VOLTAIRE by Theodore Besterman

VOLTAIRE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

There has been no definitive study of Voltaire, that most ""varied and voluminous"" of all writers and most reasonable and questioning of all thinkers since an eight volume biography which appeared almost 100 years ago. While Dr. Besterman's instructive and judicious lifework on the life and works of Voltaire (he is the director of the Institut et Musee Voltaire and has just edited his complete oeuvre) is only relatively of ""modest size"" running over 500 pages, it is an exhaustive examination. The general reader might well be deterred, as he was not by Holroyd's Lytton Strachey--(not an altogether capricious choice since Strachey was a fascinated enthusiast of Voltaire's correspondence)--since the Strachey book retained all the elegantly idiosyncratic interest in the man and the era. Voltaire, while towering above him, is not as interesting even though Dr. Bestertman, confessedly ""this side idolatry,"" endows him with a ""rush of superlatives."" The ""thin, tall, dried-up and bony"" youth who looked much the same in his old age was generous, punctilious, a man of acute sensibility as well as acumen and ""indulgent kindness."" After he was sent away early on by his father, there were recurrent periods of exile and public excoriation. Prominent in his personal life, dealt with at less length than his writings, were his close friendship with Thieriot; the amities amoureuses of particular long standing with Mme. du Chatelet and his heartless niece-mistress; and the benevolent-bullying patronage of Frederick II. For the most part however, through the examination of the ten million words he wrote plus the 20,000 letters (which buttress this study), Dr. Besterman presents Voltaire as philosopher, historian, polemicist, agnostic (where ""reason failed him""), storyteller (are the stories really read for entertainment?) and scientist (perhaps here overvalued). Some of the errors of Close fact and interpretation were noted on the book's appearance in England; lesser scholars still may question some of the author's arguable statements (""Man's intellectual faculties have not improved since the beginning of recorded history""). However the book is a prodigious, admiring presentation of the ""prophet of justice and reason.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 1969
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World