VOLTAIRE by Wayne Andrews


Email this review


Biography as jeu d'esprit: a partly successful attempt to retell the life of Voltaire in a Voltairean idiom. The writing is crisp, cool, epigrammatic; the author is lively and opinionated; and the book is short. For the reader with no background in 18th-century France, Andrews makes an engaging, if not always reliable, guide. But others will find his performance decidedly shallow. To begin with, it fails to present a clear general picture of its subject, except to claim (dubiously) that Voltaire was loyal only to his own protean self. . . . We hear all the inevitable Famous Remarks (Écrasez l'infâme, le genre ennuyeux, ""If God did not exist, . . ."" etc.), but we get no comprehensive notion of what Voltaire and the other philosophes were up to. So as not to bore his audience, moreover, Andrews cuts literary criticism to the bone, and skips plot summaries and footnotes. Fair enough, but the few evaluations he offers are highly questionable: he underrates Candide; says nothing of l'IngÉnu (because it doesn't square with his thesis that V. abhorred sentiment?); and exalts Le Siècle de Louis XIV as a historical masterpiece--while completely ignoring the more important Essai sur les moeurs. Andrews is also inclined toward misleading simplifications: Jansenists were ""Methodists masquerading as Romans,"" Diderot's aesthetic theories were the lineal ancestor of Nazi and Communist ""social realism"" (sic). He does, however, provide a full bibliography--which the student will need to offset the many imbalances in the pages that precede it.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0811208028
Publisher: New Directions