As part of my previously discussed quest to read all the books on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list (in reverse alphabetical order by title), I recently purchased a book containing Voltaire's Candide, Zadig, and fourteen selected stories. Since Candide is also on Bloom's list, I decided to save that for later, but I did read and enjoy Zadig and the other stories by Voltaire.
In this philosophical fiction, Zadig is a young nobleman in Babylon who has everything going for him. He is rich, smart, just, sensitive, and caring. And yet, every time he tries to do something good, a series of coincidences and misunderstandings conspire to have him punished. Fate being as it is, he ultimately escapes punishment after punishment, only to once again find himself jailed, torn away from his true love, hunted and/or enslaved.
Voltaire is an excellent satirist, and the footnotes in my copy of the book point out many parallels between the characters in Zadig's Babylon and Voltaire's contemporary French court. While my knowledge of Enlightenment history is pretty vague, I still found Voltaire's jabs at his rivals to be entertaining and his pokes at bureaucracy to be timeless. While this story is somewhat of a philosophical and political fable (which makes it sound kind of dry), it is also very very funny, insightful, and a quick and satisfying read.
The same can be said for the selected short stories also included in this volume. Although he sometimes gets a little bogged down in the religious feuds between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, in many of the stories Voltaire focuses his keen eye on social and philosophical issues that still ring true today.
I can't wait until the year 2034 when I finally get to the C's on this list and dig this book back out for Candide...
[And if you fancy it, you can read the complete text of Zadig here!]
[Also, did you know there is some kind of fashion line called Zadig & Voltaire? It makes doing an image search for the book cover much more difficult than one would imagine.]