Voltaire… True or false?

Art historians have developed sophisticated techniques to detect forgeries. Sotheby’s has its own ‘fraud-busting’ expert. Most of the world’s leading museums have whole departments devoted to distinguishing the real from the fake. Thanks to modern research methods, scores if not hundreds of famous paintings have been re-classified. Many pictures believed to have been painted by Rembrandt, for instance – several in national collections – are now re-labelled school of or follower of. Similarly, some paintings that were believed to be by an obscure master are now deemed to have been painted by the great Rembrandt himself. Documentary records such as inventories, letters, catalogues, or invoices, chemical analysis of canvas and paint, X-ray imaging, and carbon dating can all be valuable tools and precious auxiliaries to the museum curator. The style and quality of a painting are generally the strongest arguments for its authenticity. When material evidence supports the expert’s eye, the case is sealed. The same criteria apply, mutatis mutandis, to literary history and to the establishment of authorship.

Title page of Candide, deuxième partie (n.p., 1760) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Researching Candide, seconde partie, several years ago, I came across an index card in the old, printed catalogue at the British Museum Library with the handwritten note ‘spurious’ scrawled across the top. I was puzzled. It was the first time that I had encountered that word in the context of Voltaire’s writing. The word ‘apocryphal’ appeared on another card. Something was amiss. In all the eighteenth-century editions of Candide, seconde partie I consulted, the second part was bound alongside the first. Moreover, it was translated under Voltaire’s name into several languages. Both parts, 1 and 2, were printed together in the popular Modern Library edition. Countless undergraduates had read it. Had no one noticed that Candide, seconde partie was not the genuine article? I began wondering about the status of this bizarre continuation, which includes, in its second chapter, a scene of brutal homosexual rape. I soon perceived that in terms of style the second part had little in common with the original. Voltaire’s distinctive tone, combined with his verbal sophistication, his brush strokes as it were, are not easily mimicked. Unlike his imitator, Voltaire suggests obscenity without being vulgar.

Title page of H.-J. Dulaurens, Le Compère Mathieu, vol.1 (London, 1761) (Taylor Institution Library).

My research (conducted with the assistance of Gillian Pink) confirmed the hypothesis originally floated by Emile Henriot in 1925 that Candide, seconde partie was in fact written by the unfrocked monk Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (‘La seconde partie de Candide, Le Temps, 17 février 1925). Voltaire was aware of Dulaurens, whose satirical poem Les Jésuitiques (1761) must have caused him to chuckle when he read it. He commented on another work by Dulaurens, Le Compère Matthieu (1766), which he noted was written in the style of Rabelais (D14938): ‘Il y a un théatin qui a conservé son nom de Laurent qui est assez facétieux, et qui d’ailleurs est instruit: il est auteur du compère Matthieu, ouvrage dans le goût de Rabelais, dont le commencement est assez plaisant, et la fin détestable.’ But reading Voltaire is sometimes akin to entering a hall of mirrors. The distorted images flee before our eyes. Now and then we nevertheless catch his gaze. By way of a joke, he attributed his own Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine (1768) to ‘l’auteur du Compère Matthieu’ (D14915 to Charles Bordes). Et rira bien qui rie le dernier!

Title page of Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine (Amsterdam, 1768) (Taylor Institution Library).

The late Patrick Lee averred that every collected edition of Voltaire’s writings from 1728 until the last one printed before his death includes spurious, apocryphal, and misattributed works (‘The apocryphal Voltaire: problems in the Voltairean canon’ in: The Enterprise of Enlightenment. A Tribute to David Williams from his friends, ed. Terry Pratt, David McCallam, David Williams, Oxford, 2004, p.265-73). Voltaire himself noted with characteristic flamboyance: ‘On ferait une bibliothèque des ouvrages qu’on m’impute. Tous les réfugiés errants font de mauvais livres et les vendent sous mon nom à des libraires crédules. […] On me répond que c’est l’état du métier. Si cela est le métier est fort triste’ (letter to Damilaville, 17 December 1766, D13744). But what of the hundreds of works that Voltaire published under an assumed name? And what of those that appeared anonymously? And what of those that, for one reason or another, he did not include in his collected works. And what of his persistent denials and obfuscations? And what of his works published posthumously? Questions like these take us to the heart of Voltaire’s psychology as a literary artist. His protean nature both as a writer and a public figure has meant that every utterance must be approached warily. Take for instance his presumed denial over the authorship of Candide, seconde partie contained in the following paragraph, though this is not in fact deemed to have been written by Voltaire. The claw emerges from beneath the soft pad. At best, it would appear to bear the stamp of his ‘circle’.

Let us quote it and let the reader decide (Journal encyclopédique, août 1761, p.144): ‘Il y a quelque tems qu’il a paru en France une seconde partie de Candide: on n’en a pas lû quatre lignes, qu’on voit très-clairement que cette suite n’est pas de la même plume que la première. Quelle différence! ce seroit bien là le cas de dire: non licet omnibus adire Corinthum, mot usé à la vérité, mais trouve ici très-bien sa place. Quelques personnes malintentionnées, sans doute, ont fait courir le bruit que cette brochure étoit de Mr. Campigneulles. Il la désavoue formellement, mais il dit dans son désaveu que quelques Gens de Lettres l’ont trouvée assez bien pour parier qu’elle étoit d’un homme très-illustre en Europe: ces prétendus Gens de Lettres sont des imprudents à qui nous conseillons de retirer promptement leur enjeu.’

The monumental task of publishing Voltaire’s writings has been undertaken several times since his death in 1778. Each generation has approached the project with the resources at its disposal and with the most up-to-date scholarship; and each built on the successes (and shortcomings) of the last. Over time, many works have been added to the canon, and others removed. It was Gustave Lanson early in the last century who summarized the scientific approach to literary history in his ground-breaking article Comment Voltaire faisait un livre (1908). His method, briefly stated, consisted in the painstaking gathering and interpreting all the documents that have come down us to reconstruct plausibly, and coherently, the story of how each work was written.

Establishing the Voltairean canon along scientific lines has been the objective of the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (OCV) these past fifty years. It has been an ambitious enterprise. But since the early 1950s exciting new tools have become available, some due to the drive and energy of Theodore Besterman. For the first time it was possible to apply the scientific method rigorously to Voltaire’s entire œuvre. Et quel œuvre! No writer wrote as much as Voltaire. This month the most extensive publishing venture in Europe (et par conséquent de toute la terre!) draws to a close with the publication of the final volume in the collection: Textes attribués à Voltaire, numbered 147. In all, 205 volumes have been printed, representing the collaboration of scores of eminent scholars from around the world.

In his Epître à Horace, Voltaire wrote, ‘J’ai fait un peu de bien: c’est mon meilleur ouvrage.’ Volume 147 of the OCV is a tribute to the great man, his massive corpus of writings, and enduring presence in the modern mind. The Œuvres complètes is a monument to the European Enlightenment and to scholarship at its best.

Edouard Langille

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