What on Earth have I just read? I don’t really know what I was expecting from the fourth book issued in the Penguin Classics series, maybe a serious French novel, but it certainly wasn’t this surreal fantasy adventure. Penguin Classics started in 1946 with Homer’s Odyssey and then followed that with a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant and then the Theban plays by Sophocles, all solid classics as expected and then came this truly bizarre narrative at the end of 1947. This is the second of the blogs making up my August theme for 2021 which is ‘translated from French’, as I have already featured Boule de Suif and Other Stories by Maupassant I selected this book as the second French book in the Penguin Classics without knowing anything at all about it before I started reading this week.
The only book I can think of that has such fantastical episodes is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and like that other classic this is a satirical parody, however unlike Swift’s book which is set in various fantasy lands Voltaire has set his amongst contemporary events and real people. The problem with both books is that they are over two hundred and fifty years old so the politics and philosophies they are parodying are long gone and the messages that would have been clear to readers at the time are obscure at best or completely lost to the modern reader. This if anything makes them even stranger. Still on with the review of the book in hand, which was first published in 1759.
As is my usual practice with books which have an introduction I didn’t read it first but after I had completed the novel. As usual I’m glad I did as the introduction not only gives away large parts of the plot whilst trying to explain the references it also totally reveals the ending. However the introduction is essential after reading the book because it answers so many questions the modern reader has, such as why does Professor Pangloss teach that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and anything that happens must ultimately be for the best despite the continuous disasters that surround him and his pupil Candide; including in Pangloss’s case being hung as part of a Portuguese auto-de-fe following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which killed tens of thousands of people. It turns out that Voltaire was mercilessly sending up the Theodicy by Gottfried Leibniz which takes as it central premise that exact philosophy.
The book starts with Candide and Pangloss at the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s country seat in Westphalia along with the Baron’s family, especially his seventeen year old daughter Cunégonde who Candide is madly in love with, all is well with the world. Cunégonde sees Pangloss making love with one of the maids and decides to entice Candide but this is seen by the Baron who kicks Candide out of the house before he can make a move. Candide is then captured by the Prussian army, press-ganged into service, flogged almost to death, made to fight in a war with the French and nearly executed before escaping to Holland, Here he meets Jacques the Anabaptist and then runs into Pangloss who is now a beggar with syphilis which he caught from the maid and who informs Candide that soon after he left the castle was over-run by the Prussians, Cunégonde was raped before her and all other inhabitants of the place were killed. Pangloss is cured of syphilis by Jacques, losing an eye and an ear during the treatment. We are now on page ELEVEN. The frenetic pace continues through the rest of the book along with the rapidly rising death toll and never ending coincidences and disasters surrounding the characters. Throughout it all Candide and Pangloss maintain the Leibnizian philosophy of this is the best of all worlds.
The other protagonists in the book are increasingly strange especially the ‘old woman’ whose tale is the most bizarre of all and acts as a balance to Candide as she certainly doesn’t believe that this is the best of all worlds after the life she has had. Starting as the illegitimate daughter of Pope Urban X and ending as a servant in Lisbon by the time she meets Candide, on the way seeing her mother drawn and quartered, becoming a slave and having a buttock cut off to feed starving Janissaries during a siege amongst other experiences. The surreal happenings to all the characters continue throughout the book which travels to South America and back to Europe via El Dorado dropping in at England just long enough to witness the execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the fall of Minorca to the French and deciding that England was just too crazy a place to stay, which bearing in mind the things that had already befallen them by then was a pretty damning indictment.
I think I need to read Candide again in a few months just to fully resolve in my mind all that happens but if you like books at a mad pace then Candide is for you.