Author: Oliver Goldsmith
Title: The Citizen Of The World. Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, residing in London, to his Friends in the East
Time: around 1762
Destination: England, Persia, China
Length: ca. 2 years
Never ending letters
[Note: I have been reading a German translation of this book.]
The story: we’re in mid-18th century England, and OG is a writer/poet with many talents. This book is a collection of „letters“ he starts writing for a periodic publication around the year 1760. Why did I put quotation marks around the word „letters“ though? Well, because OG is just using the literary form of the letter in order to make a point.
He writes what we today would probably call a column, but he makes it look like a series of letters between actual people. The „writers“ of these letters are personas that he assumes, mainly a certain Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese traveller in England, and his son, who is in the process of escaping from an enslavement situation in Persia.
Oliver Goldsmith and his lengthy column
The book is fun at first. OG is drawing on Montesquieu’s „Persian Letters“ for inspiration, and he is clearly enjoying the „observations“ that his imagined Chinese traveller makes in the English (and European) society of his time. A lot of it is satirical, like when Altangi naively praises certain ladies who seem to be very friendly to him (which the reader can easily identify as prostitutes). Or when he discusses the qualities that a person must possess in order to become a successful poet in England. Funny stuff.
But the book is too long. It just goes on and on. OG throws in a few orientalisms here and there and tells the story of Altangi’s son fleeing from Persia in between, but at times it seems as though he doesn’t really know what he wants to talk about, as if he is just filling pages.
I think this is due to his writing process. Remember, OG is publishing his „letters“ in a regular column. This column is earning him money as he is writing, so he has every reason to milk it as long as possible and not limit the total length of his text. More letters = more money. This is probably the reason why this book is so long.
Well, who should read it then? I think if 18th century England is your thing, then you will enjoy this. If you watched Barry Lyndon and didn’t think it was mostly just costume porn, then go ahead and read this book in its entirety.
If you are into satirical stuff, you can give it a try, too. Some of OG’s observations are very sharp and funny. But remember: it is lengthy!
Overall, I’d give this one a 4/10.