Colin Jones

  • Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom by Roger Pearson
    Bloomsbury, 447 pp, £18.99, November 2005, ISBN 0 7475 7495 2
  • Le Monde des salons by Antoine Lilti
    Fayard, 572 pp, £30.00, October 2005, ISBN 2 213 62292 2

The life of François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778), could hardly have been as colourful as that of the eponymous hero of his most famous novella, Candide. In his brief but eventful life, Candide encounters, inter alia, massacre, pillage, rape, piracy, mutilation, brutal militarism, cannibalism, slavery, bestiality, vivisection, religious fanaticism and political intolerance. After which, he turns his back on adventure and retires to cultivate his garden, a decision which evidently also appealed to his creator. In 1758 – just as he was writing Candide and following three decades of on-off nomadic wanderings – Voltaire bought an estate on the Franco-Swiss border at Ferney. There he would spend the rest of his life – as an improving landlord.

‘Cultivating his garden’ meant for Voltaire draining marshes, bringing disused land back under the plough, planting vines and fruit trees, creating a stud farm and establishing estate industries (silk weaving, pocket-watch manufacture etc). In an idyllic setting which commanded views over Mont Blanc, he henceforward devoted his life to his own and his tenants’ well-being. He abolished feudal dues, stimulated the local economy, welcomed industrious political refugees, staged festivals, parties and theatrical events and rebuilt the parish church. He was a model enlightened seigneur in an age of feudal reaction.

In order to cultivate his garden, Candide turned his back on the world; for Voltaire, cultivating his garden entailed grasping the spade, but not losing grip of the pen. Settlement at Ferney proved a way of engaging even more powerfully and more politically with the world than he had done before. Thus far, he had lived by writing – and after 1758 the words came just as abundantly. At a shrewd estimate, Roger Pearson calculates in his sprightly and thoroughly engaging biography, some fifteen million words flowed from Voltaire’s pen. The critical edition currently being published by Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation is scheduled to contain 85 volumes. As well as being the greatest French dramatist of his day, the most celebrated epic poet, the most penetrating historian, a dabbling scientist, a vigorous pamphleteer, an unbending anti-clerical polemicist and (as Pearson, a tad anachronistically, has it) ‘the first human rights campaigner of the modern era’, Voltaire was also one of the most prolific of letter-writers. Twenty-one thousand letters survive, to more than a thousand correspondents.

This logorrhoea is the biggest problem his biographer faces – a problem accentuated by the fact that the mountain of his words served to mythologise their author. Even by the end of his life, Voltaire was not so much viewed as a successful writer as revered (or, alternatively, denounced) as an institution. He was, and remains, an author who in many respects resists analysis. Roland Barthes dubbed him ‘the last happy writer’, and certainly he has little of the angst which we have come to expect of modern writers. ‘Of all men living the one he knows the least is himself,’ was his doctor’s comment.

Obsessive, driven, yet wilfully enigmatic, the man-myth Voltaire is difficult to grasp in one go. Yet this is what Pearson seeks to do, in a triumph of factual coverage and compression. Pearson’s prose, informal and allusive, flows at a hectic pace, evoking Voltaire’s own restless and impetuous energy, and simultaneously mimics his style. Indeed, the chapter-headings of Voltaire Almighty – for example, ‘How an Optimist Wrote a Masterpiece and Bought a Kingdom’ – read as though they have been lifted from Candide. This approach does have a cost. There is little time to pause for sustained reflection on, or analysis of individual works. This is particularly the case with Voltaire’s poetry and drama, which he would probably have regarded as his main claim to posterity’s approval. He would have been astonished that his Candide squib would become the opuscule for which he remained famous. Pearson portrays Voltaire less as a deep-thinking or imaginatively creative figure than as an Enlightenment action man and civil rights advocate. This may be a suitable characterisation for the early 21st century, but it underplays the extent to which Voltaire’s life was driven as much by a determined quest for literary immortality as ‘a life in pursuit of freedom’, as Pearson subtitles his biography.

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[*] Odile Jacob, 320 pp., €27.90, February 2005, 2 7381 1591 8.