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.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I’ve been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for a good number of years now. He didn’t seem real enthused about many of his contemporaries, which was a shame since I like to bounce from author to author to see what I can find. However, one author he always made sure to mention was Carson McCullers. For years, I intended to check McCullers out based on this.

When I did eventually look into McCullers, I was a bit surprised at Buk’s choice (mind you, I hadn’t read any McCullers at that point). The material in her biographical pages I found just seemed nothing remotely like Bukowski. She didn’t seem the sort to write about bums and winos, whores or skid row motels. But, then I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (I also read The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories, but this review isn’t about that book) and it all made sense.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for G.D. Gearino.)

For me, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter focuses primarily on what is perhaps one of the most vulnerable and melancholily beautiful aspects of humanity, our inherent loneliness. Even in the crowd, we are ultimately alone. At the same time, we all seem to have a desperate need to have at least one person understand us.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter concerns a collection of extremely lonely people. Amongst others, we have Biff Brannon (a café owner whose marriage isn’t exactly the best), Mick Kelly (a little girl driven to music but surrounded by poverty), Jake Blount (a man tormented by the capitalistic injustices around him), and Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland (a black doctor tormented by the racial injustices around him).  All of these people, living together as they do in a Southern town that is seemingly sleepy but is actually sharply divided by race and money, find themselves irresistibly drawn to a mute engraver by the name of John Singer.

Strangely, all of these people feel an uncontrollable urge to talk to Singer and unburden themselves, tell the things they have never told anyone. Of course, Singer does not talk back, but they each (not knowing of each other) are convinced that Singer is the one person who understands them:

By midsummer Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closed where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.

Mick loved to go up to Mister Singer’s room. Even if he was a deaf-and-dumb mute he understood every word she said to him…Except for her Dad, Mister Singer was the nicest man she knew.

When Doctor Copeland wrote the note to John Singer about Augustus Benedict Mady Lewis there was a polite reply and an invitation for him to make a call when he found the opportunity…This man was different from any person of the white race whom Doctor Copeland had ever encountered. Afterward he pondered about this white man a long time. Then later, inasmuch as he had been invited in a cordial manner to return, he made another visit.

Jake Blount came every week….Usually he carried a paper sack of beers. Often his voice would come out loud and angry from the room. But before he left his voice gradually quieted. When he descended the stairs he did not carry the sack of beers and longer, and he walked away thoughtfully without seeming to notice where he was going.

Even Biff Brannon came to the mute’s room one night. But as he could never stay away from the restaurant for long, he left in a half hour.

Of course, these desperate people are all reading things into Singer, as we all do. Singer is not the one person in the world who completely understands. He is polite and glad to have company to attempt to chase away his own loneliness, but sometimes he frankly has no idea what these people are saying. He just nods and smiles.

Interestingly enough, Singer had his own person to whom he poured out his heart just like these people, a mute named Spiros Antonapoulos who has gone somewhat nuts and been locked away in an asylum. These people help him deal with the absence of his friend, but definitely do not replace Antonapoulos. Of course, there is a certain chance that Antonapoulos may not have listened and understood Singer any better than Singer listens to and understands the crew above.

All of this is what I think enchanted Bukowski so much about McCullers, sounding such a similar chord to what I’ve seen in Bukowski’s work, and it enchants me as well. Some find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter depressing (and I will not argue that it has a good amount of tragedy in it). However, I found the striving of these characters or that one significant connection in the face of their loneliness and difficult lives to be extremely moving.

Without sentiment, without pity, McCullers brings us her characters at their most vulnerable and hopeful and ultimately, their most human moments. Whether you find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to leave you feeling triumphant or depressed, you will be moved. After all, this is the difficultly in which we all live and the best that we can do is try to live it well.