Penguins on Parade: Letters on England!
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, forever get second-banana billing. How much more ironic this whole process is when the author in question was a productive dynamo who managed to write many brilliant things in a long life? What does the non-German world know of Goethe, for example, except perhaps The Sorrows of Young Werther (or The Sufferings of Young Werther, as the great, the irrepressible Stanley Corngold has it in his recent quite remarkable translation) an 80-page fantasia written when its author was a boy?
Take a similar case: Francois-Marie Arouet, the writer known to history as Voltaire (a pen-name! shocking!), wrote a quick little philosophical novel called Candide in 1759, and it was seized upon by legions of school-teachers the world over as that most precious of all commodities: a teachable classic. It’s been filmed, staged, sung, and even anime’d, epitomized on posters, chanted at festivals, and its tag-lines have entered common discourse. It might be a slim book, but it casts a gigantic shadow – one that tends to thrown the long lifetime of other Voltaire master-works into the shade.
One of the most unassuming of those other master-works was something he wrote thirty years before Candide: Lettres anglaises, the superbly popular (and, in France itself, thoroughly banned) Letters on England that Voltaire initially wrote while sojourning in exile from his beloved Paris from 1726 to 1729. Formed into a slim book, those “letters” are utterly fascinating dispatches by the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Our author, in the full strength of his many outrageously ample talents, writes on such subjects as Quakers, Anglicanism, smallpox inoculations, Pope, Locke, and Newton. The almost random pattern of things he notices and doesn’t notice can be maddening at times, but always he’s vintage Voltaire, smart, eloquent, and funny.
It’s a deceptively tough book to translate, and Leonard Tancock, who translated it for Penguin in 1980, does a fantastic job – mainly because he understands so well the man behind the letters:
Popular legend, especially outside France, has portrayed Voltaire as the eternal mocker, even a sort of grinning atheist. Nothing could be further from the truth. At least one full-length book has been written about Voltaire’s religion. He was haunted by religion all his life, but religion does not imply accepting involved theology or subscribing to ridiculous dogmas. To Voltaire it simply meant leading a good and useful life in the hope that there is at least some ultimate justice in the world.
The title of the work is a bit misleading (intentionally so, of course): Voltaire’s setting might be England, but Letters on England is really about France and French thinkers. The Pensees of Pascal – and Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ about the existence of God, for instance, are never far from our author’s contentious mind:
Begin, one might say to Pascal, by convincing my reason. It is in my interest, no doubt, that there is a God, but if, in your system, God only came for so few people, if the small number of the elect is so terrifying, if I can do nothing at all by my own efforts, tell me, please, what interest I have in believing you? Have I not an obvious interest in being persuaded to the contrary? How can you have the effrontery to show me an infinite happiness to which hardly one in a million has the right to aspire? If you want to convince me, set about it in some other way, and don’t sometimes talk to me about games of chance, wagers and heads or tails, and sometimes frighten me by the thorns you scatter on the path I want to follow and must follow.
Letters on England, like most of what Voltaire wrote, is intensely beguiling, even though most people don’t know he wrote it or anything like it. And if Penguin wanted to honor even more of that ‘beguiling,’ they might think about publishing a nice 800-page collection of the man’s letters, which are virtuoso performances worthy of Cicero.
And in the meantime, there’s always that damn Candide to bring out again …