- Masques and Bergamasques: Dancing with Voltaire
The Cambridge Companions to Literature elucidate and summarize recent scholarship on famous authors and their works. In the case of Voltaire, the publication of this installment in the series is timely. Research into Voltaire’s life and work has been profoundly transformed since the 1950s, largely as the result of the efforts of bibliographer Theodore Besterman (1904–74). Besterman inaugurated a new wave of Voltaire scholarship. In 1951, he founded the Musée et Institut Voltaire in Geneva, and, in 1952, he published Voltaire’s Notebooks. From 1953 to 1965, he amassed and edited Voltaire’s massive Correspondance. Besterman also founded in the mid 1950s Studies on Voltaire, now known as SVEC, (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century). Finally, in 1965, he created the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford, and, in 1968, launched the first critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works undertaken since the early nineteenth century. That edition is scheduled to be completed in 2018. It is not surprising that the foundation’s director, Nicholas Cronk, should have taken [End Page 107] on the Cambridge Companion to Voltaire, given the foundation’s commitment to Voltaire studies.
Cronk recruited the volume’s contributors among seasoned Voltaire scholars, and he is himself responsible for one and one-half of the collection’s fourteen essays, three of which he translated. Cronk frames the volume’s central theme and focuses on Voltaire’s constantly evolving image from the eighteenth century onward—as enemy of the Church answerable for the Terreur, died-in-the-wool monarchist, pioneer of republican values, human rights campaigner. What, he asks, can we make of Voltaire’s prodigious literary output? What does he stand for today? Cronk’s introduction invites us to reconsider Voltaire as the embodiment of Enlightenment values whilst commenting on the mind-boggling authorial strategies he deployed to impose his voice on virtually the entire period. Of Voltaire’s monumental oeuvre, Cronk writes, “Voltaire was a master of . . . all literary genres. His writings include poetry in many different styles (epic, mock epic, ode, epistle, satire, and much occasional verse, theatre, comedy, even opera librettos), history, short prose works in a variety of forms (tales, dialogues, satires, pamphlets); and for good measure a scientific treatise” (3). One of the book’s more fascinating themes is the protean nature of its subject. Starting with Geoffrey Turnovsky’s “The Making of a Name: The Life of Voltaire” (17–30), the volume’s contributors invariably try to come to terms with the many masks and voices Voltaire assumed over his long and turbulent career. Turnovsky calls Voltaire “an advocate of humanity itself” (28); the “essential” Voltaire can, nevertheless, prove elusive.
The Cambridge Companion gives little space to Voltaire’s poetry. La Henriade is mentioned in passing, likewise La Pucelle d’Orléans. As for his twenty-odd plays, Russell Goulbourne recalls Voltaire’s reputation as “France’s, even Europe’s greatest dramatist in a stage struck age” (94). Goulbourne gallantly makes the case for the playwright’s significant innovations, especially in his comic plays, which will be of interest to literary historians. We know, however, that posterity has relegated Voltaire’s dramatic works to the dustbin, and that we shall not witness a revival anytime soon.
What remains of Voltaire’s oeuvre are some of the essays (not all), the histories (which read like novels), the short prose works (especially the novels), and the Correspondance. One of the strengths of these essays is that they treat Voltaire’s works thematically within the framework of his thinking; only Candide and the Correspondance are discussed separately. Following Valéry, Gianni Iotti argues that Voltaire’s fiction is a vehicle for ideas and intellectual truths. The Voltairean conte, he writes, “sugars the ideological pill” (111). In “Voltaire and the Myth of England” (79–92), John Leigh discusses the importance of England and English thought in relation to Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques, the Histoire de Charles XII...