Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

twv

Advertisements