BOOK REVIEW: Candide by Voltaire

CandideCandide by Voltaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? “Candide” attempts to wrestle with this question. The protagonist, Candide, is taught by his tutor – the renowned philosopher, Pangloss – that their’s is the best possible world. However, as the story unfolds as one bad turn of events after the next, it becomes harder to argue that there couldn’t be a better world.

Candide is forced to flee from his love (Cunegonda,) is conscripted into wartime military service, is arrested for heresy, becomes a serial killer, acquires and subsequently loses a fortune, is robbed, finds himself in the middle of war and other conflicts, and stumbles into and then flees what might be the closest his world has to a utopia, el Dorado. And, it could be argued, Candide gets off relatively easy. Cunegonda is raped, sliced open, and enslaved. Her brother, the Baron, is run through and is also enslaved. Pangloss gets syphilis, is hung, is partially dissected, and is enslaved, as well.

And yet, to the end, Pangloss retains his (and Liebniz’s) belief that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide (kind of) does as well, though at the book’s end he’s fatigued by the question and just wants to distract himself from it with some gardening. The degree to which Candide sticks to his guns is impressive, not only because of everything that goes wrong, but also because he gets a new mentor / friend, Martin, a mentor diametrically opposed to the views of Pangloss. Like Pangloss, Martin is also a philosopher, but Martin’s worldview is much less optimistic, but it also reflects the crucial idea that how bad or good the world is has more to do with one’s perception of it than the events that one experiences. (When Candide asks Martin who has it worse: one of the deposed kings they met or Candide, himself, Martin said he couldn’t know without experiencing what’s in the mind of each.)

Despite the steady flow of negative happenings, the book doesn’t definitively answer the thematic question. How could it? The most it can say is that we don’t live in the best of all imaginable worlds, but we can’t know whether those worlds we imagine are possible. For one thing, we are forced to recognize that humans are flawed and that nature is indifferent, and these factors might play a role in the variation between best imagined world and the world we know. For another thing, maybe we couldn’t handle a more perfect world. The old lady character asks the group whether all the trials they’ve collectively suffered are worse, or better, than sitting around doing nothing – as they happened to be [not] doing at that moment.

This book provides a thought-provoking journey, and it’s well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall by Albert Camus

The FallThe Fall by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a novel for someone who revels in philosophizing. It’s not a book for those who like to get lost in a story. It reads as if one sat down at a bar next to an obviously intelligent, but also obviously tipsy individual, who proceeded to tell his life story reflectively and analytically – without emphasis on thrilling exploits.

It falls among books that deal in the crisis of modernity – by which I mean, the challenges that arise from being evolutionary optimized to live a certain kind of life, while living one that is completely different. (i.e. It’s like “Fight Club,” but both far more boring and less broadly introspective.) The protagonist, Clamence, tells us about how he once got hit in public and how angry he was with himself for not getting in a lick of his own. He also describes hearing a woman jump / fall into the Seine, and not lifting a finger to help – despite hearing the woman’s screams. Adherence to laws and norms (in conflict with animal impulse,) disconnection from community, and ethical ambiguity are recurring themes in such books. What one does in a post-god world is also reflected upon. Religion and belief, like it or loathe it, fulfilled a function for humanity, and a vacuum was created for people for whom the cons of belief came to outweigh the pros.

Personally, I’m prone to philosophizing, and so I did get into this book – despite not finding it engaging as a story. When I read one particular line, I learned I was a suitable drinking companion for Clamence: “I have never been able to believe, deep inside, that human affairs are serious matters.” [Virtue or vice, I can relate.]

If you’re prone to philosophize, check out this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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