The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire … complete!

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.

Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.

Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.

GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.

AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.

Gillian Pink and Alison Oliver.

GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.

AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.

GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.

AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.

GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!

AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!

GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.

AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

First blogged in: The Oxford Polyglot 2021-22, Issue 2, Hilary term 2022.

Gillian Pink at the Voltaire Foundation: thirteen years and counting

As we approach the completion of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, I sat down with team co-ordinator Gillian Pink to find out more about how joining the editorial team led to becoming a researcher in her own right.

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus.

You are one of the research editors working on the critical edition, a huge task. How did you come to work for the VF? Did you start editing OCV immediately?

I came to the VF almost by accident. I was studying for an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University and Clare Fletcher, who was responsible for work placements on the MA, also did marketing here. She took one look at my CV – which at that point included work on a critical edition of an eighteenth-century sequel to Candide – and said ‘I think I know someone who would be very interested in this CV!’ That person turned out to be Janet Godden.

I arrived at 99 Banbury Road one afternoon in January 2007 for what I think I expected to be an interview, and was put to work straight away collating variants for Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire [since published in OCV, vol.67]. The rest, as they say… I did work briefly on Electronic Enlightenment before I started my full time employment on OCV in the autumn of that year, so an early introduction to digital editing, checking instances of words using non-Latin alphabets, as well as certain types of metadata.

So you have been at the VF for thirteen years – how many volumes have you worked on? Do you have a favourite text or volume?

Oh my! How many volumes… Taking a quick look at the shelves… twenty-five, perhaps, depending on your definition of ‘worked on’, and there are still a few more to go too. I don’t know if I have a single all-time favourite, but many favourites, which tend to be the ones I’ve contributed to as an author, rather than only as an in-house editor.

Questions sur l'Encyclopédie

The complete set of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie on the VF bookshelf.

One of my favourite Voltaire texts, I suppose, would have to be the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, a glorious collection of mostly short articles summing up his thoughts on just about every topic under the sun as he approached the end of his life. I had some involvement with all of the eight volumes that make up the set in OCV, was lead in-house editor on six of those and annotated articles in four. Last year, along with the general editors Nicholas Cronk and Christiane Mervaud, we published a version of this text for a wider readership with Robert Laffont. But I also love the very humorous poem ‘Le Pauvre Diable’ that I edited in volume 51A, and of course the notebook fragments just published in the latest volume, 84, and the marginalia in volumes 136-145 are close to my heart and research interests as well…

Tell me more about the marginalia, please! What is your research interest in them?

If you had told me when I first joined the VF that a few years down the line I’d have completed a D.Phil. and become an expert on Voltaire’s marginalia, I’d have found it quite hard to believe. As you may know, the project of publishing Voltaire’s marginal notes was begun by colleagues in St Petersburg at the National Library of Russia, but after the Berlin wall came down, their publisher, Akademie Verlag, went through a period of upheaval and the project stalled. The VF picked it up and incorporated it (quite rightly) into OCV.

But the lady in St Petersburg who had been writing all the editorial notes had sadly died before she got to the final volume, so it was suggested that I might like to take this on as a doctoral project. In the end, I did a more typical thesis, while the annotation ended up being a separate project. Until then, while the marginalia had been studied to some degree, by far most of the articles published looked at Voltaire as a reader of a particular author. There was no proper study at that point looking at the marginalia as an ensemble, as a genre, looking for patterns in what we present as a corpus, although of course it wasn’t conceived as a corpus by Voltaire at all – rather like his correspondence in that way. And I was lucky to have an excellent supervisor in Nicholas [Cronk]. The result of all this was my book, Voltaire à l’ouvrage (Voltaire at work), which came out – nearly two years ago already!

Since then I played a leading role in bringing out a final volume of Voltaire’s marginalia in OCV, based on an even more disparate corpus, which is to say those books and manuscripts that for various reasons are not part of his library in St Petersburg, and so were not part of the original Russian project. While I still find marginalia fascinating for the direct insights they provide into readers’ responses to books (although they can’t always be taken completely at face value), I’m now extending this interest to reading notes in a broader sense, and Voltaire’s notebooks are a wonderfully challenging mix of reading notes, ideas of various sorts, and jottings that probably reflected snippets that he gleaned from oral sources.

We all know that the paper publication of OCV is nearing its completion this year. Do you have a new project lined up, for example regarding Voltaire’s notebooks you mentioned?

You’re quite right to ask. I do have several research ideas concerning the notebooks. I can’t go into too much detail because a couple of them need to be finalised with publishers and/or other colleagues, but I think there is much to be done in this area.

I’ll be talking about the notebooks at the annual ‘Journées Voltaire’ conference at the Sorbonne in June. I think the notebooks can be perceived as a bit ‘scary’, in part because of the wide variety of topics and the considerable lack of order within them, but also the fact that they were amongst the first volumes published in OCV. In those days scholarly practices didn’t demand the fuller sort of annotation that we tend to provide for readers nowadays, so Besterman’s notes are quite laconic and his perspective perhaps isn’t quite the one we would adopt these days either. For me, as someone whose approach tends to be based on material bibliography, I find it really helpful and revealing to look at the original manuscripts. Often, physical characteristics will strongly suggest – for example from the colour of the ink, the margins, the spacing – which sections were written at the same time, and so give a sense of which bits belong together or not. This is an area in which I hope our future digital edition of Voltaire’s complete works may build on the print and add real value, as there would be an opportunity to supplement the print transcription with digitised images.

Of course, the really interesting question to me is how Voltaire used his notebooks and other loose papers, how they were generated, and how they fed into his more public writings. I think there are still discoveries to be made in this area, and I’m lucky to be able to work with a great network of colleagues, from friends based in Voltaire’s library in St Petersburg, to digital humanities scholars at the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago, and research groups interested in textual genetics and the extract as a genre at ITEM [in Paris] and the IZEA [Halle, Germany]. So the future is full of exciting possibilities.

Birgit Mikus with Gillian Pink

‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles’

‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles, donne pouvoir à qui voudra de m’acheter la terre qu’il voudra, pour le prix qu’il voudra, où je vivrai tant qu’il voudra, comme il voudra, avec qui il voudra. Fait où il lui plaît. V.’ Ce court texte, résultat sans doute d’une plaisanterie dont les circonstances nous sont malheureusement inconnues, est l’un des morceaux rassemblés dans le volume de Fragments divers qui clôt la partie littéraire des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (la correspondance, les marginalia et les textes attribués suivent). Le manuscrit de cette procuration fictive, éditée par John Renwick dans ce tome 84 des Œuvres complètes, est effectivement une bribe issue de la plume du grand écrivain qu’il aurait lui-même probablement qualifiée d’‘écrit inutile’. Qu’aurait-il pensé du volume qui vient de paraître?

OCV t.84, Fragments divers

Le tome 84, Fragments divers, daté ‘2020’, prend sa place à côté du tome 85, l’un des premiers volumes à paraître sous la direction de Th. Besterman en 1968.

Un fragment est considéré comme une chose rare et précieuse, le plus souvent incomplète, qui nous est parvenue d’un passé proche ou lointain. Sa survie doit souvent quelque chose au hasard. Voltaire emploie le mot dans ce sens, par exemple dans Dieu et les hommes (1769):

‘Les Juifs avaient une telle passion pour le merveilleux que lorsque leurs vainqueurs leur permirent de retourner à Jérusalem, ils s’avisèrent de composer une histoire de Moïse encore plus fabuleuse que celle qui a obtenu le titre de canonique. Nous en avons un fragment assez considérable traduit par le savant Gilbert Gaumin, dédié au cardinal de Bérule. Voici les principales aventures rapportées dans ce fragment aussi singulier que peu connu. …’ (Chapitre 24, OCV, t.69, p.385)

Ou encore, dans le Commentaire historique (1776):

‘Le fameux comte de Bonneval devenu pacha turc, et qu’il [Voltaire] avait vu autrefois chez M. le grand prieur de Vendôme, lui écrivait alors de Constantinople, et fut en correspondance avec lui pendant quelque temps. On n’a retrouvé de ce commerce épistolaire qu’un seul fragment que nous transcrivons. …’ (OCV, t.78C, p.42-43)

Cependant, Voltaire aurait-il vu ses propres fragments du même œil? Car il a beau être l’auteur prolifique que l’on sait, les fragments n’en demeurent pas moins précieux, même s’il aurait sans doute été horrifié de voir publier une édition critique de papiers qu’il ne destinait pas à la publication. A l’exception des notes de travail, dont une poignée est publiée ici sous le titre de Fragments de carnets, et des corrections qu’il a apportées à une préface de Baculard d’Arnaud, les textes que nous publions ici n’ont rien de lacunaire, mais cette collection hétéroclite et aléatoire de courts textes jette un nouvel éclairage sur plusieurs facettes de la vie littéraire – et moins littéraire – de Voltaire.

