So. Zadig, eh?
Well, here’s the odd thing. I’m one of those people who never lack an opinion. If I’m in a conversation and I genuinely have no viewpoint, I just make one up. Then I defend it passionately until I believe it.
Similarly, I’ve read very few books from start to finish that haven’t “hit” me in one way or another. Yes, I’ve begun my share of novels that I tossed aside after 50 pages because I was bored. But when I go through an entire volume from cover to cover, I expect to have something to say about it when I’m done. And — surprise! — I always do. Not that my literary pronouncements are necessarily of value to anyone, but they do keep me off the streets. In any case, I can't remember ever resorting to just a shrug (French: un shrug).
Zadig is a pleasant enough story, set in some screwball Orient of the author’s imagination, although really it’s just a series of parodistically exotic episodes loosely strung together in a style that’s not exactly a fairy tale, not exactly an Arabian Nights tale, and not exactly a folk tale. But it has a definite tale-ish-ness, only without the charm. Maybe you’ve gotta be French. Or perhaps you need to have a hunk of crispy bread and some decent Bordeaux handy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned ahead, so the closest things I had in the house were a stale hot dog roll (pain éventé de hot dog) and half a glass of unbubbly Lite beer (moitié par en verre unbubbly de bière de Lite.)
Anyway, the whole book has a spontaneously knocked-off quality, as if it were made up by someone who had never actually told a coherent story before. I can imagine Voltaire, sitting down at his desk, setting his pocket watch (watch de poche) for an hour (soixante minutes), and saying to himself: “Today, I’m going to write exactly 1,000 words.” (Aujourd'hui, je vais écrire exactement 1.000 mots, give au take dix mots.) And that’s apparently what he did. Some of those words were shaped into blasphemous or satiric sentences, which no doubt made him chuckle. Me, too, in a bland sort of way. An example of his irreligious wit: Is there anything more worthy of respect than an abuse dating from ancient times? Cute. I won’t cite any more here, because I’m going to leave the best quotes for the other Nonbelieving Literati to steal; there aren’t really enough to go around. Still, I do identify with someone using that kind of automatic-writing authorship style, and can easily picture Voltaire slapping himself in the knee: “I think this stuff is very funny.” (Je pense que cette substance est très drôle. Ouch. Mon knee.)
Now, to be fair, I’m sure that Zadig was a hoot in its time. The people who read it when it was hot off the presses (chaud outre des presses) were probably able to catch every topical allusion, understand all the in-jokes, recognize each of the sardonic portraits. Me, I’m not that up on French 18th-century history. I know there was some kind of revolution near the end of that period, and before that, a couple of kings and cardinals and musketeers. Truthfully, though, I’m pretty much indifferent to almost everything from France except for its cheese, its wine, and the Brigitte Bardot of 50 years ago. So all the passages for which I would have needed a reference flew way over my head (flew au-dessus de ma tête avec la plume de ma tante).
I neither liked Zadig, nor hated it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I also wouldn’t warn anyone to steer clear of it. Voltaire was a cool dude (dude frais), and he certainly deserves to be remembered. I think his reputation is neither enhanced nor damaged (fucked vers le haut) by this book. However, if you want to see the kind of irreverence that helped give the Enlightenment its name — an irreverence that we could use a lot more of here in Bush’n’Bible-Land (terre de la brousse et l'Evangile) — you might find Zadig mildly entertaining (divertissant de ho-hum).
In short, it’s worth un shrug. Maybe deux shrugs.
Our Next Book:
Well, we had a wonderful nonbelieving and literate member who was going to pick our next selection, but, unfortunately, she’s still deciding. This may not be such a bad thing, since we’ve had a very female-heavy selection process for the last few installments. There are only a few of us guys, though, so I took the liberty of appointing myself to choose the next book. My original thought was that we’d read something a little more male-oriented for a change, and, naturally, I immediately zeroed in on my copy of Two-Fisted, Gun-Totin’, Ballsy Adventure Stories: The Car Chase Edition. But the thing seemed a little sissyish to me.
Seriously, I decided not to burden anyone with having to fill in with a decision at the last minute, and, fortunately, without wracking my brain, I happened to think of an unusual book that might be of interest to atheists, particularly (but not limited to) science-lovers: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. I’ll warn everyone that although this appears to be a short book of simple science-fiction stories, looks can be deceiving. You may not want to put it off until the very last minute before the target date of August 1.
By the way, thanks to all you Nonbelieving Literati — both old and new members — for continuing to support the group.