Voltaire (1694 to 1778, Paris, France) was a towering figure of the age of reason and the French Enlightenment. He was a very famous person, not just a writer with a huge body of work. He wrote in a time when an intellectual took it as their goal to know everything and for his time he came as close to anyone I can imagine. The only one of his works that is still read, in the English only world at least, is his ultra-famous travel novella, Candide or Optimism.
I think I first read Candide when I was about 13 or so, too many decades ago. I think it is the perfect age to first read Candide. I have read it several times since then and once listened to a tape of it on a long car ride. I just finished it again yesterday. I sometimes think to the scene in the journals of James Boswell where Boswell went to visit Voltaire. Boswell basically forced himself in and Voltaire did all he could to get the conversation over with as soon as possible.
I recently read Don Quixote and Candide is clearly in its debt. I really am not inclined to tell the plot of this book. Every commentary says it is a satirical attack on the philosophical notion, often attributed to Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This is true but it trivializes the meaning and wonder of Candide.
I decided not to attempt a blog post on Candide other than to say it is must reading for everyone on a life time plan to read the classics. It is also fun. I mean who would think a great classic of the French Enlightenment would have a hilarious chapter about women in tears when their monkey lovers are shot?
There is a very good article by Julian Barnes that explains the historical background of Candide, the process of its translation into English and gives an account some point to ponder as we read it.
You can read Barnes' essay here
You can easily find and download this work in English or French.
The Reading Life