Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Review: Candide by Voltaire

Voltaire’s novella Candide is an absolutely captivating and brilliantly comical account of the road-trip of its titular hero. Candide and his motley companions travel the globe from Europe to South America in adventure and quest confronting adversity and peril with his beloved mentor’s maxim adorning almost every page: “everything in the world is for the best”. It is an engrossing tale, even in 2020; and I can only imagine the exhilaration it must have ignited in 1759.

To any readers immured in their homes from the Coronavirus pandemic: this novella may be read online (Courtesy of Monadnock Valley Press).

Voltaire has a truly graceful command of satire and humour noir. He can direct his reader to the lowest depths of horror and barbarity whilst enchanting you to giggle and laugh. All the while, he is broaching the theological and tackling the concept of good versus evil; and, indeed, distilling the essence of mankind. I was both surprised and delighted by this novella. But, be forewarned: it is short. Too short. The writing is elegant - pure narrative.

That cliché expression of “falling” in love, with its bruising implications, presages Candide’s association with the beautiful Cunegonde. If love be a malady, then the French expression, le coup de foudre, is apt to deliver the sharp and heavy blows to Candide. They share a fleeting kiss; only to be caught by her father: The Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh. He is jettisoned out of the castle along with any semblance of his quondam sheltered life. The unlucky, forlorn, but lovable Candide must thus navigate the world armed with his undying love for Cunegonde and the philosophy of his mentor Pangloss. He “walked a long while without knowing where, weeping, raising his eyes to heaven”. His love for Cunegonde is enduring throughout the tale, but their fateful and ultimate reunion finds that love has wistfully evaporated. Years of labour and toil have weathered and worn Cunegonde’s charm and beauty. She is thus rendered ugly. However, such is Voltaire’s wit that he keeps his readers grinning: “Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook”. In the end, Candide marries – not for love – but for his stiff-necked conceit and pride in the long-standing quarrel with her brother who opposed their match. On reflection, it occurs to me that Candide may not have actually loved Cunegonde. She appears to have been his first love and, perhaps, that idée fixe may have arisen merely from his non-consummation of that ardour. At any rate, between these two momentous junctures, Candide is hurled across many continents. He joins the brutal and sadistic Bulgarian army, witnesses war-torn and ravaged villages, observes the utter abjection and debasement of the human spirit under slavery in Surinam, suffers at the hands of Portuguese inquisition viz. an auto da fé; stumbles upon the gilded and halcyon towers of El Dorado, entangles himself in the debauchery and treachery of Paris, and dodges the brutal English. Ultimately, they all settle for a modest arcadian existence on the “banks of the Propontis”.

Voltaire is a skilled humourist. He has great wit and irony: “The Baron’s lady weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds, and was therefore a person of great consideration”. He can swiftly interchange the serious with the trivial and make you smile. In referring to the nobility of the Baron, Voltaire says: “They called him “My Lord,” and laughed at all his stories”. His embellishment and exaggerations are hilarious. For instance, on discovering that his cherished Cunegonde had died; he inquires of Pangloss as to the manner of her death (as he regains consciousness from this shattering news). Candide asks: “Was it not for grief, upon seeing her father kick me out of his magnificent castle?”. The accompanying terse reply is: “No,” said Pangloss, “she was ripped open by the Bulgarian soldiers”! Voltaire also commands a subtle, delicate, and graceful use of the language. As for me, I really enjoy euphemisms. I appreciate the stylist who can repackage something indecorous and make it palatable, even beautiful. It is a retreat from the contemporary world of dysphemism, shock, and coarse forwardness. In a passage in which Pangloss deflowers a maid; Voltaire remarks that: “One day Cunegonde … 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.” It makes you smile, doesn’t it?