Il y a d’abord un certain nombre de textes dans le sens plus traditionnel du terme, qui évoquent des sujets chers à Voltaire: la Bible; la question de l’âme des bêtes; la nécessité de rester unis entre philosophes face à l’Infâme; la dramaturgie. D’autres encore concernent des activités d’édition: une préface inédite pour une collection prévue de ses œuvres; un avis et des instructions pour l’imprimeur concernant une édition de La Henriade publiée en 1770; une dédicace inédite pour un ouvrage paru à Berlin au moment où son séjour en Prusse tournait mal. Enfin, une troisième sorte de texte nous transporte au plus près de l’écrivain: ses rapports avec la poste; sa façon de classer ses lettres et autres papiers; des notes de travail qui préparaient des écrits plus développés.

Le fragment dont une page est reproduite ci-dessous nous montre Voltaire au travail: il prend des notes à partir de ses lectures sur l’‘histoire orientale’ tout en ajoutant ses propres observations aussi. On le voit revenir sur son manuscrit pour identifier les passages qui l’intéressent le plus, ce qu’il fait en dessinant des espèces de ‘mains’ stylisées qui ressemblent à des ‘6’ penchés. Il apporte des compléments en marge. Il note à plusieurs reprises la source de sa lecture (les Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin, en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, de Jean Chardin), et cite des vers persans en traduction. Cette édition des fragments de carnets découverts depuis la publication en 1968 des Notebooks de Voltaire par Theodore Besterman fournissait l’occasion pour nous de faire une analyse plus poussée de ses notes de travail.

OCV t.84, Fragments diverses, fragment 48a

Fragment 48a (manuscrit autographe), f.7r. Oxford, Voltaire Foundation: MS20.

Outre l’intérêt des découvertes et des nouvelles perspectives, éditer de tels textes procure le plaisir de travailler avec des documents autographes. Nous jugeons que ce volume de fragments, quelque disparates qu’ils soient, apporte du nouveau dans le domaine des études sur notre auteur en révélant aux lecteurs ses papiers restants et des brouillons qu’il n’avait pas jugé bon de publier. N’en déplaise à Voltaire.

– Gillian Pink

How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Frederick II

The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, Hohenzollern Jahrbuch 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink

Le voyage de trois élèves de St Albans à Oxford

De g. à d.: Jamie, Chris, Will et Dimitri.

Le 15 janvier 2019, nous sommes partis de St Albans School pour visiter la Fondation Voltaire à Oxford afin de rencontrer le professeur Nicholas Cronk et le Dr Gillian Pink, avec l’intention d’en savoir plus sur leur travail à la Fondation. Après une heure et demie de route, nous sommes arrivés à notre destination. Le but de notre visite à la Fondation était d’améliorer notre compréhension des contes philosophiques de Voltaire Zadig et Micromégas pour notre examen de Pre-U. Nous savions que c’était une chance incroyable de pouvoir visiter la Fondation.

Conversation avec le professeur Cronk et le Dr Pink

De g. à d.: Will, Chris, Dimitri, Dr Pink, Pr Cronk.

Le Dr Pink et le professeur Cronk nous ont expliqué comment l’institut avait été établi et les buts de la Fondation. En discutant avec le professeur Cronk, nous avons aussi découvert les thèmes principaux des deux contes, ce qui nous sera bénéfique sans doute pour nos examens de Pre-U cet été. Nous avons discuté en particulier des problèmes du mal, de la différence entre la providence et la destinée et la différence entre la conclusion leibnizienne de Zadig et la critique sévère de Leibniz dans le conte de Candide. Nous avons d’abord examiné le problème du mal dans un contexte historique et philosophique et la question de l’existence d’un Dieu et des cruautés du monde.

Chris et le Dr Pink examinent une lettre de Voltaire.

Nous avons ensuite discuté pour savoir si, dans le conte de Zadig, Voltaire aborde ce problème en utilisant l’ironie, ou s’il essaie de nous donner l’occasion d’y réfléchir nous-mêmes en ne tirant pas de conclusion. C’est une œuvre de fiction dans le style d’un conte oriental. Ensuite nous avons parlé du rôle des sciences dans le conte de Micromégas. Nous avons fini la séance en regardant d’anciennes lettres de Voltaire adressées à ses amis. On peut vraiment dire que c’était une expérience unique et inoubliable pour tout le monde. Nous étions vraiment ravis de pouvoir tenir un moment d’histoire entre nos mains et de voir la vraie signature d’un tel écrivain.

Ce qui leur arrive à la ‘Voltaire Room’

Dimitri, plongé dans une édition originale.

