Friday, February 09, 2007

Reading. Voltaire.

I can't remember the first time I read Candide, but I remember reading my older brother's paperback copy (he had to read it for high school English) and giggling over the illustrations. (Of course, I don't remember the story at all). Years passed, more than a decade, and I would not think of Voltaire until a new copy of Candide caught my eye in the bookstore. Yes, I am that shallow, easily caught by something beautiful and brightly colored and shiny with gilt curlicues twining around titles boldly standing out in black letters. Penguin has seduced me with their deluxe editions of classic novels with new covers illustrated by famous graphic artists such as Frank Miller (Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), Art Spiegelman (Paul Auster's New York Trilogy). You want to collect them all, and it is impossible not to try.

Candide has a cover by Chris Ware, with little stick figures (actually, figures of two circles - for face and body - and sticks for arms, legs, and neck, except for the female figures, who wear skirts) enacting scenes from the story. The inside flap of the cover has a handy illustrated cast of major characters (in period costume), with a brief description. Candide: A sweetly disposed boy whose face is a reflection of his soul. Cunégonde: The beautiful daughter of the baron, who nonetheless ends up ugly. Old Woman: Who was once nonetheless a beautiful princess. Now she's ugly. (My father, looking over my shoulder: How are you supposed to read that? The print is too tiny). The funny illustrations and tiny, hilarious captions are more than enough to entice me to buy a book I already own, to revisit a story that I have not thought about since I was a teenager.

Once upon a time, the story begins, like every fairy tale since the beginning of time, in the castle of Monsieur the Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh, there lived a young boy on whom nature had bestowed the gentlest of dispositions. His countenance expressed his soul...with complete openness of mind; which is the reason, I believe, that he was called Candide. But alas, his idyllic life spent taking lessons from the tutor Dr. Pangloss, who taught metaphysic-theologico-cosmo-nigology, and gazing upon the beautiful daughter of the Baron, Cunégonde, is brought to an end when Candide and the aforementioned Cunégonde are caught doing...something behind a screen by her father. The hapless youth is banished from the castle grounds, left penniless and alone in the world. And then the adventures begin.

I had forgotten how funny Candide is, and how quickly the events of our hero's life come to pass. He is born (supposedly the illegitimate nephew of the Baron), raised and educated, kicked out of Paradise, swept into the Bulgar army, nearly executed for innocently taking a walk, given a pardon by the King, manages to escape the army, and is reunited with his old tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who informs him that Cunégonde was raped and disembowelled by Bulgar soldiers, her family likewise murdered. And this is just in the first ten pages. I cannot wait to see what will happen next.

Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. Penguin Books, 2005 (Deluxe Edition). p. 3.

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