At the beginning, Candide holds steadfast to Pangloss’s worldview:
“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.”
According to Pangloss, “there is no effect without a cause” including human suffering and affliction; and that Candide’s universe is the “best of all possible worlds”. Candide constantly repeats this mantra in the face of continuous pain and suffering. Mid-way through the novel, upon arrival at El Dorado, Voltaire installs Candide at a prelapsarian and refulgent utopia of sunlight abundance and repletion. He observes wealth, beauty and the generosity of the human spirit among the populace. He quietly weighs Pangloss’s erstwhile assertion that Westphalia was the best of all possible worlds against this veritable paradise. However, crucially, and indeed tellingly, Voltaire contrives to dislodge Candide’s faith at the sight of a beggarly and amputated slave reduced to an amoeba-like dignity. Voltaire’s slave reserves a subtle épingle that extends beyond the novel. In the last italicised sentence, the “negro” slave asks Candide:
“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is the custom. They give us a pair of linen drawers for our whole garment twice a year. When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe. Yet when my mother sold me for ten patagons on the coast of Guinea, she said to me: ‘My dear child, bless our fetiches, adore them for ever; they will make thee live happily; thou hast the honour of being the slave of our lords, the whites, which is making the fortune of thy father and mother.’ Alas! I know not whether I have made their fortunes; this I know, that they have not made mine. Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than I. The Dutch fetiches, who have converted me, declare every Sunday that we are all of us children of Adam—blacks as well as whites. I am not a genealogist, but if these preachers tell truth, we are all second cousins. Now, you must agree, that it is impossible to treat one’s relations in a more barbarous manner. ”
This excerpt is a very stirring and arresting exchange. It seems to me that Voltaire is really posing that question to his readers. We are made to see this slave and his appalling bondage. There are no witty or wisecrack remarks in the ensuing text. Indeed, so striking is this encounter to Candide that it prompts his moral Damascene conversion. He can instantly perceive the inherent stupidity and vacuity of Pangloss’s philosophy. It seems to me, as I write this, that such epiphanies probably account for most political and religious apostasy. For my part, I can vouch for having had a similar ‘moment’ that prompted the desertion of an erstwhile commitment. Strangely, I can also attest to an attending sense of loss and isolation. Indeed, I dimly recall visiting an internet forum and posting a thread asking for help and advice on navigating politics. My point, I think, is that this vignette contains more truth than fiction. Moreover, until this instant, Voltaire has forced Candide to behold all manner of cruelty and barbarity; but here-and-now, before this very slave, Voltaire wants Candide (and, implicitly, I suspect, the reader) to drop such silliness.

On the subject of religion, Candide, in the tranquil idylls of El Dorado, has an agreeable conversation with a wise centenarian. He learns that their deity is an impersonal prime mover: “We have, I believe, the religion of all the world: we worship God night and morning”. Indeed, he explains that ““We do not pray to Him,” said the worthy sage; “we have nothing to ask of Him; He has given us all we need, and we return Him thanks without ceasing”. This very fleeting, and, to my mind, unembellished and matter-of-fact approach to a traditionally highbrow discussion enables Voltaire to introduce his readers to the deism of the El-Doradians. They believe in a ‘Creator’ dissociated and disengaged from the operation of the universe that it put it into motion. Quite unlike the Christians - unsatisfied as the mere object of all creation – ceaselessly entreaty, beg and beseech the heavens for this-that-and-the-other. The El-Doradians, in contrast, believe that ‘active’ worship and supplication is neither expected by their God nor deigned by themselves. This is more than a mere tangential. Christianity necessities a belief that God has a ‘plan’ for the universe involving a predetermined harmony of events. Deists suffer neither the dogma of irrational and unscientific beliefs (as per the Portuguese earthquake) nor fatalistic suffering and pain. (In fact, the Catholic mindset has been traditionally receptive to the redemptive value of human suffering.)

The religious are rarely decent humans. With the sole exception of the Anabaptist James, Christians are either doctrinaire or hypocritically selfish. Consider this depressing exchange. A preacher inquires of a starving Candide: ““My friend,” said the orator to him, “do you believe the Pope to be Anti-Christ?”” On producing the unfavourable reply, the Christian preacher rebuffs Candide’s earnest appeal for some bread. Does Voltaire not accurately capture the essence of Christian charities and missionaries? Prompted not by the desire to alleviate the suffering of their fellow creatures, but principally to spread their faith? Caustically, elsewhere in the novel, Candide contemplates escaping to Holland, and considers the possible reception he might receive in that country. Observing that it was both a rich and a Christian nation; he would receive the cruel and sadistic treatment as under the Bulgarian army. Oh dear. Not to mention the Portuguese inquisition, or the Grand Inquisitor’s practical arrangement with the Jew Issachar – court banker, of course – to ‘share’ Cunegonde as their slave-girl.

