Sunday, January 31, 2010


Candide by Voltaire

Not exactly SF – or even proto-SF – Candide is nevertheless a work of imaginative fiction the equal of any that might sit on a SF reader or writer’s shelf.

Filled with bizarre characters and situations and, even after some 250 years, uproariously funny, Candide has provided the template for many a literary odyssey through strange worlds.

When Candide is exiled from the cosy world of castle Thunder-ten-Tronckh for daring to fall in love with the Baron’s beautiful daughter Cunégonde, life takes him on a journey that encompasses war, earthquakes, the ministrations of the Inquisition and even to the fabled utopia of El Dorado. Throughout his privations, Candide clings to the notion that human beings are basically good and happy people and that he lives in ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

First published in 1759, Candide is a short, furious novel that rarely lingers on its catalogue of battles, disasters, rapes, murders and executions. As a result – and equally as a result of its universal themes – the novel has aged remarkably well and is most certainly more modern than, say, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) where the density of both language and situation can be somewhat daunting for the contemporary reader.

Filled with grotesque characters - such as the philosopher Dr Pangloss ( the professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. who’s optimistic refrain of ‘best of all possible worlds’ give the novel its ironic central theme) the beautiful Cunégonde (fresh-coloured, comely, plump, and desirable), Governor Don Fernando d'Ibaraa, y Figueora, yMascarenes, y Lampourdos, y Souza (who’s ‘air of noble distain… affected accent and stilted manner made everyone long to hit him’) and Candide himself, a man who’s stoic nature moves past caricature and into the mythic.

Candide is a remarkably ribald and, at times, brutal novel. Voltaire rarely spares the reader’s sensibility when it comes to his depiction of bloodshed and disaster, nor does he flinch from portraying the self-serving nature of his characters. Indeed it is a world where good is often portrayed as foolish and virtue is punished as often (perhaps more often) than wickedness: the fate of Cunégonde (one of slavery, violence and rape), for instance, is mirrored by the fate of the old woman with one buttock (an image which is at first hilarious then increasingly sinister and tragic as the truth of her condition is revealed).

But if Candide is a novel of multifold horrors, it is leavened by Voltaire’s ability to poke fun at many nations and their societies – including the French, Germans, Portuguese, English, Spanish and Dutch – with only the inhabitants of the mythical El Dorado escaping his scathing pen relatively untouched (although, by the same token, Voltaire implies that, wonderful as it may seen, El Dorado would be the worst place on earth if seen from a different perspective.)

At its heart Candide is a love story and Candide’s single-minded pursuit of Cunégonde provides the spine of the novel and much of its impetus. With a gleeful delight in coincidence, (characters presumed dead have a habit of turning up just as and when they are required) a scathing view of science, religion and philosophy, Candide is as much tragedy as comedy, a novel who’s titular character is an all-too human innocent abroad and who’s supporting cast prefigures the larger-than-life inhabitants of Dickensian fiction and the gothic novel.

Whereas many classic novels remain firmly of their time – reflecting the social mores and ills of the time in which they were written – Candide remains as boisterous and heartbreaking as ever.

If you only read one classic French novel this year, make it Candide.

1 comment:

  1. This has been on my TBR pile for awhile-you're pushing me over I'll try and read it soon.