Candide by Voltaire is a laugh out loud funny book, if you’re in the right frame of mind. I read sections of it aloud to CJ and both of us ended up in hysterics. (Be warned, its comedy is often quite dark and unlikely to pass anyone’s sensitivity test.) It was written in 1759 and it is clearly a product of its time; but it also still has much to say to us about the current state of the world, unfortunately.
The story concerns an idealistic, handsome young man, Candide, who finds his optimism repeatedly tested by the treacherous people he meets and the violent world he inhabits. As a youth, Candide, the son of a wealthy Baron, is tutored by Dr. Pangloss, a German philosopher, who’s world view is summed up in the opening chapter, “It is demonstrated that things cannot be otherwise: for, since everything was made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose…Therefore, those who have maintained that all is well have been talking nonsense: they should have maintained that all is for the best.”
Candide clings to Dr. Pangloss‘ philosoply after Dr. Pangloss is hung and burned at the stake, even after he is driven from his home, separated from his beloved Cunegonde and forced into an unforgiving, hostile world. Candide travels the world looking for Cunegonde and for a place free from suffering. He is at times imprisoned, enslaved, starved, tortured, kidnapped, marooned, etc. etc., but all the while, he believes that all is for the best.
The result is a kind of Series of Unfortunate Events for adults. The situations become so comically awful that the reader cannot help but laugh at them and at Candide’s reaction. At one point, towards the end of the book, Candide encounters six former kings attending the carnival in Venice. Each king tells his story, all of them stories of how they lost their thrones. Each king’s story tries to top the injustice endured by the previous teller with very humorous results. Everyone Candide meets has a tale of woe to tell, yet no one can make a dent in Candide’s optimism.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Candide. I expected it to be heavy going, never having read Voltaire before. Instead I found a quickly paced adventure with witty dialogue and satire that I actually found humorous. Candide benefits from the novella form. Had this been a full length novel it would have undoubtedly become tedious. Brevity is the source of wit after all. (I think that’s right, anyway.)
So, I’m giving Candide by Voltaire five out of five stars. I may end up putting it on my best of the year list this year.
I have now finished the novella challenge. My six novellas were:
- Candide by Voltaire
- Old Man by William Faulkner
- The Newton Letter by John Banville
- No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Lost Boy by Thomas Wolfe
- Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
The only one I didn’t like was The Newton Letter. I highly recommend all of the other books. I’ve actually got three more novellas on the shelf unread and will probably end up getting quite a few more. I’ve never really given novellas much thought before, but I think I’m hooked. Like young adult novels I can read them in a single two or three hour sitting. It’s great to get a fully developed story that I can immerse myself in and complete in an evening. Look for more novellas reviewed here.
This is an excellent example of how a reading challenge can change a reader’s reading habits, which is the best thing about reading challenges. Since I participated in this Novella Challenge in 2008, I have continued to read novellas on a regular basis. They’re a little hard to find in most bookstores, but I don’t pass them by without looking at them anymore.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.