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The Economist: Voltaire's Subversive Glamour


"'Candide, or Optimism' is a work of fiction, but it is not a novel," begins "Candide at 250: Scandal and Success", an exhibition at the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. In the Sue and Edgar WachenheimIII Gallery, the show examines the ways Voltaire's text has been warped, reimagined, staged, filmed, redrawn and otherwise revised over the course of 250 years. "Candide", we learn, is nothing if not a supple source.

The gallery is tiny and filled with well-lit treasures, which gives viewers the impression of being inside a jewellery box. The exhibition starts off with the lone surviving manuscript of "Candide" from 1758 (pictured)—transcribed by Voltaire's secretary, with bold revisions in his own hand—and continues with a display of all 17 first editions of the text. The New York Public Library is one of two libraries in the world to own copies of all 17 editions, a placard proudly notes (the other is the Bodleian Library at Oxford). The fragile books, arranged in a central vitrine, are magical.

The next of the treasures on display is a cranberry-red briefcase of Morocco leather that is embossed with Monsieur Voltaire's full name. This briefcase, the author's own, is an object with an aura so strong that it pulls gallery-goers back again and again, perhaps to hypothesise about how the writer might have toted the well-worn case, and what documents it might have transported. Our first writer-celebrity ("Candide" was a best-seller in its day), Voltaire retains his transgressive glamour a couple of centuries on. The briefcase itself glows by association. It's not hard to see why the Vatican kept "Candide" on its blacklist for 200 years.

The show familiarises us with both the original text and the spin-offs it launched, starting with examples of 18th-century "fan fiction" and leading up to an account of Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta, an Esperanto translation of the story, Terry Southern's steamy satire "Candy" and Chris Ware's book-jacket design for a Penguin reissue of "Candide" in 2005. "Any homage honors the original," notes the exhibition, "but it also always changes it."

The library's examination of Voltaire and his imitators is a gift to anyone with a fondness for satire. For lovers of literature, it's also a visceral way to experience history.