Book Review

Candide by Voltaire

Photo on 19-06-2014 at 18.50 #2

I’ve somehow gotten into a reading-in-translation rut. I’m going to snap out of, particularly after reading Voltaire’s tiresome and OLD Candide.

I know it’s wrong to judge the past with the eye of today and I know it’s easy to scoff at people who used to be considered funny when their jokes don’t induce laughter in the modern world… Voltaire is, to be fair, witty. In theory, his jokes are strong and the ideas behind them do “work” (however one considers a joke working) and the “adventures” of Candide do have a humour to them. But other than in a few instances, the jokes don’t really amuse.

Candide is satire, and though many of the things being satirised still exist (corrupt Catholic priests, exploitative business practices, people travelling for spurious reasons), lots of other things don’t. Though the idea of six deposed kings sharing a Venetian supper is a strong literary idea, its literal relevance and message has been lost – it is only a strong literary idea now, rather than a statement about the impermeability of European power structures. Maybe I’m wrong. Actually, I almost certainly am.

I’ve never read Gulliver’s Travels, which Candide owes a lot to, but as it’s thirty years earlier than this, I don’t want to.

The philosophical ideas that are attacked and assaulted are all attacked and assaulted from a pre-Darwinian and broadly deistic perspective – Voltaire is so certain in the existence of a god that his arguments about what “type” of a god he* is remain, for me, pointless. There is no god. There is no fate. Life is an accident we must suffer through.

Again, my opinions.

Candide discusses the journey around Europe and South America of the eponymous character. He visits Lisbon during its famous earthquake; he finds and then leaves the mythical El Dorado; he kills three men, two of them priests; he gambles and he plays and he bounces from country to country with anecdotes and adventures happening everywhere.

It’s an old book, in that sense – there is little depth. And it is fun, I suppose. It is “readable”, but it’s not particularly engaging. Though I know fuck all about philosophy and don’t care about books that are no longer relevant, so I’m probably not the best person to judge.

Whilst Madame Bovary gave me far more than I had hoped, this earlier French classic gave me very little at all.

Not a terrible book, but a relic, a history piece. Thank god it’s short.


* Of course Voltaire’s god is a he, a giant spewing cock in the sky. That’s my image, not Voltaire’s. Though I have no god. And no god has me.

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