Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Best of All Possible Candides

Seventeen editions issued in the same year: Who's the first, what's  the second, I don't know's the third?

by Stephen J. Gertz

True first edition [Geneva: Cramer], 1759.

In 1759 a novel was published that by the end of that year had seen sixteen other editions in French issued. Eight of that total of seventeen French editions were issued with title pages lacking location, publisher, or true author. Of those eight, four collated to 299 pages. Of those four, which is the true first edition?

The novel was Candide, Voltaire's masterpiece of philosophical satire, puncturing Leibnitz's lamely optimistic dicta that ours is "the best of all possible worlds" so deeply as to give Leibnez the fits, and skewering the Church with such outrageous dialogue as, "let us eat a Jesuit." Government was lampooned, as well.

As a result, the book was condemned on March 2, 1759 by the Grand Council of Geneva. The administration of Paris banned it as well. Both ordered the book's destruction.

Perhaps understanding that the novel would cause an uproar, Voltaire used a pseudonym - not that anyone was fooled. To make sure the book would be seen, he had the book simultaneously published in five European nations no later than January 15, 1759. The four editions containing 299 pages possess identical title pages. Untying the gordian bibliographical knot has been an exasperatingly complex chore but it has been done.

The 1759 edition printed by Cramer in Geneva containing 299-pages has been firmly identified as the true first edition with the following issue points: misprint "que ce ce fut" on p. 103, line 4 (corrected in later editions to "que ce fut"); incorrect adjective "precisement" on p. 125, line 4 (corrected in later editions to "precipitamment");  Voltaire's revisions on p. 31,  an unnecessary paragraph break eliminated; and p. 41,  several short sentences regarding the Lisbon earthquake  rewritten; does not contain the paragraph critical of contemporary German poets, which Voltaire decided to omit while the book was being printed.

Curiously, though this is the first printed edition from early January 1759, produced with Voltaire's direct involvement, it was not the first edition offered for sale: it was held back by Voltaire until February 1759.

Only ten copies of the Cramer edition have survived.

"Candide, and his equally guileless if more worldly-wise mentor, Dr. Pangloss, and their delicious adventures, still command our attention. The folly of philosophic and religious optimism is displayed with a vigour and wit that carries the reader away. Irony without exaggeration, a perfect restraint in its admirable humour, a gift for the 'throw-away line' ...; all these show Voltaire's style and originality at their incomparable best" (Printing and the Mind of Man).

It may be fairly said that Voltaire did to optimism what Sade, later in the eighteenth century, did  to virtue; the novel could easily have been subtitled, The Misfortunes of Optimism; Candide, like Sade's Justine, is brutally savaged by reality. The book's sharp sarcasm, mordant wit, and pungent irony is mirrored in the traditional Jewish interpretation of optimism: "Today will be better than yesterday and definitely better than tomorrow."

"Il existe de Candide huit editions differentes, publiées en 1759 sans nom de ville ni d'imprimeur, toutes tirées dans le même format, et ayant toutes un titre identique. De ces huit editions, celle-ci est la première" (Bengesco, B.N.F., En Français dans le texte).

Be that as it may, to definitively sort out the issue, we  consulted the esteemed and illustrious bibliographers, William Abbott and Louis Costello, who hereby present their findings:

That clears it up.

[VOLTAIRE, François Marie Arouet]. Candide ou L'optimisme. Traduit de l'allemand de Mr. le docteur Ralph. N.p. [Geneva]: n.p. [Cramer], 1759. Twelvemo. [2, blank], 299 pp. With points as noted above.

Barber 299G. Bengesco 1434. Morize 59a. Wade 1.  PMM 204.

Title page image courtesy of Camille Sourget Livres Anciens, with our thanks.

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