søndag den 24. maj 2020

Candide - Voltaire (1759)

After reading a long string of British novels I am finally extending my horizon and shifting across the Channel to read a French novel, Voltaire’s “Candide”. In fact, the horizon gets extended quite a bit as “Candide” takes place practically all over the known world.

Voltaire’s “Candide” is a very famous piece of work. I read it before, some 15 years ago or so, and it is one of those books that many people not particularly into old literature will know about. It also helps that it is rather short.

Voltaire wrote this as a satirical story where he manages to ridicule… everything. Seriously. The basic statement is that optimism is naïve and that the philosophers who promote optimism (Leibniz) are just pouring out BS. He does this by letting his “hero”, Candide, a young German man, be exposed to all the unfortunate incidents at all possible, usually instigated by the baseness of other people. Candide is a born optimist who keeps adhering to his philosophy that all is for the best and that this is the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment becomes more and more strained as more accidents happen than it is possible to list.

The events are not naturalistic, but rather fantastical and merely created to prove the point that people are in general egoistic and cruel and that goodness is always punished because other people do not need to follow rules of good behavior. Candide is convinced he will find somebody who is happy, but, nope, everybody is fundamentally unhappy. Except in the mythological Eldorado, a place inaccessible to normal humans.

This pessimism seems a bit tough, but it is worth keeping in mind that “Candide” was written at the height of the seven-year war, in which much of central Europe and indeed many other places in the world was devastated over a fundamentally pointless war (Kings wanted to extend possessions and influence). Besides, the mid-18th century had plenty of larger or smaller atrocities to pick from so for a humanist these were not great days. Voltaire uses this framework to point out all these injustices which may be institutional, religious, or simply borne out of low callous greed or arrogance. Consequently “Candide” was not well liked by rulers and institutions but loved by a population at large who likely recognized much of the unfairness Voltaire pointed out. “Candide” was released in five countries simultaneously and was the fastest selling book of the period. Take that, kings and priests!

Personally, I remember it as being more fun to read first time round. Some of the satirical elements are lost on a twenty-first century reader and some of the elements are so arbitrary and fantastic that it gets ridiculous, though that may be the point. Candide’s teacher, the philosopher Pangloss, who is the strongest proponent for optimism in the book manages to get himself killed four times, but magically reemerges from all but the last death. The Baron of Candide also manages to die a few times and switches between being best mate of Candide and mortal enemy every time Candide mentions his love for Cunegonde, the Baron’s sister. This is not a book to read for naturalistic consistency but to enjoy for the lampooning of all who are high and mighty or who think they are.

A curious detail, for me at least, is that after having visited Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal (during the big earthquake), Argentina, Paraguay. Surinam, France, Venice, Turkey, Persia and Norway, Candide ends up in Copenhagen, Denmark (where I happen to live) and after a short stint in Helsingør he settles here, married to a lovely Danish girl, this being the most tolerable place he has found outside of El Dorado. I am of course a bit flattered, but more likely the reason for this was that Denmark-Norway was one of the very few countries that stayed out of the Seven-years war and therefore avoided all these atrocities. Also the Danish king at the time had relinquished most of his power to a sensible chancellor who liberated the arts, something I am certain Voltaire would have appreciated.

“Candide” is short and easy and likely an essential read. I guess that is recommendation enough.



onsdag den 13. maj 2020

The Female Quixote - Charlotte Lennox (1752)

The Female Quixote
Progressing slowly to the year 1752 I have now read “The Female Quixote” by Charlotte Lennox and that was probably the funniest book so far on the List.

There is a trope in comedy where a person with an entirely different world view faces the real world, like an alien on Earth or a time traveler waking up in a different age. Add to that the arrogance and confidence of insisting on your world view and it gets really funny. Or tragic. Cervantes Don Quixote was the archetype for such a character. Apply this to women and you may find countless comedies on women insisting on living in an unrealistic romantic bubble. Add, again, the confidence of believing themselves the center of the world and it gets funny indeed. Or obnoxious and tragic. Here Charlotte Lennox’ Arabella must be the archetype.

Arabella is the only child of a marquis and grows up on a remote castle with old romances as her only company. As a result, she believes these are real historic events and the world is exactly as described in the novels. She spends her youth waiting for and expecting some romantic adventure to take place. Since her romances are haughty stuff she is convinced there are people out there just waiting to abduct her and that lovers must prove themselves to her through heroic deeds, that a refusal by her might cause men to die in grief and that she can save despairing men with a command to live.

Then Arabella encounters the real world. Her father believes it is time for her to get married and suggests that his nephew, Mr. Glanville could be the one. Glanville is immediately smitten by the pretty Arabella, but such an arranged marriage does not at all conform to the rules of romance and so Arabella objects. And not because he is her cousin (icks!!). Arabella is completely convinced she is the heroine in a romance and this world view is so much at odds with the real world that everybody Arabella meets are baffled by her and she consistently misunderstand everything that goes on around her. It is simply hilarious. Glanville loves her but is exasperated with her absurd notions. His father believes she is insane and Glanville’s sister, Miss Glanville is envious of Arabella’s beauty and fortune and therefore smirks every time Arabella’s escapades causes embarrassment.

Her ideas are truly absurd, but they are also amazingly funny and they do make Arabella a far more interesting character than the docile and mindless “normal” women around her. She is a girl of action and opinion and pluck in a world of effeminate men and idle, gossiping women. Arabella believes in honor and pride and achievement, where the only achievement expected from her is to get married. While the immediate objective of the story is to laugh at her crazy ideas, there is a subtext that as a woman she must lose everything that is special about her to become a Stepford wife in 18th century England.

The ending which is by far the weakest element of the book is about Arabella getting a “treatment” by a doctor to give up her romantic ideals through argument. It is obviously a high-brow argument, but despite this, both too easy a resolution and one who tells us that all a woman can hope to do is to conform to habit and that nothing interesting is ever going to happen. Cured of her notions Arabella can now be happily married.

Except for this morale of the story, what we have in this book is a universal theme of speaking different languages that is just as relevant today and because of this “The Female Quixote” has aged very well. When people cannot agree on the way the world look and what different things mean it is very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. Add the confidence of believing themselves to be correct and everybody else wrong and it becomes difficult indeed. Just consider religious versus secular people or people from different ends of the political spectrum.  Then it is a lot more fun to use somebody caught up in romantic ideals as a case.

“The Female Quixote” is, despite a hurried and depressing end, a truly enjoyable read and one I can only recommend.