VOLTAIRE: A Biography by Haydn Mason

VOLTAIRE: A Biography

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Professor Mason (European Studies, East Anglia) must have had his reasons for giving the same title to two quite different books (he published another Voltaire in 1975), but they remain obscure. The first book, in any case, was a handy survey of Voltaire's major efforts as a dramatist and dramatic critic, historian, storyteller, poet, polemicist, philosophe, and letter writer. The second--equally brief, balanced, and to the point--subordinates the author to the man and, while presupposing a modest familiarity with Voltaire's oeuvre, provides both a lucid, detailed biographical sketch and a reliable outline of the immense body of Voltairean scholarship. Overall, Mason honors Voltaire on this side of idolatry: ""He was a great man; and the gods who had blessed him with such bounteous talents smiled upon him and made his life one of rare meaning."" But he keeps a reasonably tight rein on his admiration, and the newcomer can almost always trust Mason's judgment, e.g., on the subject of Voltaire's momentous run-in with the chevalier de Rohan or his love-hate relationship with Frederick the Great. (Though Mason's speculation on a possible homosexual affair between Voltaire and Frederick seems rather out-of-the-way.) Explaining a character as monumental as Voltaire in a fashion both solid and accessible is quite a feat, but Mason has brought it off. Despite an occasional fussy tangent and the precise references to the Besterman edition of Voltaire which clutter the pages, this is a meticulous, richly factual presentation--and perhaps the best short biography of Voltaire now available in English.

Pub Date: May 14th, 1981
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press