Right from the start I knew how I was going to write about Candide.
Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet, aka I don’t need to say, do I?
Emilie: What the fuck, Voltaire. You have work to do. You are supposed to be writing that science book, remember?
Voltaire: But this was so much fun. All my friends down at the tavern liked it. They all think I should do more.
Emilie: Did they buy any copies?
Voltaire: Well, no. I took that one copy I wrote down and they’ve been sharing it around. Actually, I think there’s a page missing, now that you mention it.
Emilie: So they didn’t buy any copies, but it was [scornfully] ‘fun’.
Voltaire: Yeah, it WAS. They all bought me drinks. I know I’ll have to go into exile again, but it’s so worth it, I’m SO popular now.
Emilie: [wagging her finger] Well, this time, I’m not getting you out. You can stay exiled for all I care. I’m sick of having to do your work during the day and my own science in the middle of the night, only to find you are writing this populist junk again. You’re an addict.
Voltaire: But sweetheart – ……
Emilie: Yeeesssssssssssssss? Mmmmmmm. That’s……
But by sheer coincidence, whilst Candide travelled about Seville being read in lunch breaks – what fun at one point reading it in front of a table of priests in frock – the book next to my bed in the hotel room was Two Lives and a Dream. And the first in this group of three novellas is the story of Nathanaël who, like Candide, is Everyman, an innocent, reacting to the vagaries of life in the same way. Struck as one is by the easy entertainment Candide still supplies – no mean feat for any humorous work – nonetheless, the moving nature of ‘An Obscure Man’ quite overshadows it. I imagine the stern, unyielding Yourcenar would not care in the least to know that a tear was dropped during her rendition of Reality-Candide. She strikes me as the type who would be disapproving except at some level, perhaps, of which even she is not aware.
What I am not sure about, however, is whether I would have felt so strongly about this story if I hadn’t been reading it in tandem with Candide. This is my second attempt at Yourcenar, having put Hadrian away after a miserable start. Maybe this period and place – seventeenth century Europe, Amsterdam in particular – or the lack of creepiness (Hadrian is a seriously creepy creation) make it easier. But my very best advice is read it as I did. Candide. Nathanaël. Everyman. Splendid.