Candide and Other Stories – Voltaire (Translated by Roger Pearson)

Candide and Other StoriesCandide and Other Stories by Voltaire (translated by Roger Pearson)

A compact collection that pairs Voltaire’s most famous work with a handful of lesser known stories, the Oxford World Classic’s edition of Candide is an interesting read but one that left me wanting a lot more.

A short tale and infamous almost right after its publication, Candide follows a the titular character through Europe, the New World and a couple of places not exactly on the map, showing up philosophers and organized religion everywhere he goes. He’s a guy with a cheerful sort of naïveté, always looking on the bright side of things as his life goes into the shitter.

It’s an interesting story, especially the more one digs into it and the philosophical arguments of Voltaire – “we must cultivate our garden,” as Candide says in the book’s final line – and it’s something I’m not sure I feel too comfortable digging into too deeply. I enjoyed it enough, but kept finding myself flipping back and forth at a vertigo-inducing rate to the notes at the back. And even those weren’t always enough.

Don’t get me wrong: Roger Pearson has included tons of notes with his translation, about a dozen pages worth, and some are helpful for the average reader on everything from Jansenism to the German philosopher Robeck, who preached about the absurdity of living. I assume he have been a fun person to have at parties. But I still found myself looking up places and names, always with the feeling I was missing something.

Then again, as Martin tells Candide, this world was created “to drive us mad.”

The other stories are an interesting bunch. Micromegas, a sci-fi story where two giant aliens hop around the solar system looking for signs of life; Zadig, a 1,001 Nights-styled story where the guy who tries to do the right thing always ends up punished; The White Bull, which satirizes the Old Testament; The Ingenu, which goes at melodramatic fiction (and Jansenism); What Pleases the Ladies, a verse takeoff of Chaucer.

Personally, I enjoyed The White Bull the most of the bunch: it follows a princess, a sentient bull and a king’s attempts to keep them separated, plus several cameos from Old Testament. Here, Voltaire plays the more fabulist aspects of the books against Greek and Roman mythology, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses, playing up the fantastic elements. It’s an effective technique, much more so than his more direct snipes in the other stories.

Conversely, I enjoyed The Ingenu the least: it follows a native (at one point given a Christian name of Hercules, but generally without a name) through a winding story of intrigue, corruption and spoiled virtue. It plays with several clichés of this style of fiction – A noble savage who’s above the petty disputes of civilized society! His love must sacrifice her virginity for him! There’s a long deathbed scene! – but they didn’t do anything for me, feeling more like Voltaire having a laugh than the pointed satire of his other stories.

Generally, I enjoyed Pearson’s translation, which includes a lengthy introduction and a handful of notes, although I question Oxford’s decision to label an 18-year old translation as new; according to the editorial material was first published in 1990, nearly two decades before my 2008 edition. That’s a minor matter, though.

The notes are a little more: some are inserted in the text, others at the back of the book. A couple of them are printed in both places, for some reason. More frustrating are Pearson’s occasional editorial comments. As noted above, some of his notes are helpful, but others are a little pedantic, like the lengthy one about Jesuits and St. Anthony (which also has a bit of conjecture, too!) all from a chance remark of a character.

In another note, Pearson mentions a man named Gordon who was actually imprisoned like a character in the story The Ingenu, but notes “There is no evidence Voltaire actually knew this, although the parallel suggests he may have.” Well, if you say so.

Rating 8/10. As a whole, it’s a nicer collection than some of the others floating around out there. Penguin has Candide published on it’s own, with Zadig and The Ingenu in a separate volume. And with a list price of $8, it’s cheaper than a Norton Critical Edition (which also doesn’t include other Voltaire stories). For people who want to read Candide, you could do a lot worse. But people who really want to get into the story and the philosophy behind it, might not find everything they’re looking for.


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