All Possible Worlds
Voltaire's 'Candide' as Media Event
To say that Candide enjoyed an immediate success is an understatement. Candide was a phenomenon. The novel was published through the medium of print, a fact which we too easily take for granted. The print world of the eighteenth century was unlike our own and posed two particular challenges.
The first was censorship. England enjoyed a fairly free press, but most European countries had various systems for controlling the output of publishers. In France, for example, a book might be censored by the King, by judges or by the Catholic Church – or by any combination of these three. The second challenge was piracy: the notion of copyright in a printed work was still a relatively new idea in the eighteenth century, and in most countries, once a book was published, it was considered to be in the public domain and therefore liable to be copied, or ‘pirated’. Many European printers earned their living as pirate publishers.
Voltaire knew that Candide was liable to be censored. And he knew too that it was likely to be pirated. But he turned these apparent constraints into advantages. The ‘first’ edition of Candide was printed early in 1759 by Voltaire’s regular printer in this period, Cramer, in Geneva. But to speak of a first printing is misleading. Before handing over a final manuscript to Cramer, Voltaire went behind Cramer’s back and sent a (slightly different) version of the manuscript to John Nourse, a printer in London; he may well have dispatched copies to other publishers too. The result was that within weeks of the first edition of Candide appearing in Geneva, other editions appeared in Paris, London and Amsterdam. There was an enormous buzz surrounding the new work – it was not signed by Voltaire, a fact which only confirmed that he must have written it – and numerous pirated editions soon flooded the market all across Europe.
Before the year 1759 was over, there had appeared no fewer than seventeen different French editions of Candide. Only two libraries in the world own all seventeen editions: one is the Taylor Library in Oxford, and the other is the New York Public Library, and all seventeen editions are currently on display through April 25, 2010 in the exhibition, Candide at 250: Scandal at Success.
Translations are further evidence of the Candide craze. Voltaire was popular in England, and in the course of 1759, no fewer than three different English translations of Candide were published in London.
Of course, the censors tried to halt the progress of the work, and of course they failed: the more they criticized the work, the more it sold, and the more it sold, the more pirated editions were produced. The censors and the pirate publishers – often seen as the author’s enemies – all contributed hugely to the success of Candide. Part of Voltaire’s genius lay in his understanding of the medium of print and his ability to manipulate the book market for his own ends. If he had lived today, we can only imagine his career as a spin-doctor working in the modern media of TV and Twitter…
(...or on our own digital spin on the text, the Candide networked edition.)
A few of the 17 "first" editions of Candide:
- Geneva edition
- London edition (John Nourse, publisher)
- One of the Paris editions
- Amsterdam edition
- Last of three English translations from 1759 (trans. William Rider)
Nicholas Cronk is director of the Voltaire Foundation and professor of French literature in the University of Oxford. He is also general editor of the Complete works of Voltaire: this edition, due for completion in 2018, is the first ever complete scholarly edition of Voltaire and will number some 200 volumes. He has recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire (Cambridge University Press, 2009).