Friday, June 22, 2007

Review of Candide by Voltaire

Grade: B+

You gotta love IOZ. A book that represents that guy would almost have to be a satire, the more caustic, the more felicitous, the better. The subject would certainly have to be the poverty of the human condition, especially in a time of war, but not too heavy on that egalitarian crap please, an intellectual and aristocratic cast would be more his angle: IOZ is the kind of guy who can draw the line between equality and justice. Can anybody think of an author that reflects IOZ's puckish passion, his airy artifice, silly pseudonym, flagrant Francophilia? Yeah, I think I've got something.

Candide works at its most obvious level as a travelogue of eighteenth century woe, a thumb of the nose at any divine optimization, however ineffable. The eponymous character starts his days in a cozy fortress in Germany, makes some eyes at the baron's daughter, which earns him a big boot o' exile, and things only go downhill from there for the poor bastard. Candide chases his beloved Cunégonde across the old world and the new, at various times conscripted, beaten near to death, taken sick, driven to murder, and bearing witness to the gravest misfortune of others. Voltaire tries to outdo himself with atrocity (looking, sadly enough, not very far at all), but his touch is so light, and his pace so quick, that, well, it's not that you don't notice--that would miss the point--but you can't get through something like this without a tremendous helping of humor.

You'd think the repetition of theme would get old too--for most of the novel, Voltaire doesn't stray far from his idea that life is a miserable farce--but the tone is what keeps you engaged. It's why satire, done well, is brilliant. Voltaire seems to take a poke at every stodgy and horrible artifact of the pre-Enlightenment society that he can think of, and while I'd be lying if I claimed a deep familiarity with the literature of his time, he seems to be mocking with the form of this novel the clumsy romance of his (or any) day, and the unreadable Puritanical allegory that infected the previous century. Candide, as his name implies, is an impressionable shell of a man, but, while luckier than most (he's got to live through the hundred and so pages after all, if sometimes barely), he suffers the consequences of his naivete as such a creature might really be expected to. (Uh, usually.)

Voltaire skims a wide range of current events to establish the futility of optimism. A quarter millennium later, this modern reader was happy enough for the contextual footnotes. I picture some future generation of historians chuckling at America: the Book, as oblivious of 8/10 of the relevance as I was for Candide. Voltaire's prose, even in English, is witty and enjoyable, which highlights my general hatred of translations. For the bit of wordplay I caught, it kills me to know how droll the thing was in its original French, and in its original context. But regardless of how heavy it leans on popular references, it's the universal themes that keep Candide robust through the centuries. No one remembers whatever the hell Leibniz was on about philosophically, but that doofus Pangloss resonates to this day.

I was amused in this novel (and considering Jonathon Swift too) to compare the role of pamphleteers in the eighteenth century to bloggers today. Voltaire has a special place in his heart for the unlettered critics and hecklers. For the record, I'll accept his description for this sort of writing, cranked out by "one of those vipers in literature who nourish themselves with their own venom, a pamphlet-monger...a writer of pamphlets, a fool." Shit, I can't explain the blogosphere better than a Frenchman 250 years ago.

No review of Candide is complete without a dissection of the ending. I'll spare you the trouble: it sucked, a total cop-out, replete with the future-is-what-you-make-of-it shit, a coda as trite and necessary as Roger Waters brought us in The Wall or Mike Judge in Office Space. If not optimism, then at least there's honesty, something something, blah blah blah. But on the plus side, as I read the conclusion, eyes a-rolling, a fluffy white kitten (honest to god) happened to curl herself up in my arm. Maybe this is the best of all possible worlds after all.


Genre: , ,

No comments: