VOLTAIRE by Jean Orieux


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A long (c. 300,000 words) but thin popular study. Orieux is a competent biographer (see his life of Talleyrand, Eng. trans. 1974), but this bulky libor of love, six years in the making, has no coherent focus or shape. It plods its way chronologically through Voltaire's immensely rich and varied life, piling anecdote on anecdote, without attempting to analyze, except in passing, his art, his politics, or his religion. The result, to quote a critic hostile to Voltaire, is a chaos of clear ideas. Orieux also mars his work with ill-considered flights of hero-worship. Voltaire is described at one point as the ""century's greatest author"" (Swift? Rousseau?), and in yet another hyperbolic burst as ""the most intelligent man of the most intelligent age in history."" Worst of all, perhaps, Orieux is so eager to crowd as many episodes as possible from the master's life onto his giant canvas that lie has to skimp on color and significant detail. And even when he does give particulars, as in his account of the Calas case, he doesn't put them in broad perspective (e.g., by explaining the legal status of Huguenots in 18th-century France). This is not serious history, then, but it has some redeeming features. It's briskly paced and readable. It spares the reader tedious plot-summaries and fussy literary criticism. And it assembles a great many facts which, if nothing else, illuminate Voltaire's contradictory character: brilliant, commonsensical, impassioned, calculating, amiable, querulous, enterprising, cowardly, generous, selfish--moribund and unquenchably alive. A distinctly flawed achievement, but newcomers to Voltaire may find it useful.

Pub Date: Aug. 24th, 1979
Publisher: Doubleday