Italo Calvino on one of my favorite books, Voltaire’s Candide (these are the first few paragraphs of the essay “Candide, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity,” from Calvino’s indispensable collection Why Read the Classics?):
Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.
What most delights us today in Candide is not the ‘conte philosophique’, nor its satire, nor the gradual emergence of a morality and vision of the world: instead it is its rhythm. With rapidity and lightness, a succession of mishaps, punishments and massacres races over the page, leaps from chapter to chapter, and ramifies and multiplies without evoking in the reader’s emotions anything other than a feeling of an exhilarating and primitive vitality. In the bare three pages of Chapter 8 Cunégonde recounts how having had her father, mother and brother hacked to pieces by invaders, she is then raped and disembowelled, then cured and reduced to living as a washerwoman, bartered and sold in Holland and Portugal, torn between two different protectors of different faiths on alternate days, and in this condition happens to witness the auto da fé whose victims are Pangloss and Candide himself whom she then rejoins. Even less than two pages of Chapter 9 are enough for Candide to find himself with two corpses at his feet and for Cunégonde to be able to exclaim: ‘How did you who were born so mild ever manage to kill in the space of two minutes a Jew and a prelate?’ And when the old woman has to explain why she has only one buttock, she starts by telling the story of her life from the moment when as the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Pope, she had experienced in the space of three months poverty, enslavement, and almost daily rape, before having to endure famine and war and nearly dying of the plague in Algiers: and all this before she can get to her tale of the siege of Azov and of the unusual nutrition that the starving Janissaries discover in female buttocks . . . well, here things are rather more leisurely, two whole chapters are required, something like six and a half pages.
The great discovery of Voltaire the humorist is a technique that will become one of the most reliable gags in comic films: the piling up of disaster on disaster at relentless speed. There are also the sudden increases in rhythm which carry the sense of the absurd almost to the point of paroxysm: as when the series of misfortunes already swiftly narrated in the detailed account is then repeated in a breakneck-speed summary. What Voltaire projects in his lightning-speed photograms is really a worldwide cinema, a kind of ‘around the world in eighty pages’, which takes Candide from his native Westphalia to Holland, Portugal, South America, France, England, Venice and Turkey, and this tour then splits in turn into supplementary whirlwind world tours by fellow protagonists, male and especially female, who are easy prey for pirates and slavers operating between Gibraltar and the Bosphorus. A huge cinema of contemporary world events most of all: villages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War between the Prussians and the French (the ‘Bulgars’ and the ‘Abars’), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the auto da fés organised by the Inquisition, the Jesuits of Paraguay who reject Spanish and Portuguese rule, the legendary gold of the Incas, and the odd snapshot of Protestantism in Holland, of the spread of syphilis, Mediterranean and Adantic piracy, internecine wars in Morocco, the exploitation of black slaves in Guyana, but always leaving a certain space for literary news, allusions to Parisian high life, interviews with the many dethroned kings of the time, who all gather at the Venice carnival.