The first time I heard of Voltaire, or at least of his reputation, was in a Shakespeare class. A student and the teacher got into a rather heated argument about whose legacy was greater. (For what it's worth the student was arguing that Voltaire's was on par with Shakespeare's while the teacher was arguing that Shakespeare's was greater.) I had no desire to take sides in this argument, but it did pique my curiousity about this Voltaire guy. Though it took a trip to France to finally push me to read one of his works, arguably his most famous: Candide.
I loved it, and it wasn't at all what I expected. First off, it was quite easier to read than Shakespeare. Granted much of this can be credited to the translation. Unfortunately, I can't find out much about that. My copy, an eReader copy also available at Project Gutenberg, says that it was originally published in 1918 by Boni and Liveright, Inc., and features an introduction by Philip Littell. Who did the difficult and under-appreciated work of translation seems to be lost to the ages. I can't comment on how faithful s/he was to the original, but I can say I enjoyed it. And, getting back to the Shakespeare thing for a moment, the language of 1918 is certainly easier to comprehend then the English of the late 1500s. Candide wasn't written for almost 150-200 years later, but I still wonder if French readers reading the original wouldn't have a tougher time with dated language than English readers reading a relatively modern translation.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it was. I've read a decent amount of classics and fun is not a description I'd usually use to describe them. Candide has rapes, murders, torture, racism, and even more horrific events. But they come at such a hectic pace and are so over the top, almost cartoonish, and combined with the most outlandish coincidences, that Voltaire actually makes it all-- dare I say it-- funny. Tarantino should be working on this.
The premise of Candide is not exactly simple, but can be summed up saying that the book begins with a man named Candide and his friends living above comfortable lives, but then being dragged down and down through the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable, all the while balancing optimism against all the injustices and tragedy in the world. The most obvious interpretation is that this is Voltaire's rant against optimism. As a positive pessimist, I can appreciate such thoughts. However, when you consider how exaggerated the depravity and sorrow is in Candide, even by 18th century standards, the optimistic voice of Candide's friend Pangloss, doesn't come across as ridiculous as it first appears, merely tampered with Voltaire's shrug of "it could be worse."