Search This Blog

Friday, January 12, 2007

Voltaire Almighty

Pearson, Roger. Voltaire Almighty. Chapter One is titled "Of Uncertain Birth" as Voltaire was probably a bastard. Indications are that his mother's association with the chevallier Guerin de Rochebrune resulted in Voltaire's birth, although he was ostensibly the son of her husband, Francois Arouet. He was born in 1694.

He was a precocious child who, according to one legend, memorized and was able to recite a 73 line poem by the age of three. Pearson leaves this story in the realm of legend, but the young Voltaire was obviously not an ordinary child. Educated by Jesuits, Voltaire developed a life-long antipathy toward the Catholic Church. I loved this passage: "Not so much an old-school-tie network as a cassock conspiracy to maintain power and influence through the advancement -- and consequent loyalty -- of the brightest men in France. And abroad. For at that time the Jesuits directed some 700 schools throughout the world." Regardless of his anti-Catholic stance, Voltaire received the best education available, although it was strictly regimented and often boring. Pearson relates a good deal about the strictures involved and the curriculum. In spite of his disdain for the Catholic religion, Voltaire did absorb many tenets from the Jesuits, including the "greater emphasis on God the heavenly Father, a compassionate deity with a broad understanding of human frailty and a limitless capacity to forgive us our sins." Jesus received less emphasis. The Jesuits were also characterized by their "urbane intellectual and moral flexibility" and these concepts marked Voltaire.

Difficulties began on graduation, as Voltaire did not want to become a lawyer; he wanted to be a poet. Arouet senior and junior found themselves at odds. The young Voltaire began keeping "bad company" and was a wild and willful young man determined to say what he thought. His outspokenness put him in actual physical danger as he published satires that could, and did, often result in visits to the Bastille. Voltaire was twice incarcerated, and it made an impression.

He wrote plays, tales, and poetry that were often outrageous, but were lively and witty, and his company was always entertaining. Remember that I chose this book partly based on the portrait on the cover and the sparkling nature of the eyes. I'm not the only one who noticed this: "Ah, those eyes! Everyone mentioned them, men as well as women, and they always would--even in his last years when he had become quite indisputably 'dried-up and bony'."
And all of his portraits emphasize those twinkling eyes, as do even pen and ink drawings.

On his meeting and subsequent relationship with Emilie du Chatelet, the biography becomes not just a historical review of events, but an absorbing drama. Emilie was married, but her husband interfered not at all and, in fact, allowed Voltaire to improve the marquis' chateau, adding an entire wing and many luxuries. Emilie, a "delectable, passionate, fun-loving, tempestuous, unpredictable, unreasonable, extremely intelligent" young woman, was the "leading female scientist and mathematician of her day."

Their long relationship, until her death at 43, was not always easy, but the meeting of their minds seems to have overcome all (and there were many) difficulties that threatened to destroy their love/friendship. She died giving birth to a lover's child, but Voltaire, who also had another relationship at the time (with, uh, his niece) was present. His recovery from her loss was slow.

This biography, although initially difficult to follow, seemed to coalesce as it proceeded. Voltaire's relationships, his writings, his money troubles (until the lottery and good financial decisions made him quite wealthy), his publishing difficulties, his exiles, his fear for his life, his founding of his own "kingdom," his attacks on Cathololic principles and support of Deism, his feuds with other important figures of his time, his egotism, his illness (real and imagined), his various homes and travels, his innovative practices at Ferney, his influence in overturning unjust sentences and support of the victim's families, his final return to Paris... a remarkable life. A fascinating life. An absorbing read.

Biography. 420 pages + (14 pages of Dramatis Personae! A chronological listing of events, notes, bibliography). Copyright 2005.


  1. Jen: Glad to hear it was good. I'm nearing the halfway point in Les Miserables and Hugo mentions Voltaire quite often and not in complimentary ways, either. I need to do a bit of research this weekend and see what's up with that.

  2. Suzi - I've never read Les Miserables in its entirety; there was a copy at my grandmother's house that I started more than once, but it was beyond me at the time.

    Your comment about Hugo's references intrigued me. Pearson by no means omits Voltaire's failings (although, overall the admiration is evident). So I was interested in Hugo's opinion and found this, Victor Hugo's Oration on Voltaire which relates Voltaire's involvement in redressing the executions first of Jean Calas and then of the young chevalier de La Barre. Both of these cases, Pearson reviews in detail.

    Dang, I never expected to become so involved with either Voltaire or the French Englightenment. And by the way, Voltaire eventually engaged in verbal warfare with Rousseau! He was definitely a flawed individual...but, as I mentioned, fascinating!

    I really believe I've discovered a series of topics that bear further research. My interests (and love) has always been in the area of English literature, but now I'm venturing into a truly new area (for me). What fun!

  3. Don't you just love books that end up sending you down the roads of research? I did some looking tonight too and found the Oration on Voltaire mentioned. Looks like something I'll be reading more about this weekend.

  4. Yes - surprisingly so! In the past, at least as far as
    literature, I've taken off down predictable roads. Chaucer and Shakespeare being two of my very favorites. There is truly no end of information/opinion there. The "French Connection" is, however, entirely new, and I'm determined to follow further. Let me see, beyond Dumas and Flaubert, my knowlege is extremely limited. Names are familiar, but not the actual works.

    And, of course, from the musical:
    Master of the house
    Doling out the charm
    Ready with a handshake
    And an open palm
    Tells a saucy tale
    Makes a little stir
    Customers appreciate a bon-viveur
    Glad to do a friend a favor
    Doesn't cost me to be nice
    But nothing gets you nothing
    Everything has got a little price!

    Master of the house
    Keeper of the zoo
    Ready to relieve 'em
    Of a sou or two
    Watering the wine
    Making up the weight
    Pickin' up their knick-knacks
    When they can't see straight
    Everybody loves a landlord
    Everybody's bosom friend
    I do whatever pleases
    Jesus! Won't I bleed 'em in the end!

    Master of the house
    Quick to catch yer eye
    Never wants a passerby
    To pass him by
    Servant to the poor
    Butler to the great
    Comforter, philosopher,
    And lifelong mate!
    Everybody's boon companion
    Everybody's chaperone...


    I used to dream
    That I would meet a prince
    But God Almighty,
    Have you seen what's happened since?
    `Master of the house?'
    Isn't worth me spit!
    `Comforter, philosopher'
    - and lifelong shit!
    Cunning little brain
    Regular Voltaire
    Thinks he's quite a lover
    But there's not much there
    What a cruel trick of nature
    Landed me with such a louse
    God knows how I've lasted
    Living with this bastard in the house!

  5. It sounds very fascinating and you did a tremendous overview in such a brief space for such a big book!

    Love Les Miserables, probably my favorite Broadway musical.

  6. Very interesting! Thanks for the information on Voltaire's life -- this is an excellent summary.

  7. Wonderful writing as usual. I'm starting Candide soon and it will be interesting to keep in mind a few things that you've mentioned as I read it.

  8. Carl - I realized quickly that I couldn't cover all of the things I wanted to mention, but still wrote on, trying to summarize. It was an excellent book with which to begin the New Year.

    Dorothy - After getting past the first few chapters, I could scarcely bare to part with it. He was so very human, so flawed, so full of good intentions, so eager for a fight.

    Heather - I really want to plow through the books I have waiting before getting another...but Candide is whispering, "Order me! You need a copy. NOW!" I'm resisting for the moment. Looking forward to your comments when you read it.

  9. Sounds pretty interesting.

  10. I'm so glad to read this. Voltaire's "Candide" is on my Classics list and it's good to have some background information on the author. I know so little about him.