Books: The book you meant to read: Candide (1759) by Voltaire

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Plot: Voltaire's philosophical tale is also a miniaturised picaresque novel. Candide is a naive lad living in Westphalia. Pangloss, a disciple of Liebniz, teaches him that all things are part of God's beautiful design. Candide is thrown out of his country haven for fancying Cunegonde, the owner's daughter. Forcibly enlisted in the Bulgarian army, Candide is almost killed. He is depressed to learn from Pangloss that Cunegonde is dead. They go to Lisbon and witness an earthquake. Pangloss is hanged at a celebratory auto-da fe. Cunegonde turns up. She has become a sex toy. Candide kills her lovers. The pair escape to South America but are again separated. Candide visits Eldorado, before returning to Europe with Martin, a gloomy inversion of Pangloss, who believes the world is ruled by the devil. Eventually Candide is reunited with a disfigured Cunegonde and with Pangloss who survived hanging to remain as jolly as ever. They all retire to a rural retreat where Pangloss continues to praise the "best of all possible worlds." Candide replies: "we must cultivate our garden."

Theme: A satire on systems of thought which are not founded on experience. Voltaire also despises the notion of a God who could dispense suffering for the sake of some higher good. Conversely, humanity's irrational resilience is celebrated.

Style: A model of clarity. The use of euphemism paradoxically exposes the horrors of the real world.

Chief strengths: An analysis of the unreasonable desire to rationalise suffering. Characters are nearly killed, permanently crippled, forced to witness unspeakable horrors, yet bounce back with insane elasticity.

Chief weaknesses: When Voltaire gets hold of a joke he is unwilling to let go.

What they thought of it then: Topped the 18th century bestseller lists with 20 pirated editions coming out in 1759, together with English and Italian translations.

What we think of it now: Admired in France because it reflects the qualities the French most admire in themselves: lightness of touch coupled with philosophical profundity.

Responsible for: Waugh's Decline and Fall which similarly pits a naive optimist against a hostile world. Gavin Griffiths

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