Select Letters of Voltaire

translated and edited by Theodore Besterman
Nelson, 180 pp., $6.50

Voltaire; drawing by David Levine

The eighteenth century was a century of great letter writers, and Voltaire was the greatest of them all. He was also one of the most prolific. As Theodore Besterman reminds us in his Introduction to his selection from Voltaire’s vast correspondence, Voltaire wrote at least twenty thousand letters in his long life, to more than 1200 correspondents. He wrote to everybody, and everybody wrote to him—kings and actresses, government officials and bankers, philosophers and litterateurs, and (most attractive of all) obscure personages who were his friends. “The remarkable thing is,” Besterman notes, and it is remarkable, “that Voltaire corresponded regularly for twenty years or more with about thirty-five friends, and for over thirty years with twenty, outside his family.” Voltaire, contrary to his reputation, was not merely a social climber, or solely concerned for his security or financial advantage. He was a good hater but he also loved widely and generously, if not always wisely, and most of his traits emerge in the letters here brought together.

To call Voltaire the greatest letter writer of the eighteenth century is to make a large claim, especially since Horace Walpole was his contemporary. Theodore Besterman makes this claim in his Introduction, but then one might object that he is after all not a detached observer. (Mr. Besterman has been bringing out the definitive edition of Voltaire’s correspondence for some years, and it is to be expected that he is deeply committed to his subject. He has been working brilliantly and almost alone, adding considerably to our knowledge of Voltaire’s age by correcting misreadings and wrong dates, and by discovering many letters unavailable to earlier collectors.)

But I think the claim to Voltaire’s preeminence can be sustained. Horace Walpole, waspish and observant, a perpetual visitor of life, seems to have lived so that he might write his letters. Voltaire, on the other hand, subordinated letter-writing to the business of living, and what his letters lose in polished artificiality, they gain in immediacy. He was a man of comprehensive interests and admirably lucid intelligence: in the course of his life, frail as he was (he ceaselessly announced himself to be dying), he touched on nearly all aspects of his century. He was a respectable student of Newtonian science, a well-informed reader of philosophy and Biblical criticism, a practicing poet, perceptive literary critic, innovating historian, shrewd businessman, indefatigable observer of the political scene, virulent anti-clerical, and humane reformer. He was also, as I have said, a loyal friend, and in his own slightly pathetic way, a passionate lover. And whatever he experienced, he experienced intensely, and poured into his letters. As Mr. Besterman knows better than anyone else, no selection, no matter how judicious, can give anything but the most rudimentary idea of this intensity: when he was fired up, by his improbable love for his niece, or the French government’s outrageous treatment of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, or the Calas…

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