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Rereading “Candide”

1voltaire

Candide is considered Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Experience had it that the trimmer the book, the more penetrative its meaning. The novella was published in 1759, a period in Europe when all the sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other.

It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

The 18th century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly skeptical and critical of the courts and politics of the time. Politics was so petty during that age of multifarious sovereign states that the history became more and more manifestly gossip, more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide one has the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.

[432] Put Out More Flags – Evelyn Waugh

” You know exactly what I mean. Basil’s needed a war. He’s not meant for peace. ” (12)

Put Out More Flags is so typically Waugh: he has developed a wickedly hilarious and yet spot-on assault (if you’re familiar with British history) on traditional values. The book is set in the week that precedes the outbreak of World War II, the days of “surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace.” (3) As the Prime Minister declares England at war on the radio, three rich women are all mindful of Basil Seal, the anti-hero of the book. They are his sister, his mother, and his mistress. Through them we learn how Basil makes the most out of the war.

… and if you had gone into the Army when you left Oxford you would be a major by now. Promotion is very quick in war-time because so many people get killed. (182)

Right when war is breaking out, Basil accepts his sister Barbara’s suggestion to billet—to place urban children with rural families to protect them from incipient bombings. Soon Bail turns billeting into a lucrative business as country house residents are more than happy to pay him for not hosting three monstrous children. “What’s it worth to you to have those children moved from you?” (124)

There’s a lot to be said for a uniform. For one thing you’ll have to call me ‘sir’ and if there’s any funny stuff with the female staff I can take disciplinary action. For another thing it’s the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. (190)

Meanwhile, Basil mother’s mother sets her heart o enlisting her son into a decent regiment. Lady Seal believes that a patriotic commission will save him from his unaccountable taste for low company that had led him into many vexatious scrapes. But the unemployable Basil is able to insinuate into a peculiar role during mobilization. He finds a job with the Ministry of Intelligence where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his friends and inform on them. Those who fell under Basil’s recondite pretexts of patriotism include a Jewish atheist who launches a fascist magazine. Waugh also makes fun of pampered aristocrats’ amateurish attempt of patriotism and fighting. An upper-class man enlists as a soldier because he believes that “he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King’s enemies to shoot at.”

The novel is a myopic look at England in her last fateful moment of history. Beneath the humor and jokes is grim reality that the upper-class people, deprived of values except pleasure-seeking, fail to grasp. The book itself is not without flaws. It’s worth skimming, but not Waugh’s best. A coherent narrative thread is absent in Put Out More Flags, rendering it a potpourri of barely disguised concepts and clippings from previous novels loosely thrown together.

286 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]