I wonder how, if at all, it would be possible to measure the part played in our responses to individual books by the age at which we encounter them. Time enough for the eighteenth century later, observed Peter Currie, my excellent teacher of French literature, and he proceeded to focus, over the years of the sixth form, largely on the seventeenth century: on Corneille, Molière and Racine, seasoned memorably with La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld.
In many ways this was an excellent decision, making for a lifelong enjoyment of the authors we studied: but it also meant that (‘et par conséquent’, as Voltaire might have written) it was not until I was at university that I first read Candide. I found it unforgettable, in tune as it seemed with the sprightly and largely uncompromised visions of youth. Over the ensuing forty-five years this wildly improbable tale of experiences which leave the protagonists foxed more than slightly has become a much-loved companion. It is that rare thing, a book which is both clever and wise, as well as hugely enjoyable.
For a work of novella length, Candide manages to include an astonishing number of strands. On one level it is a shaggy dog story, on another a consideration of matters ethical, theological and philosophical, on another a rumbustious romp, as if Kenneth Williams and Co. had decided to make Carry on Philosophizing. It could also be read as a parody of the courtly or romantic quest: there is a great deal of swooning.
Candide, our young and unworldly hero, finding himself expelled from the earthly paradise of a Westphalian baron’s château (which is then overrun by hostile forces), goes in search of the baron’s daughter Cunégonde, whom he loves. The story whistles through crisis after crisis, tumbling headlong via places as far apart as Portugal, Paraguay, Paris and Portsmouth, before reaching its conclusion in a Turkish smallholding on the Propontis. The incidents of
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