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2012 Seminar on the History of the Book: Nicholas Cronk, “The problem of ‘complete works’: the case of Voltaire”

by on February 8, 2012

from Martha Repp

The third in the 2012 series of the Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book, convened by Professor I.W.F. Maclean, was held at All Souls’ College, Oxford on Friday 3 February, 2012. Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, spoke on “The problem of ‘complete works’: the case of Voltaire”.

Professor Cronk’s paper considered many of the complete or collected editions of Voltaire’s works, beginning with the editions published in Voltaire’s own lifetime, and including examples of the decisions that Professor Cronk has himself had to make in the course of the Voltaire Foundation’s production, begun in 1968 and to be completed in 2018, of what is intended to be the definitive complete, critical edition of the works of Voltaire.

Voltaire became famous quite young, and the first edition of his collected works was published in 1728, when he was still only 34. The first edition of Voltaire’s “complete works” was published in 1756 by the Cramer brothers in Geneva, and Professor Cronk used the production of this edition to illustrate the occasional tensions inherent in the relationship between authors and printers or publishers when it comes to the production of an edition of the author’s “complete works”. By 1756, Voltaire was an established and successful writer, and therefore very much a marketable label from the point of view of his publishers. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Cramer brothers were keen to include as much material as they possibly could in their edition.

What is apparent from Voltaire’s correspondence with the Cramer brothers, however, is that Voltaire did not entirely endorse their aim of an all-inclusive edition. In fact on several occasions he asked them not to include, or reproached them for having included, material which Voltaire felt might reflect poorly on him as a writer. Voltaire therefore seemed to regard this “complete edition” as an opportunity to construct his own image for posterity.

It is apparent from his correspondence with the Cramers that Voltaire was well-informed both about the printing and publishing process, and about the market for books. It is perhaps interesting, in view of Voltaire’s apparent lack of interest in producing an exhaustive edition of his works, that the “Encadrée” edition of 1775, the last edition of Voltaire’s complete works published during his own lifetime, and which he personally oversaw, includes not only Voltaire’s own occasional poetry, but the replies to these poems by other writers. This perhaps indicates a recognition on Voltaire’s part of a certain degree of sociability in the creative process. It is nevertheless true that after Voltaire’s death, and without his direct involvement in the editorial process, the amount of material included in editions of his “complete works” increased enormously.

Speaking as the current editor of the Voltaire Foundation’s edition, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Professor Cronk then went on to consider the difficulties of producing such a series of volumes. Some of these difficulties are specific to Voltaire himself, others are more general.

Academic and editorial ideas have changed regarding whether “authorial intention” should privilege one edition, perhaps that which the author saw personally through the press, over another which had more historical impact on readers. How should an edition of an author’s complete works be organized? This question is particularly acute in the case of an author such as Voltaire, who wrote so much in so many different genres. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this would not have been an issue; it was standard practice for the “complete works” of an author to be organized by genre, beginning with the “grands genres”, such as theatre and epic poetry, then moving on to history, and finally ending with miscellaneous prose works. In practice, this leads to a tendency to create a series of anthologies of different kinds of works, and this is perhaps not the most helpful way of approaching an author such as Voltaire, who had a tendency to juxtapose works of a number of different genres, creating miscellanies of apparently disparate works, which he nevertheless intended to be read together. Therefore, any “complete” edition that is organized by genre runs the risk of splitting up these works, and actually goes against Voltaire’s aesthetic of variety.

There is also a risk of lumping together works that were not intended to be read together. The most obvious example of this, in the case of Voltaire, are the “Contes philosophiques”, a category which anyone familiar with Voltaire will recognize, but which he himself never used.

Only a tiny minority of Voltaire’s works were published under his own name, with the rest being published either under one of a bewildering array of pseudonyms, or anonymously. Everyone ‘knew’ that most of these anonymous or pseudonymous works were actually by Voltaire, but this was not always the case; in fact, there are some works where even today it has not been possible to establish with any certainty whether Voltaire wrote them or not. This is further complicated by Voltaire’s habit of denying authorship of works that he actually had written. This in turn created a situation in which it was very easy for other writers to pastiche Voltaire’s style, and pass their work of as his. Examples of such pastiches include the sequel to “Candide”, now generally recognized as being by the abbé du Laurence. Some of these pastiches are obvious, but others are not, and many remained in the accepted canon of Voltaire’s works for a surprisingly long time.

The final discussion explored all of these issues in more detail, as well as raising new ones, such as the current location of Voltaire’s manuscripts in St Petersburg, and the need to produce a detailed catalogue of these.

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