reading but I still prefer more recent prose style-wise.

First published 1759.
This translation first published 1947 by Penguin.

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