Candide by Voltaire

Candide by Voltaire is another one of the classic novels that most people are familiar with but not enough people have read. More people have read Candide than many other classics firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, but there are still a large number of people are familiar with it without having read it. That’s a shame, because it’s a good time and actually pretty accessible.

(Note: We’ll have to refrain from discussing herein the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.)

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Julian Barnes, 10th for Clyde Edgerton, and 1st G. D. Gearino.)

Candide begins the story living a sheltered life in the paradise of a Baron’s household, schooled as an optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. However, the mantra that Pangloss endlessly chants, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” doesn’t help them much as Candide and Pangloss are driven from the Baron’s household and suffer a litany of indignities and tribulations.

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently; for he thought Miss Cunegonde extremely beautiful, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that after the happiness of being born of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, the second degree of happiness was to be Miss Cunegonde, the third that of seeing her every day, and the fourth that of hearing Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

One day Cunegonde, while walking near the castle, in a little wood which they called a park, saw between the bushes, Dr. Pangloss giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very docile. As Miss Cunegonde had a great disposition for the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments of which she was a witness; she clearly perceived the force of the Doctor’s reasons, the effects, and the causes; she turned back greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

She met Candide on reaching the castle and blushed; Candide blushed also; she wished him good morrow in a faltering tone, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he said. The next day after dinner, as they went from table, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen; Cunegonde let fall her handkerchief, Candide picked it up, she took him innocently by the hand, the youth as innocently kissed the young lady’s hand with particular vivacity, sensibility, and grace; their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh passed near the screen and beholding this cause and effect chased Candide from the castle with great kicks on the backside; Cunegonde fainted away; she was boxed on the ears by the Baroness, as soon as she came to herself; and all was consternation in this most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles.

This is pretty much how all the novel goes. There’s much more to it than that, but it seems like a good summary to me. Of course, we omit any discussion of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.

By the end, Candide and Pangloss (at least somewhat) have concluded that optimism is crap. Pangloss rails about it, but Candide ends up taking a pragmatic approach. All is not for the best, this is not the best of all possible worlds, but beating their breasts about it isn’t going to do any good. They still have to go on living, regardless of the nature of the world (or of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484).

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know——”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide is a delightful little book. Voltaire has a wonderful sense of humor (though obviously not the cleaver he didn’t have in 1484) that keeps me laughing amidst all the bad things that happen. I love how absurdly quickly and consistently things go bad, virtually for everyone in the book but particularly for Candide. I think Voltaire was more concerned about his message than his story, but I guess that is to be expected since he didn’t take novels particularly seriously. Candide is still a remarkable book.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Yes. Already, my resolution has been broken. But, much like a diet, in two weeks I will crawl on the saddle again and get my blog posted by -Thursday-.

I had little girls here, there, and everywhere every day this week. Amelia had friends over every single day. It’s exhausting. Just FYI for any of you without children or with children too young to have friends over every single day.

So, in my last blog post I shared my reading difficulties.

Bless Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. I actually really, really, got into this book. I experienced it in a weird way though. I’m working right now and always listen to audio books. So, David Copperfield is a free audiobook through LibriVox, so I downloaded it by chapter. I’d listen at work, a few chapters a day, which is how I started last week. But I was a little lax on listening because the book -does- start out slow. So, in order to speed things along, I decided on Sunday to start reading the book while at home and listening when in the car or at work. It worked out really, really well. And the book picked up.

John Irving and Kathryn Harrison both listed this in their top ten.

The “word on the street” is that David  Copperfield is Dickens’ most autobiographical work. I could see that a bit. First, flip the initials around. Second, Copperfield ends up being a fairly well known novelist by the end of the book.

Dickens called David Copperfield his “favorite child”.

If you get past the slower chapters at the beginning, you get sucked into David Copperfield’s life. I found myself frothing mad at certain characters, like the b***ch, Miss Murdstone and the a** Uriah Heep. In fact, I was talking to a friend last night and said “I have to go and finish David Copperfield. I want to see if Heep gets his.”.

I won’t tell you whether or not Heep got his. That would ruin it. But, unlike my prior attempts at Dickens, I actually found myself worried for “little Emily”, exasperated with David’s love “Dora” and aching with sympathy for Ham and Mr. Peggotty. I wanted to throw both the Murdstones’ out the window and felt slimy when Uriah Heep pranced across the pages, writhing in fake humbleness all the while (Dickens himself talks about Heep’s writhing). I found myself both disgusted by and in sympathy with Steerforth.