It is clear that Voltaire, as a luminary of the Enlightenment, is directing his ire and mocking scorn against complacent cultures and religions. The argument that this is the “best of all possible worlds” and that everything happens for a reason (id est “there is no effect without a cause”) may appear ridiculous and farcical; but we should remember that this has been the traditional, enduring and extant posture of the clergy. Towards the end of the novella, Voltaire explicitly targets Leibniz (and, implicitly, his philosophical vindication of divine providence). The ancient subject of theodicy harks back to Epicurus’s “problem of evil”; however, notwithstanding the epochal interlude, there has never been a satisfactory answer as to “why” “it” exists. At the very end, Candide closes with a response to Pangloss’s interminable optimism with an exhortation of “let us cultivate our garden”. To my mind, Candide’s reply could be his parrying the tiresome conversation altogether (by politely welcoming Pangloss to shut up), or it could betoken an active stance against idleness and impassivity of accepting life as it is. Should we shrug to ourselves: “oh … how awful. But, oh-well, everything is for the best” and move on? Or, should we do something?

This is a marvellous read. Voltaire’s artful use of humour and wit in helping the dovelike Candide calibrate his moral compass in the world will guarantee readers an enjoyable read as they quietly brood on some deeper issues.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Review: Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

This novel is a brisk and farcical account of the meanderings of a cheerful student of theology: Paul Pennyfeather. A calamitous tussle following a League of Nations meeting sets the foreboding ambience of the novel. He is debagged by a drunken mug (bearing the curious surname ‘Trumpington’) of the Bollinger Club. He is promptly “sent down” for “indecent behaviour”; and, on account of which, his legal guardian boots him out. He acquires a teaching post at an eccentric school in the middle of Wales. He becomes entranced by a mother of one of his students: the glamorous and wealthy Margot. Unfortunately, and quite unwittingly, Pennyfeather becomes ensnared in her criminal syndicate: a conglomerate of Latin American bordellos (with its sex ‘trade’). He takes the fall and is promptly incarcerated. However, at the end, Margot arranges his breakout and Pennyfeather finds himself returned to the genesis of the novel: an undergraduate reading Theology.

There is no hero in this novel. Pennyfeather is the repository for the villainy, pretensions, and deficiencies of Waugh’s characters. He is irritatingly naive and credulous. I doubt whether Waugh actually wants his readers to care or notice Pennyfeather. Waugh deploys him as a rather passive and inert marionette throughout the novel. He is a means of projecting Waugh’s satire and caricature. The novel is filled with sunbursts of wit that is guaranteed to induce giggles and chuckles; but there is an enduring undertone of pathos. The tragedy may sometimes undercut the hilarity; but it also elevates laughter as perhaps its antidote (Lord Tangent’s death, for example).

This novel is very surprising. The familiar and clichéd Waugh is notably stout, rather gloomy, cantankerous, ultra-Catholic – not to mention the apprehension one feels in broaching his politics given his famous correspondence with Nancy Mitford. It is fascinating to see him lampoon the 1920s British society for its hypocrisy and the enduring dearth of ideals and values (à la Edward Gibbon). Moreover, Evelyn Waugh dedicated the novel to his contemporary Sir Harold Acton. I’ve since researched this chap and have discovered that he was famously gay (in both senses) as were most members of the Hypocrites Club. It’s a side of Waugh that I don’t think most people are aware of given his later zealous Catholicism! Interestingly, his character Grimes hints at the relationship between the religious instinct and sexual repression! Prendergast’s account of “his troubles” with faith is not only hilarious but could be more than mere incidental given the clobbering religion is handed here.

Though, there is an enigmatic allegory towards the end of the novel that I haven’t really managed to fathom. In Prof Otto Silenus’ final speech, the young architect draws a comparison between life and riding the great wheel at park. Everyone ends up being thrust off it. I am not sure I fully understand what it’s meant to convey. Whilst Pennyfeather ends up where he started: does this mean we all going around in circles? Indeed, Captain Grimes appears to have two resurrections? Is Waugh arguing that life is roundabout and circular?

The late John Mortimer described this novel as “one of the great comic books of my lifetime”. Similarly, I regard this novel as a creature of its time. It doesn’t translate as effortlessly to the twenty-first century. But, it is certainly fun; and it goes some way to rehabilitating Waugh. Given that this is Waugh’s first novel, I am intrigued to review his later works.