En arrivant à la Taylor Institution, on a rencontré Nick Hearn, qui nous a montré plusieurs livres originaux de Voltaire. Par exemple, on a eu la chance de tenir un manuscrit authentique entre nos mains et Nick Hearn nous a montré une édition originale de Micromégas, imprimée en 1752.

– Chris, Dimitri et Will, St Albans School

Apprivoiser ses livres: Voltaire ‘marginaliste’

Les marginalia sont un phénomène auquel on s’intéresse de plus en plus, comme l’illustre par exemple le répertoire Annotated Books Online. Paradoxalement, à une époque où il est souvent mal vu d’écrire dans ses livres, d’en corner les pages, ou de les déchirer, les historiens du livre étudient les traces de lecture anciennes et montrent que défigurer un livre peut lui donner du prix, comme le reconnaît Andrew D. Scrimgeour, responsable des bibliothèques à Drew University au New Jersey. Les auteurs J. J. Abrams et Doug Dorst, pour leur part, ont trouvé dans la pratique des notes marginales une structure et un thème propices pour un roman.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, Paris, 1736, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel est l’imbecille […] qui a défiguré par tant de croix et qui a cru rempli de fautes le plus bel ouvrage de notre langue’: c’est ainsi que Voltaire réagit en marge aux traces qu’un autre a laissé dans son exemplaire des Œuvres de Racine. Mais dès qu’il devient lecteur à son tour, tout est possible. Sur une période de plus de cinquante ans, Voltaire a écrit dans les livres qui passaient entre ses mains: c’est le sujet de ma monographie, Voltaire à l’ouvrage, tout récemment parue. En tant qu’auteur célèbre, il a compris que ces traces avaient de la valeur et il lui arrivait d’offrir des exemplaires annotés à d’illustres connaissances et à des personnes de son entourage. Il a peut-être même pressenti qu’on allait s’intéresser à sa bibliothèque après sa mort, car certains commentaires marginaux semblent attendre un lecteur futur: ‘tout cela est de moy / jecrivis cette lettre’, note-t-il à côté d’un texte que Jean-François, baron de Spon cite comme ayant été présenté aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande en octobre 1745 – une espèce de ‘j’y étais!’ laissé pour la postérité.

Jean François, baron de Spon,Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean François, baron de Spon, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, Amsterdam, 1749, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Tous les marginalia de Voltaire contenus dans les livres de sa bibliothèque personnelle sont désormais disponibles: le neuvième tome du Corpus des notes marginales vient de paraître. Cette publication clôt le premier volet du projet commencé pendant les années 1960 à la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie. (Un dixième tome fournira les traces de lecture de Voltaire qu’on connaît en dehors de sa bibliothèque.) Le Corpus, dont la publication a été reprise dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire sous la direction de Natalia Elaguina à partir des années 2000, donne à chacun la possibilité de se plonger dans l’univers des lectures de Voltaire, monde à moitié imprimé, à moitié manuscrit, et constitue un outil formidable pour redécouvrir cet auteur pourtant déjà si connu.

Les traces de lecture de Voltaire permettent de traquer les origines de ses propres textes, grâce aux signets, aux soulignements et aux réactions en marge qui marquent des passages qu’il cite, qu’il conteste ou qu’il transforme dans ses écrits. Les notes comprennent des réactions ludiques et polémiques qui désorganisent parfois la lecture de l’imprimé, tels ses ajouts manuscrits à la page de titre des Erreurs de Voltaire de Claude-François Nonnotte, et des corrections qu’il a faites pour des amis (à paraître dans le tome 10 du Corpus).

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Les rapports que Voltaire entretient avec ses livres sont fortement ancrés dans la matérialité de l’objet. Ainsi, il introduit des plis, des entailles dans le papier, il exploite adroitement les différents espaces blancs à sa disposition, il démembre des volumes, les refait à sa manière, il utilise encres, crayon de plomb, sanguine, et crayons de couleurs pour laisser ses traces sur la page. Voltaire aurait apprécié les fonctions de recherche et de repérage offertes par le Kindle, les fichiers pdf et autres manifestations du numérique. Ces technologies permettent de joindre des annotations au texte, mais n’accordent pas les mêmes possibilités d’un corps à corps qui caractérise la lecture telle qu’il l’a pratiquée. Dans Voltaire à l’ouvrage, je me penche également sur les lectures faites dans différentes langues, et sur le style et la poétique des annotations marginales. C’était l’occasion aussi de comparer les marginalia de cet auteur à ceux d’autres lecteurs de l’époque, ce qui fournit un contexte et permet de mesurer l’originalité, ou non, des pratiques voltairiennes.

Gillian Pink