PAUL KEEGAN Candide
Candide (‘or Optimism’, as it is blandly subtitled) is a tale which bristles with horrors, described with headlong gaiety. There are mutilations and massacres, torture and cannibalism, battles on land and sea, larcenies and abductions, not to mention the spread of syphilis or the Lisbon earthquake that traumatised Europe and raised awkward questions as to the whereabouts of a benevolent God. Welcome to the Enlightenment: villages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War; auto-da-fés arranged by the Inquisition, Jesuits in Paraguay who replace colonial rule with an alternative hell; piracy in the Mediterranean, internecine wars in Morocco, exploitation of black slaves in Guyana. Candide is the snapshot of a planet and its competing beliefs about itself, whether Muslim, Jewish, or (especially) Christian.
Life starts happily enough for Candide in the castle of the Baron of Thunder-tentronckh, in the principality of Westphalia, taught by his philosophical tutor Pangloss that this is the best of castles in the best of countries in the best of all worlds. What could possibly go wrong (unless everything)? Encouraged to pursue knowledge, Candide is caught experimenting with the daughter of the house – the lovely and pliable Cunégonde – and is thrown out into the wide world. This is in fact the first of his great escapes, for Paradise is promptly invaded by Bulgars (Prussian troops), who rape Cunégonde, butcher her parents, leave Pangloss for dead and burn the castle to the ground.
The honest but resourceful Candide is thereafter in constant flight or pursuit across Europe and South America, witnessing, if not suffering, everything in his search to be reunited with Cunégonde, who has likewise been dispatched on a separate wild goose chase by Providence, a giddy sequence of mostly sexual misadventures. Candide seeks confirmation for his beliefs at every turn, but discovers that the human essence is the same wherever he goes. None of the story’s cast escapes lightly, though all survive, and, having encountered every species of ignominy, they end up torn and tattered on a smallholding near Constantinople, where Candide finally tells it straight to Pangloss: there is no harmony, no ordained balance of good and evil, and the only solace or certainty to be gained in this world is to cultivate one’s garden.
Neville Jason recorded Candide for Naxos prior to his epic exertions with the whole of Proust. The demands upon an audiobook reader could hardly be more different. Candide is a ‘philosophical tale’, a genre in which (as Proust himself remarked) ‘ideas are substitutes for griefs’. Lightness is all, and Jason trims his expressive sail, as he must, adopting a level tone of ingenuous wonder, letting the ironies take care of themselves, so that the weightlessness intensifies rather than mitigates the horrors. He acknowledges too that Candide or Cunégonde have no interior life – Voltaire’s characters are vectors. Most of all, Jason keeps up the narrative pace, the Voltairean light music, brief chapters whirring past like different landscapes of hell seen by flashes of lightning.
Jason’s rendering of the incorrigible Pangloss is especially droll, sounding as if he has a philosophical marble in his mouth, no matter how stacked the odds. This marble is Optimism: the notion of pre-established harmony, which is tested and found wanting at every level of human experience. ‘Optimism’ is a parochial isolationism, vulnerable to events, which protects no one from an army of Bulgars. And the heartlessness of believing that evil is ‘necessary’ and that all is ultimately for the best is exposed as a form of complicity.
But a mirror-world of compassion is implied by Voltaire, in his many glancing asides, and Jason perhaps misses a little of the story’s melancholy heartbeat. To ‘cultivate your garden’ is henceforth to make do with notknowing, rather than claiming to know – with practising to be happy as the only viable version of happiness. There is no intelligible frame for experience, unless beyond this mortal span, and to suggest otherwise is a betrayal. Voltaire was fortunate in the belief that history was on his side in the battle against force and stupidity. If the old bogies he attacked – a world of authority drained of intelligence – are riding high again,
Candide is as up-to-date a guide as Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four (currently selling in historically unprecedented numbers) – and is a lot more entertaining.
‘Brief chapters whirr past like different landscapes of hell seen by flashes of lighting’
‘upwards of one hundred millions of separate facts’.
Those facts were not necessarily reliable. Many people had no idea how old they were. The 1841 census estimated the birth date of Victoria R (occupation: ‘The Sovereign’) as ‘abt 1821’ and that of 1861 as 1820; she was actually born in 1819. Nor were the questions universally understood. Asked to list his ‘livestock’ in 1851, Matthew Reed of Sinnington, Yorks, responded: ‘tu poll parets, tu cats, on Canare, and how mane meas [mice] I don’t know’.
Religion was first included in 1851, when five million declined to answer. Then it was dropped for a while (Hutchinson does not specify how long), before its reintroduction in 2001, when 390,127 respondents, including 2.6 per cent of the population of Brighton, and eight members of the Strathclyde police force, identified themselves as Jedi Knights, which made it officially the fourth-largest denomination in the country.
The censuses of 1871 and 1881 listed a few hundred prostitutes, and many more seamstresses. ‘Not every seamstress recorded in late-victorian Britain was a prostitute,’ writes Hutchinson. ‘But many were, and many others were both.’
In 1911, a number of women recorded themselves as ‘slave’. They were suffragettes, ‘engaging in the first concerted attempt to use the census as a means of protest’. Other women followed Emmeline Pankhurst and wrote ‘No vote no census’ on their forms, while thousands evaded the enumerators by leaving home for the night, renting unoccupied houses or gypsy caravans.
In 1991, there was a similar protest against the poll tax, and a million people – two per cent of the population – refused to co-operate, which didn’t spare them the tax but did leave them off the electoral register. There has also been sporadic resistance by individuals. In 1871, the People’s Journal reported that William Collett of Hammersmith had ‘been fined £2 for caning a census enumerator’.
Hutchinson wrestles a vast quantity of information into something approaching a coherent narrative, enlivened by anecdote and telling detail. He gives judicious consideration to such topics as the Empire (a full census was clearly impossible, but in 1871 its population was stated to be 234,762,593) and war (in 1921 there were 1,621,758 widows in England and Wales). He concludes that the years between 1801 and 2011 saw greater change than the previous seven centuries, and predicts that the decennial census is here to stay. To order for £16.37 from Wordery incl p&p, go to http://www.theoldie. co.uk/books
‘I’ve got nothing against men; it’s testosterone I hate’