Tag Archives: satire

“Candide” by Voltaire

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or is it? In this 1759 philosophical fable, French author Voltaire examines the theory of Optimism and finds it wanting. At just 85 pages this is one of the shorter books on the 501 List, although my edition included a few other stories by Voltaire which I also enjoyed.

The tale follows a young man called Candide on a variety of adventures around the world, including a stop in an utopian Eldorado. As he learns about the world and the people in it, he is educated and enlightened about what really matters in life. The tale was placed on the list of banned books by the Vatican in 1762 and Voltaire kept no manuscript copies or mentions of the story in his journal and letters so that he could avoid arrest. I was expecting a scandalous tale.

Of course what was scandalous in the past isn’t always so in the present. But I’m not surprised he rattled a few cages as the increasing desperate straits of Candide’s fall from life in a castle to slavery, conscription, shipwreck etc illustrate a clear satire on philosophical systems in general, and optimism in particular. Having read Jean Jacques Rosseau (an enemy of Voltaire’s) elsewhere on the 501 list I can see that the 1700s French took their philosophical arguments very seriously indeed. His criticisms of various clergymen in the story won’t have made him popular in the Vatican and his criticism of the aristocracy won’t have won him any friends either.

Although this book is 250 years old, it still has plenty to say that applies to modern life and should be on the must-read-list of any student of philosophy. As for the rest of us, well it’s short and rather funny in places.  I’m happy to recommend it as an entertaining and though-provoking read.

(read December 2012)


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“The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Before I review this book, I want to congratulate Penguin on their Penguin Popular Classics series. This book only cost me €3 which is pretty impressive, and it included notes. A neat little paperback at a pleasant price.

I suspect many of you will have heard of this book as it’s one of the classics of English Literature and one of the few medieval books still read today. I read an extract as part of my studies (about age 15) but I had forgotten since then that the entire thing is in verse.

I know novels aren’t written in verse anymore. Modern playwrights rarely use iambic pentameter either, but you know what? It’s good and it’s surprisingly easy on the brain when you get into it. I was particularly impressed to see that he uses a slightly different style of verse and vocabulary for each section as each has a different narrator. It wouldn’t make sense for a low-born farmer to story-tell in the same style as a wealthy merchant, or a nobleman, for example.

Chaucer wrote the tale in about 1386. My copy had 337 pages. I was amazed to find how much my years of learning French in school helped me to read this book. I had notes to check for meanings of unusual words, but many times I knew them anyhow  because they were clear copies or twists from French words. I was also surprised to discover how funny the book is. He doesn’t accord “proper respect” to anyone, regardless of their station in life, and instead pokes fun at them all. I suspect Jonathon Swift knew Chaucer’s work when he began his satire “Gulliver’s Travels”.

I remembered my nun English teacher mentioning that the book was “bawdy” too and she was right. I think that in addition to some knowledge of French, another useful tool would be some idea of knightly ideals of courtly love, a rough acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, and a working idea of the major bibles stories as references to all of these abound. He was clearly a very learned man of his time and assumed his readers would be too. Sadly that didn’t extend to his Jewish readers whom he treats with some contempt, in line with ideas of his time. Mind you, there’s not many who escape his ridicule.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. It’s surprisingly easy to read, but do get a copy with some vocabulary notes (preferably at page-foot, so you’re not constantly flicking to the back pages). Sometimes it is good to read the books which came first, as others build upon their efforts in later times. For example, he uses the term oliphaunt for elephant and keen J. R. R. Tolkien readers will instantly recognise that as the term he uses for them in “The Lord of the Rings”.

The BBC did a great series of short dramas based on these tales in 2008 and showed that his tales of lust, jealous, anger, corruption, and romantic love across all professions and classes resonate perfectly in modern times. I think Chaucer still has plenty of relevance for modern readers. People haven’t changed much since 1386.

(read early 2010)


Filed under fiction, poetry