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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 454-458

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Book Review

A More Complete Voltaire

François Bessire. La Bible dans la correspondance de Voltaire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1999). Pp. viii + 346. £65.00 cloth.

Nicholas Cronk, ed. Études sur le Traité de la tolérance de Voltaire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000). Pp. vi + 324. £14.90 paper.

Michel Delon and Catriona Seth, eds. Voltaire en Europe: Hommage à Christiane Mervaud (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000). Pp. xxii + 383. £60.00 cloth.

Christiane Mervaud. Voltaire à table. Plaisir du corps, plaisir de l'esprit (Paris: Éditions Desjonquières, 1998). Pp. 230. FF 140.00 paper.

Voltaire. Traité sur la tolérance, ed. John Renwick (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1999). Pp. xi + 142. £14.90 paper.

The last three decades have seen remarkable progress in the area of Voltaire studies, thanks largely to three major publishing initiatives. Theodore Besterman completed his "definitive" edition of the philosophe's correspondence (1977); work began (and continues) on a new critical edition of the Oeuvres complètes (1968); and a team directed by the late René Pomeau completed a five-volume biography of Voltaire, Voltaire en son temps (1994), the first to exploit fully the wealth of information provided by the Besterman correspondence. Together, these projects have absorbed the energies of a generation of scholars dedicated to the idea that a more complete Voltaire would emerge from their labors. Each of the studies reviewed here benefits to some extent from these endeavors, building on the cumulative knowledge and extensive resources now available. As a group, they show us why it is essential, even as the eighteenth-century canon continues to expand, to maintain the present high level of activity surrounding the French Enlightenment's emblematic leader.

In La Bible dans la correspondance de Voltaire, François Bessire expands on previous study of Voltaire and the Bible by focusing specifically on the philosophe's letters. Viewing the correspondence as a self-contained work, he asserts that this project will reveal Voltaire's "rapport personnel avec un livre qu'il connaît intimement et qu'il n'a pas cessé de pratiquer" (1). The first chapter assesses the high frequency and diversity of Voltaire's Biblical references. Subsequent sections then survey the situations in which the Scriptures are cited, the humor Voltaire generates through these citations, his willingness to view the Bible as a literary (rather than sacred) text, and his far-reaching critique of the Bible on historical and religious grounds. In his brief conclusion, Bessire summarizes this material: "Lire la Bible dans la correspondance, c'est en effet lire Voltaire" (229). Not surprisingly, he finds that Voltaire's letters reflect the issues that dominate his published writings, particularly during his later years.

The strength of this book is the animating presence of Voltaire's letters. Punctuating nearly every page of his study with numerous examples, Bessire demonstrates that the Bible is unquestionably the most important intertext in Voltaire's correspondence. At the same time, however, the multiple examples become [End Page 454] a handicap since they are accompanied by little analysis; major portions of the study function largely as a typology of Voltaire's favorite procedures. At several points, Bessire suggests that the philosophe's irreverence produces a "desacralization" of the Bible, but he does not pursue related questions. Is Voltaire's use of the Bible innovative, or does he simply follow period trends? Does the epistolary genre alter his handling of the text in comparison with the treatment it receives in his works? What role do his correspondents play? In the absence of this type of reflection, the reader regrets that Bessire does not do more to integrate recent critical work in two related areas--religion in eighteenth-century France and epistolarity.

This study remains unsatisfying because it limits itself to Voltaire's correspondence rather than using the study of the Biblical commentary in this particular context as a means of acceding to larger issues. Bessire has identified more than four times the number of Biblical references cited by Besterman, yet this exhaustive list yields little new information. This considerable work of erudition serves...


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