Dickens’ gift seems to me, to be that he can write both classes of the time equally well. Other authors that have survived that period tend to not be able to do that. Austen only can write the upper class. Dickens is not afraid to show the follies and weaknesses of any person, as well as the strength and goodness in them. Copperfield has a few different “flawed” characters that Dickens shows as being human, with shades of gray. There’s Steerforth, who befriends David at a time in which he very much needs a friend, but goes on to do some pretty dickish things. There’s Mr. Micawber, who can’t manage money at all and is constantly being harassed for his debts and spends time in debtor’s prison, but provides family to David at a time when he very much needs family, and is always a friend. Mr. Micawber also becomes one of the big heroes of the latter half of the book. David’s aunt is shown as being a crusty, opinionated woman, but one whom is capable of so much goodness. When Dickens tells her backstory, you find yourself nodding in complete empathy with her. There’s happy endings in here and sad endings to some characters. Some characters get their “just rewards” and others, sadly, continue to be evil idiots.

I was going to put some quotations in here, but I kept adding more and more that I wanted to show that I finally just gave up and figured I’d say this;

Put this on your reading list. Now. Stick with the beginning slowness. Enjoy! 🙂

Have a great weekend!



Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

For this week, I read winesburg, ohio (this is literally how the title is typed on the cover of my Signet Classic paperback, I was not being lazy with my capitalization. As evidenced by my 28 word explanation for it.) I also struggled with Brothers Karamazov, which still remains unfinished (sorry Dave!).

I have a confession to make. In the last couple of months, I have been apathetic about reading. Trust me, this isn’t by choice and sometimes makes me want to cry. I have read approximately two books that I have enjoyed. Both books (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett and The Given Day by Dennis Lehane) took me approximately a 3 to 7 days to read each (this was prior to Karamazov). This is ridiculously long for me for a book I really am into and enjoying.

So, my opinion of winesburg, ohio -might- be influenced by this apathy. Or it might not. You can judge.

I did manage to read it in 4 days. But, that’s mainly because I treated reading as I do the dishes. Something to plow through.

There were definitely things that I thought were brilliant about it however. Winesburg is a series of either micro fiction short stories or vignettes. I prefer to think of it as vignettes, but I might be wrong. All of these vignettes are of inhabitants of Winesburg, Ohio.

Things I liked:

Anderson’s expert layering of one vignette upon the other. His choice of order of which ones led into the next one. My best example of this is the vignette that focuses on the Reverend Curtis Hartman and his struggle with sin:

           “Reverend Curtis Hartman turned and ran out of the office. At the door he stopped, and after looking up and down the deserted street, turned again to George Willard. “I am delivered. Have no fear.” He held up a bleeding fist for the young man to see. “I smashed the glass of the window,” he cried. “Now it will have to be wholly replaced. The strength of God was in me and I broke it with my fist.”
So ends Reverend Hartman’s chapter.
The very next chapter covers both young George Willard, intrepid reporter, and Kate Swift, schoolteacher, who figures prominently in Reverend Hartman’s chapter.
Anderson does a great job of highlighting how little we know about the people around us. Even in a small town, where everyone knows absolutely everyone, none of us truly know the interior landscape of another person. We know the surface and maybe a bit beneath.
For example, Kate Swift has no idea that she figured so prominently in Reverend Hartman’s life, in his interior landscape over that time. Swift basically changes Hartman’s life in some small and big ways. And she has absolutely no clue and hasn’t even exchanged a word with him.
Thing I didn’t like that might just be due to my apathy and reading listlessness:
It dragged. Some of the vignettes were interesting and even entertaining. But for the most part it just seemed tedious.
That might be due to me though, like I said.
If anyone has any ideas on what I can do, let me know please. Even the thought of re-reading some of my normal favorites that I can rely upon for entertaining just isn’t appealing right now.
I feel like a “normal” person right now. One in which Once Upon A Time on Netflix holds way more interest than any book I own.
Though, if you need a really long audio to listen to, I highly recommend the serialized audio drama, We’re Alive. It’s a podcast. And a zombie story. It’s great. I have needed audio for such things as work, driving and dishes and this filled the 40 hours it lasted quite nicely (actually closer to 50 hours).
Have a great weekend! (I will point out that for at least my first blog post in January, I have succeeded with my resolution of posting on Thursday instead of Friday or Saturday.)