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Candide: Or Optimism Publisher: Penguin…

Candide: Or Optimism Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition

by Francois Voltaire

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Written in the middle of the 18th century, Candide is a short picaresque novel telling the melodramatic story of a man who has a series of wild, usually calamitous and unjust adventures. He starts as an illegitimate child of a very noble family, living in that family's elegant castle. He falls in love with the baron's daughter, but as soon as they indulge in their first kiss, the baron discovers this and kicks him out of the castle. He then is at the whim of fate - and a very manipulative author - where many catastrophes take him all over the world. Occasionally he makes a fortune, only to lose most of it to trickery and thievery. Almost all the time, his aim is to return to the beautiful girl he fell in love with. Eventually he gets his wish, only to discover that a series of tragic events have transformed her into an ugly and bitter lady.

The novel has two heavy foundations: philosophy and contemporary satire. The famous philosopher Leibniz argued from logic for god's existence, and then followed this by reasoning that if good was supremely good, then our world must necessarily be the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire, via this novel, attacks that argument from every angle possible. In the baron's caught there is Pangloss, who is a famed philosopher, defending Leibniz's notion. But through the novel, there are so many horrible acts by humanity, and by nature (including an inclusion of the real Lisbon earthquake, which killed thousands at this time). By the end of the novel, we are left in no doubt that this simply cannot be the best of all possible worlds - there is too much cruelty, too much random suffering.

Along the way, Voltaire peppers the story with satirical potshots at many targets, from various forms of established religion, the existence of slavery, many real life figures he disliked, the existence of wars and so on. Many of these targets have little bearing on 21st century life, although a few still resonate today, with ISIS perhaps more primitive and brutal than anything in the novel.

The plot moves along so swiftly, and there are so many vivid and extreme events in the novel that I wasn't exactly bored reading it. And yet, it is not the most subtle piece of work in existence! Authors always have their characters as puppets on strings, and the best novels are those where the strings are completely invisible to the reader. In this novel the strings are thick ropes we regularly see being yanked from one side of the stage to the other. The characterisations therefore are terribly crude, simplistic, as are the plot devices. Everything in the novel feels like it is the servant of Voltaire taking potshots at this "best of all possible worlds" dictum. That would be all well and good if the dictum were worthy of debate. But for an atheist like me Leibniz's position is obviously and terribly wrong, so I was quite bored by being shown again and again in Candide just how wrong Leibniz must be. The satirical attacks added colour to the novel, but usually in ways that would be interesting to an historian. I'm not that much of a fan of history to care about these details, and again found many of the satirical attacks boring.

So for me this was not a novel i enjoyed or get much out of, except as a window into an historical moment, and an active debate of that time. ( )
  RachDan | Feb 15, 2016 |
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