Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Candide, a puppet

     Voltaire. Candide (1759. This edition, 1930, Illustrated Editions Co, New York) I first read this book some 50 years ago, and couldn’t remember a single thing about it. In fact, I knew the famous “Let us tend our gardens” line that ends it only from 3rd party discussions and references. So you may think that re-reading would be a revelation.
     Well, the revelation is the reason that the book was a blank: it’s the most boring, uninvolving, mechanically constructed “story” I’ve ever read. I suppose in its day it was daring, provoking, a poke in the complacent citizen’s eye, an insult to the philosophers, and so on. But that’s just a reminder that there wasn’t much reading matter available in Voltaire’s day, and the average was pretty low. It didn’t take much to effort to jump over the bar, and Voltaire did not exert himself. Or else the book proves that fiction is somewhat more difficult than essays.
     I just didn’t care about Candide or any of the other characters. It’s clear I was supposed to react to the horrible things that were done by various evildoers, and to laugh at Candide’s naive insistence that despite these horrors the world was the best it could be, and so on. But the characters are mere ciphers. They are satirical theses with labels attached.
     Compare Candide with Gulliver’s Travels, published about 30 years earlier, and known to Voltaire. What a difference. Gulliver, a naif like Candide, is fully rounded. We believe Gulliver’s reactions and feelings because they spring from his character. What’s more, he changes. He moves from one naivete (that the world is as it should be) to another (that there’s nothing good in the world).  Candide is a badly made puppet, and Voltaire an unskilled puppeteer. Voltaire is also inconsistent: people cheerfully steal the treasures Candide brings back from Eldorado, cheat him when he sells parts of it, renege on their promises, but he always has a few more diamonds to sell. Why doesn’t someone just beat him up and rifle through his pockets? In the fantastic world that Voltaire has posited, that omission is flat out incredible.
      I took four evenings to get through this book. Overrated. *

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