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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of all possible editions..., 15 July 2004
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
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According to many scholars, Voltaire (pen name for Francois Marie Arouet) was the embodiment of the Enlightenment. Born in Paris is 1694, he was well educated by the Jesuits, studying law prior to turning to writing as a profession. His lampoons and satires won him fame and infamy; he was imprisoned and exiled at various times for his writing. He was forced into exile from France to England; later, he was invited to work for Frederick the Great in Berlin (politics and his reputation blew rapidly in the ever-changing winds of Europe). Voltaire wrote 'Candide' shortly after this period, when he had moved to Geneva. In 1778, the year of his death, he returned to Paris, a triumphant celebrity -- many of his ideas served to strengthen the movements that would eventually culminate in the French Revolution.
The story of 'Candide', the primary character in the Voltaire's novel, is the story of the search for answers. It is hard to classify 'Candide' solely as a political satire, or indeed in any other genre where it might find similarities. Voltaire explores religious and theological ideas, social and political situations, personal and intellectual issues, and the general strand of history. How could an omnipotent and benevolent God permit the world to be as it is? How can human beings, supposedly rational beings, treat each other as they do? How can rational beings act, feel and believe so irrationally?
The Enlightenment brought the ideas of Deism forward as important, and began to explore in earnest intellectual and political freedoms for people. The acquisition of knowledge, both pure theory and experiential/applied, was of high value. Candide was a student more than anything else, although in the course of the story, he holds many roles. Others who appear include Pangloss, the know-it-all philosophy teacher; Cunegonde, Candide's on-again, off-again love interest (who has her own set of adventures reported); Martin, another scholar (this one rather hopeless, in more ways than one); various other characters including Jewish merchants, Grand Inquisitors (the Enlightenment equivalent of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition), and other bit players.
Candide travels all across Europe, from Westphalia through the Latin countries, ending up finally in Constantinople. No stone is unturned to expose the foibles of the locals, the problems of the travelers, and questionable underside of all society as they move from place to place, culture to culture, and crisis to crisis. Ultimately, the plot is not as important as the characters and characterisations -- for a book written in the 1700s, it is remarkably modern, hinting at sexual innuendo (including homosexuality) among royals and clergy, making fun of the military mindset and leadership (the king of the Bulgars is modeled upon Frederick the Great, and the Bulgar army is the Prussian army) and the church (the pope here has an illegitmate daughter, etc.).
The key satire, however, is against Leibniz, philosopher and mathematician, very intelligent but obviously not in directions Voltaire cared for. Leibniz had a directional metaphysics and historical sense -- this was the best of all possible worlds (the most famous phrase from the novel, put in Pangloss' mouth); the amiable but not-swift-on-the-uptake Pangloss is the stand-in for Leibniz.
Norton's Critical Edition includes several essays, in addition to the text of Voltaire's 'Candide' -- the novel itself is a mere 77 pages, translated by Robert Adams of UCLA. There are several background pieces, including a general survey of the intellectual background, philosophical explanations, and a brief biography of Voltaire.
Essays on criticism include discussion of Voltaire's narrative art, the ideas of pessimism and providence (it is worth remember here that Voltaire's purpose in writing 'Candide' was as a critique against optimism, of a sort), and various controversies. This is truly a fascinating collection, with pieces by such heavyweights in literary history as William Blake and Heinrich Heine giving their impressions on Voltaire and the issues addressed in 'Candide'. Gustave Flaubert and Anatole France give reflections on Voltaire's humanity; Victor Hugo discusses his greatness.
As Adams says, it is a surprise to find that 'Candide', a classic, is nonetheless funny. However, that is because it is so readily identifiable -- many heroes in modern stories are re-worked Candides of one sort or another; it is an Enlightenment Everyman, and we live in a period still heavily invested in and self-identified with Enlightenment ideas.
This is obviously the best of all possible Norton Critical Editions of Voltaire's 'Candide' from Adams.
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Candide or, Optimism (Modern Library)
Candide or, Optimism (Modern Library) by Voltaire (Hardcover - 27 Jan 2005)
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