Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Despite being 250 years old, Voltaire's book Candide ou l'optimisme was a delight to read, even at my level of French. It's a wild and crazy tale of a very young man's misadventures across half the world--adventures that retain their power to shock, horrify, and make you laugh. Sometimes all at the same time.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Candide's teacher, Pangloss, teaches that logic proves that this is the best of all possible worlds and that all things work out for the best. Starting with chapter one, things don't seem to go that way for Candide though. He's kicked out of the castle, drafted into the army, almost flogged to death for trying to desert, almost killed in a battle, almost drowned at sea, almost killed in an earthquake, almost burned by the inquisition--and this is all in just the first six chapters (out of thirty). 

Much of the message of the novel is that the "this is the best of all possible worlds" philosophy is ridiculous, but to some degree the text contradicts this. Bad things have a way of happening to Candide, but worse things happen to the people who tangle with him. If he's driven out of a castle, you can expect a few chapters later to learn that he just escaped the castle's destruction. If he misses a boat with all his belongings on it, expect to learn later that the boat sank. It may not be the best possible world for Candide, but things work out a lot better for him than they seem to have any right to. This makes his misfortunes a lot easier to bear. He's a comic figure, not a tragic one.

Of course the message isn't the fun part of the book, and it's quite easy to just ignore it and enjoy the trip. And what a trip it is! The story takes you to Europe, Africa, South America, and just over the border into Asia.  Sometimes he's fleeing, sometimes he's pursuing, and sometimes he just goes with the flow.

Part of what makes it funny is that no matter what happens, no matter how strange, he always takes it in stride and cooks up some sort of explanation. And some really strange things happen.

When I was in high school, students in second-year French read Candide. Now I understand both how teenage students would be able to read such a book and why it would entertain them.

Issues Reading Candide on a Kindle

This was the second novel I ever read in French. Most of the notes I wrote about how I read Cinq semaines en ballon apply to Candide as well. In hindsight, Candide would have been the easier one for me to start with despite it being over 100 years older.

Because the book was so old, I went ahead and bought an English translation as well--if "bought" is the right word for free books. (Candide is free on Amazon.com in both French and English editions.) What I discovered, though, was that I really didn't need the English version at all. I consulted it at the end of each chapter, but I rarely found any translation mistakes worthy of note.

As with any novel in French, the reader has to be prepared to cope with the passé simple verb tenses in the narration. Unlike modern novels, you also have to deal with it in dialogue, which means you'll occasionally see forms beyond the third person ones. This turns out not to be a big problem because the Kindle's free monolingual French dictionary knows all the passé simple forms and always gets you to the infinitive. If you see a mysterious expression like  nous parlâmes, it's enough to know that the verb is parler and you can figure out that this means "we spoke".

One other thing that took some getting used to is that Voltaire often says point instead of pas to make negative statements. The free monolingual French dictionary does explain this, but, of course, it explains it in French. I think that's the only grammatical point that took me by surprise though.

The hardest vocabulary for me were the words involving Pangloss's philosophy. As it turns out, nothing Pangloss says is of the least importance, and even translated his comments are generally arrant nonsense. (I'd probably get those jokes better if I'd ever had to study philosophy in Latin.)

Supposedly Voltaire wrote the whole thing in just three or four days. I find that hard to believe, but almost as incredible is that I read the whole thing in three days. Of all the foreign-language books I've read so far, I think this one was the most fun. Highly recommended.

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