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A READING LIFE

Dude, où est mon pays?

Thanks to all the freedom we've been waging abroad, to say nothing of its ferment at home, I have been trying to decide whether to go into exile or whether I'm already there. Brooding away, I find my thoughts turning to one of history's most famous and productive exiles and I ask, ''What would Voltaire do?"

The answer lies in Ian Davidson's excellent history of Voltaire's last 25 years, ''Voltaire in Exile" (Grove, $24). The first thing the great man did after Louis XV banished him for a final time, in 1753, was spend obscene amounts of money buying, improving, and furnishing estates. I have always thought of Voltaire as an austere man -- and reasonable, except, perhaps, in the matter of head gear -- so there is something scandalous about the details of his expenditure. To be sure, the most luxurious items were acquired to please his companion and niece, Marie Louise Denis, a peerless trencherwoman who liked the good things in life and plenty of them.

Freed from the jealousies and constant striving of Versailles, and surrounded by his own domain, Voltaire found himself happy for the first time in his life. And he began to find a social conscience. As is well known, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shocked him to his core, and he became consumed with the problem of evil and developed a sense of the unremitting tragedy of life. But possessed of tenants whose welfare depended on him, he began to change. ''It was only now," Davidson observes, ''after looking closely at his new estates, that he began to feel that the problem of evil was not some large and dramatic catastrophe in a faraway country but was here and now in the everyday sufferings of the poor and downtrodden; moreover, he realised that he now had a personal responsibility for trying to alleviate it on his own estates, as well as the means to do so." This, Davidson says, was ''a key moment in Voltaire's evolution." Soon enough, his sense of responsibility broadened, extending to victims of arbitrary power, especially the power wielded with cruel impunity by the combined forces of church and state.

Davidson shows that Voltaire had believed that the threat of disorder justified torture and hideous execution; but as he became alert to the sufferings of others, he began to understand that these measures were often employed against the innocent, that anyone could run afoul of the law and find himself crushed without recourse. With this change of heart came true moral development and Voltaire's great campaigns for human rights. They cost enormous amounts of money and took the shape of overturning unjust and arbitrary judgments, the first being the Calas affair. This involved trumped-up charges, torture, a huggermugger verdict, and the execution of a Protestant man as well as the disinheritance of his family. Voltaire's words on this are still, unfortunately, as apposite now as they were over 250 years ago: ''What horror is this, a secret judgment, a condemnation without explanations!"

This is an absorbing account of a very busy exile, one of getting and spending extravagantly, literary work (which included his ''Dictionnaire Philosophique" and ''Candide"), of theatrical production, entertaining, cultivating gardens (naturally), and of prodigious letter writing, the results of which enhance this volume with their wit and trenchant observation.

The other exile on my mind these days is P. G. Wodehouse, who died on Long Island 30 years ago this coming Valentine's Day and who is also the subject of Robert McCrum's splendid biography, ''Wodehouse: A Life" (Norton, $27.95). The creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Lord Emsworth (and the Empress of Blandings), Uncle Fred (and the great bath sponge Joyeuse), and all the rest of them was an exile twice over. Fleeing his never-ending tax tangles in England, Wodehouse and his wife and dogs eventually retreated to Le Touquet, a French seaside resort. After a belated and failed attempt to escape the German advance in 1941, Wodehouse was imprisoned in a series of camps and subsequently gave five humorous talks on his experience as an internee, which were broadcast by the Germans to America.

There was a time when this business was about the only thing one heard about Wodehouse, and it still comes up regularly. Pronouncing on how to act when surrounded by Nazis is, after all, just as popular and profitable as it ever was. It is for this reason, I expect, that McCrum goes into the matter so thoroughly, entering very deeply and acutely into what Jeeves has so often and gravely called the ''psychology of the individual." The salient elements in Wodehouse's case are parental neglect and his resulting, almost pathological desire to please and his fending off hurt with humor. Moreover, his happiest days were spent as a boarder at Dulwich College, which reinforced in him a schoolboy understanding of reality. (''I go off the rails," he once wrote, ''unless I stay all the time in a sort of artificial world of my own creation.") His ignorance of what his talks represented to war-torn England was truly invincible. He thought he was acknowledging and expressing his gratitude to his American fans who had written to him and sent him food (which he shared with his fellow inmates).

The facts, as laid out painstakingly and in great detail by McCrum, are that Wodehouse was cynically and cunningly manipulated by the Germans and his motives were ruthlessly mischaracterized by an American reporter. The story, twisted and embellished, led to his being excoriated, even by such former friends as A. A. Milne, whose denunciation seems to have been prompted by a portion of envy. Strangely -- but plausibly, given McCrum's thorough investigation of his subject's soul -- Wodehouse never really saw that he had done wrong. Still, he never returned to England, where for some time he might well have been prosecuted for treason. He made America his home.

I believe that Wodehouse has caused more eruptions of spontaneous, life-giving laughter in despairing, alienated readers than any other writer in English. I know I could not have survived the last four years without occasional resorts to his works, and I believe that the next four will demand increased doses. It is just as Evelyn Waugh proclaimed in 1961: ''For Mr Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no 'aboriginal calamity.' . . . The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. Mr Wodehouse's world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own."

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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