Vincent Van Gogh
Quentin Blake illustrates Voltaire’s Candide - limited to 1,000 copies, individually numbered and signed by the artist
Quentin Blake is one of the world’s greatest living illustrators. His style is instantly recognisable – it combines an appearance of effortless immediacy with a precision of line that manages to capture character, mood and expression with just a few strokes of the pen. Who could be more fitting to illustrate the great satirical comedy of French literature? Just as Voltaire manages to make the report of a wartime atrocity both funny and agonising, so Blake’s pictures capture a world at once comic and horrific. Quentin Blake has produced 18 full-page colour illustrations and nearly 30 delightfully wicked pen and ink drawings for this special Folio Society edition. Beautifully bound, limited to 1,000 copies – each one signed by the artist – it will undoubtedly become a collector’s classic. Books will be reserved on a first come, first served basis, and once the 1,000 copies are sold out no more can be produced.
Voltaire was the greatest of French Enlightenment writers – a historian, poet, playwright, scientist and philosopher. He was passionately involved in the debates of the day, advocating reform of the monarchy, the French justice system and increased freedom for the press. His attacks on the church and the aristocracy often saw him in trouble – imprisoned in the Bastille, exiled to England and banned from Paris. Of his many works, the most popular today is Candide: the most widely taught piece of French literature in the world. This mordant novella has not one but a dozen targets for its satire: organised religion (including corrupt monks, bloodthirsty Inquisitors and bigoted Protestants); the overweening pride of aristocrats; merchants’ greed; colonial ambition; and the hopeless complacency of Leibnizian philosophy in the face of reality. All are dissected with a few sharp strokes of Voltaire’s pen. It is unsurprising that Candide enjoyed instant success on publication in 1759, selling 30,000 copies in the first year. Despite being fantastically picaresque, Candide made references to contemporary events such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and the Seven Years War. Candide even attends a play by Voltaire. Such topicality meant that the allegory scarcely veiled the satirical sting. Frederick the Great, a previous patron of Voltaire, must have writhed in fury over the lampooning of Prussian military drill; the English government would have been just as outraged over Voltaire’s devastating account of the execution of Admiral Byng, and the French over his depiction of brutality meted out to slaves on the sugar plantations. Indeed, Voltaire seems to have gone out of his way to infuriate every power in Europe. He published Candide under a pseudonym, but everyone knew the author’s identity. The book was denounced by both secular and religious authorities, banned in Geneva and Paris and placed on the church’s list of proscribed books. in 1929, a US official banned the book from reaching a Harvard French class, exclaiming in outrage: ‘it’s a filthy book’. In today’s irreverent world Candide may be less shocking, but its satire is no less pertinent.
Such was Candide’s celebrity that within a year of its first publication, three English translations had appeared. Shortly afterwards, between 1761 and 1765, the renowned writer Tobias Smollett published a 35-volume translation of Voltaire’s works including, of course, Candide. Smollett’s translation is unsurpassed. It has a freshness and immediacy which made it our first choice for this classic edition.
Quentin Blake, artist, writer and illustrator, has worked on more than 300 books and won numerous awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration and the Kate Greenaway Medal. He is perhaps most famous for his long and fruitful collaboration with Roald Dahl, whose children’s books he illustrated from 1975 until Dahl’s death in 1990. In 1999, Blake was appointed the first Children’s Laureate. He has been commissioned to illustrate several classic works of literature for The Folio Society, including Cervantes’s Don Quixote. For this new commission – proposed by Blake himself – he has created 18 colour illustrations and nearly 30 black and white drawings.
Julian Barnes is the award-winning author of Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Arthur and George. He has also written widely on France and French literature. In his introduction to this Folio Society edition, he examines the seismic impact of Candide in Voltaire’s own time and its relevance to this day, and writes that the hypocrisy, greed and cruelty that Voltaire condemns are as much a part of our world as his. If satire worked, Barnes points out, then it would no longer be needed. The book’s true genius lies in its ability to make mankind’s insanity so very funny.
‘The world is not reformed by the end of Candide, and cultivating one’s garden protects no one from an army of Bulgarians. Satire is not about “finding a solution”… rather, it is the necessary expression of moral rage… “But then, to what end”, Candide muses, “was the world formed?” Martin replies: “To make us mad.” Satire is one response to, and outlet for, this cosmic madness’
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A Remarkable Interpretation of one of the Greatest Works of World Literature
Quentin Blake and I have worked on many books together over the years; a year or so ago we ran into each other at a party, and I asked whether he would like to illustrate another book for us. ‘Not half,’ he replied. ‘Do you know I have just rediscovered Candide – every line cries out for an illustration, the only hard bit would be choosing what to leave out. How about it?’
My own acquaintance with Candide started during school days. The introduction to French Literature offered in those days was a heavy diet of classical drama by Racine and Corneille and these purveyors of high seriousness and lofty ideals did not immediately appeal to a 16-year-old schoolboy in the 20th century. Moving onto Voltaire brought an incredible contrast. Here was wit, iconoclasm, adventure, sex, exuberance, folly, invention, grotesquery, travel, violence and most appealing of all, perhaps – sheer irreverence. This was literature designed for enjoyment, but with an unmistakeable message we could clearly identify with.
So when Quentin said ‘how about it?’ I did not hesitate for moment. Who better to conjure up all those characteristics of the book which had appealed to me all those years ago, and does still to this day?
Quentin Blake is a phenomenon. Now in his eighth decade, he has never been more active, involving himself in charitable projects on both sides of the channel, setting up a major institution (the House of Illustration, which will receive the archive of his original works and will be the first permanent home in Britain for the illustrator’s art) and of course illustrating books. He has so far illustrated ‘over 323’ books (a quaint way of putting it, which manages to be both precise and vague at the same time, rather like his drawing) but it is not the quantity which is amazing, but the thought and imagination which goes into every illustration.
Spontaneity is a vital aspect of Quentin’s art, but the final dashed-off effect conceals meticulous planning. Initial sketches are worked over repeatedly until he feels they are coming right; then the rough drawing is laid on a light-box with a fresh sheet of watercolour paper on top and the final artwork is drawn over it, following the design of the rough drawing but with fresh rapid pen – not so much a tracing as a reinvention of the design.
Sometimes fresh inspiration strikes at a late stage, as with the frontispiece for this book, which shows Pangloss enthusiastically expounding his optimistic philosophy to the young Candide. Just before the book was due to be printed, Quentin phoned with an urgent request to make some changes. To the new version he added the clouds rolling up behind the protagonists, threatening their sunny view of the future, and adding a whole new dimension to an already fine composition.
The book is packed with illustration, so much so that we decided to make the binding simplicity itself, with just the title and author in Quentin’s unmistakeable script. My first thought had been to illustrate the slipcase, but Quentin suggested simply blocking the title again, but greatly enlarged. I think you will agree that this is a master stroke.
More exciting still is that Quentin will be signing and numbering every copy. He has never before autographed a complete edition of this kind, and I think the fact that he has agreed to do so says something special not only about Candide but about the relish he has brought to illustrating it.