Over the last couple of summers I taught cooking to families in Carterton, and afterwards, since I had already driven quite far, often liked to ‘reward’ myself with a coffee out in nearby Witney. It’s a nice enough town which for me lacks a really stand out cafe – although the local blogger Muddy Stilettos has blogged a few good ideas recently, and when I go back I’ll have to try this ‘Shake Shop’! As much as I don’t like chain shops much, for some reason I do occasionally like to settle into an uber-comfy sofa in Caffe Nero, and plug myself into their wifi for far longer than would normally be a sociable length of time over my chai tea/ americano/ English breakfast/ latte. Occasionally, we all seek the comforting anonymity of an ordinary brand, on a rainy day perhaps, during a long summer break.
One particular jaunt to Witney included, not unusually, a poke around the charity shops including the Oxfam bookshop. I perused the ‘Classics’ section and picked up a translation of Voltaire’s Candide, as I’d seen that the Royal Shakespeare Company are starting a modern re-telling of it this autumn, which I cannot wait to see now that I’ve read it!
I am slightly nervous however, about how this might be translated to stage. My first impression of the book, after foraging it, and then finally finding time to read it on a long train journey… not to mention finally getting around to talking about it in this long rambly post… in fact, this sentence is getting rather long, let’s start again. Candide is full of rape, death, deceit, disappointment, and other d-related nouns. Distress. Dire situations. Things may seem momentarily on the up, and then a short sentence will invade along the lines of ‘… and then he sold them into slavery for a few pesetas.’
For me the most fascinating portion of the book is the time they unexpectedly find the country of El Dorado, where dust and rocks are made from gold & precious stones, there is no need for law enforcement, and food and generosity are plentiful, all in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. And yet, Candide and his companion Cacambo leave after a month there because Candide can think of nothing but Cunégonde, the girl he loves. Yet when he is finally reunited with Cunégonde, she is not the same woman he has been dreaming of all this time, she has been uglified by her experiences – cheers Voltaire, you really make a good case for women being desirable for their personalities *sarcastic expression*, although she does at least turn out to have excellent pastry-work skills and redeems herself, running a bakery. I liked that part.
Despite this minor irritation, to me this side of the story simply emphasises to me how much weight we give to the destination, the end-point, the goal, the finishing line. But when the characters get there, they don’t know what to do. They have their little piece of land to work on, one that Lenny & George from Of Mice & Men dreamed of owning except that in their story was no more than a unachievable pipe-dream. I really disliked that part of Steinbeck’s novel, and can identify much more with Voltaire’s conclusion which involves reaching the dream, but it turning out to be different from what they expected. In the end, the characters set themselves work to do, deciding “our labor keeps off from us three great evils-idleness, vice, and want”. We may think that we know what we want – whether it is an expensive house & car, an incredible holiday, to have a prestigious job in the city – and all of these things would probably be great to an extent. But it’s easy to forget how alive we are during the often difficult and arduous journey, and how much we learn about life.
I highly recommend that you find yourself a second-hand copy of this (mine was £1.50 from Oxfam), or even read it here for free: