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Monday, March 12, 2012

“Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom”, by Roger Pearson

384 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1582346304

François-Marie Arouet, (1694-1778) who took the pen name "Voltaire" for reasons still unclear, (the author lists some guesses but doesn't choose one), was the 18th Century itself, distilled into a frame so thin that it appeared as though a good stiff breeze could blow him away. But not only did he live to the age of 84, he also wrestled one of the most powerful institutions in history – the Catholic Church in France – virtually to a standstill. One of the most prolific writers of all time, he is said to have churned out a million words during his life: plays, essays, letters, poetry, satire. He never wrote a novel; novels were considered trashy entertainment in his day and he never cared to write one. He isn't read much anymore, not even in France, and he is remembered today not so much as a philosopher in his own right, but as a brilliant, witty popularizer of other people's ideas. But his razor-sharp French prose style was the envy of the young Rousseau, who ultimately went on to have an even greater and more profound impact on the world.

What inflamed Voltaire's passion inflamed his need to write, and nothing did the trick more quickly than intolerance and injustice. Imprisoned more than once himself, Voltaire repeatedly put himself in jeopardy defending in print the victims of injustice and religious bigotry (a particular plague of his age) and launching one spirited attack after another on their tormentors, those in political and ecclesiastical power, which in 18th century France were pretty much two sides of the same coin.

Small wonder that Roger Pearson has given this delightful biography the subtitle "A Life In Pursuit Of Freedom." Each chapter has a title and a descriptive summary, in the style of an 18th century novel. In lively and witty prose, Pearson takes the reader from Voltaire's inauspicious beginnings (he was an illegitimate child who was expected to die) to his first clashes with the authorities, (he spent close to a year in the Bastille when still only 23) his liaisons with one woman after another, the business dealings that made him wealthy, his sojourn in England, (where he found the relatively tolerant atmosphere refreshing enough to publish a series of "English Letters") his rocky relationship with Frederick the Great, and the whole cavalcade of one of history's most colorful and brilliant lives, leading right up to his retaking by storm, in the last days of his life, the very Paris from which he had been so often banned.

As the decades running up to the French Revolution (which Voltaire helped start but didn't live to see) roll by, Pearson traces every parry-and-thrust of the life of a writer in an age and a society in which writers were closely watched and frequently harassed by the government, their works censored and sometimes burned, their personal freedom never completely secure. Observing his darting around Europe, hopping over a border here, leaping into a midnight carriage there, in order to stay ahead of those who would imprison him again, one wonders how Voltaire ever got anything written. But write he did, compulsively, exhaustively, and on an array of subjects that would fill a dictionary (one of his best-known works is, in fact, a "Philosophical Dictionary"). By the time of his death, while the war against intolerance and bigotry was far from won – most likely it never will be, entirely – nevertheless the ideals of the French Enlightenment had already borne fruit on this side of the pond, the American Revolution being in full swing in 1778, and it was possible for writers in France and elsewhere in Europe to express their ideas with much less fear of the authorities than ever would have been possible in Voltaire's youth.

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