From the author of Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753–1778 (2004), a psychologically intimate biography of the great writer and philosopher.
While it’s important to recognize Voltaire (1694–1778) as symbolic of the French Enlightenment, it's also vital, writes Davidson, to understand Voltaire's motivations as an entertainer. At heart, whether the medium was fiction, poetry, polemic or history, he was a storyteller. Drawing from Voltaire's correspondence and other sources, the author's chronological narrative creates a complex, nuanced portrait of his subject and the times. From young adulthood, Voltaire resisted conformity, choosing to spite his father's demand that he go into the family law practice. His decision to pursue a literary career ultimately propelled him to immense celebrity and wealth, social advantages that allowed him to take risks in his work, which often resulted in imprisonment or exile. But Voltaire was an ardent defender of free speech and religious tolerance and was not deterred. In 1733, after spending almost three years in exile in England (where he learned to speak English), Voltaire published Lettres philosophiques (Letters concerning the English Nation), which became one of the most important and provocative pieces of the 18th century. Soon after, the French regime, insulted by Voltaire's intimations that British society was more respectful of human rights, issued another arrest warrant for Voltaire, and he was forced to flee. In the ensuing years, many of which were spent in Switzerland, Voltaire embarked on many love affairs, discovered the joys of scientific exploration, developed a relationship with Frederick the Great and continued to produce an astounding number of written works. Not until the end of his extraordinary life was he able to return to France, but he did so as a hero. Davidson’s precise language captures Voltaire in every facet, leaving the reader with renewed appreciation for his talent and humanity.
Unflinching and illuminating.