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Literary Lives

Cultivating His Garden

Reviewed by English Showalter
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page BW10


By Ian Davidson. Grove. 343 pp. $24


By Voltaire. Translated from the French by Peter Constantine

Modern Library. 119 pp. $19.95

Why Voltaire? Why now? Didn't he make his name campaigning against things everyone now agrees are bad, like censorship, torture, capital punishment, a judicial system in which the accused has no rights, the slaughter and devastation of ill-advised wars, the unholy alliance of church and state? Surely all that is ancient history nowadays.

Actually, Voltaire did much more than campaign against obvious but persistent evils, and turned to human rights activism only in the final 20 years of his life. In his first 55 years, Voltaire pursued, successfully, the ambition to be France's greatest writer. He wrote popular plays, an epic poem, reams of verse and volumes of history. Along the way, he made a fortune, from his contacts in the world of high finance rather than from his pen. He won a seat in the French Academy and royal posts as historiographer of France and gentleman of the bedchamber.

Yet Voltaire made more enemies than friends. In 1750 he did not find either the court at Versailles or the literary world in Paris as welcoming as he apparently hoped. So in June he joined a growing number of French writers and thinkers at the court of Frederick II of Prussia, a longtime correspondent and admirer. The philosopher surely imagined this situation as the best of all possible worlds: He would enlighten the despot, forming a philosopher-king to set an example for the world. It did not work out that way, and within three years Frederick turned on Voltaire, delayed granting permission for him to leave Berlin, and had him arrested on a trumped-up charge in Frankfurt. Then Voltaire discovered that Louis XV did not want him in Paris, either. He spent months trying to decide where to go. Finally in late 1754 he went to Geneva, and ultimately in 1758 to Ferney, an estate in France near the border with Geneva.

Focusing on this prolonged period of exile, Ian Davidson has written a readable and engaging partial biography, perhaps better described as a portrait. Voltaire found happiness at Ferney, once he had accepted the fact that he could not go back to Paris in the foreseeable future. He stopped accumulating wealth and began using the riches he had, partly to procure his own comforts, but also to improve his environs and the world. He gave up the struggle for honors and turned his attention to problems in the world around him, such as the notorious judicial outrages perpetrated against Protestants and alleged blasphemers by bigoted and corrupt courts of law. Using his pen in the service of justice and human rights, he unleashed a torrent of polemical pamphlets. He channeled his fractiousness into campaigns for others and thereby became the Sage of Ferney, a hero throughout Europe.

Davidson explores Voltaire's private life alongside these public campaigns. In the 1740s Voltaire began an affair with his niece, Mme. Denis, and he persuaded or bribed her to join him at Ferney. He adopted an impoverished young girl who he thought was descended from the great playwright Corneille. He gathered a household of congenial people, including a loyal secretary and a chess-playing Jesuit. He built himself a theater and staged his own plays. He entertained vast numbers of visitors. He turned Ferney into a model village and established a colony of artisans who manufactured watches and produced silk.

Davidson humanizes rather than canonizes Voltaire. Despite his liberal reputation, Voltaire approved of the death penalty and torture for regicides. He attacked superstition and abuses of church power, but he was never an atheist, and he respected the obligations of the Catholic religion. He distrusted democratic rule and never abandoned a repellently sycophantic style in addressing monarchs. He could not resist stirring up trouble, most often by writing something scathing, seditious or sacrilegious, which was inevitably stolen and published against his wishes. This cycle was repeated so often that Voltaire must have intended and enjoyed the commotion, even if the consequences sometimes jeopardized his freedom. With similar indiscretions and outbursts, he alienated many of his friends and even drove Mme. Denis away for a while.

Voltaire was always a multi-tasker, and Davidson's narration does not mention all of his quarrels or famous friends, and it only skims his prolific writing. Most of Voltaire's tales, which posterity has judged his best work, were written during his exile, including Candide, a satirical masterpiece first published in 1759. It is hard not to read Candide partly as autobiography. It settles scores with Frederick II and with enemies in the Parisian literary world. It moves, like Voltaire's life, toward disillusionment with conventional success and the accompanying realization that true happiness comes with acceptance of one's situation, at least if one has a few loyal friends and a garden to tend. Peter Constantine has provided a serviceable new translation, although he faces a long list of competitors, from Tobias Smollett to Peter Gay.

When Voltaire finally returned to Paris in 1778, it seemed like a happy ending. He was cheered by the people of Paris. His last play was a popular success. On the stage he was crowned with a laurel wreath. Despite his age and ill health, he felt ready to take up where he had left off in 1750. His strength soon ran out, however, and immediately the church began trying either to co-opt him through a deathbed conversion or to inflict the punishment of refusing him burial. Wily old fox that he was, he evaded both, but within a few years he was being blamed for the evils of the French Revolution, and, as the symbolic head of the French Enlightenment, he still comes under attack today for the ills of our age. In this sense, Voltaire remains in exile, and it would be an appreciable bit of progress if Ian Davidson's book helped bring him back. •

English Showalter has just published a biography of the 18th-century French novelist Françoise de Graffigny.

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