Voltaire is an extremely contemporary figure, with his continual intelligent questioning of the religion and morality of his time. In that time he was the gadfly of Europe, sparkling and flashing with erratic brilliance and helping to sow liberty in the minds of the eighteenth century.

In his new biography, Derek Parker follows the events of his life – his contact at a very early age into the company of the best minds of France, his friendship with aristocrats (who proved untrustworthy); his imprisonment for impertinence to the court, his visit to England (a country which much impressed him), and his continual fights with church and state. His most famous work is still Candide, the novel prompted by the disastrous earthquake in Lisbon in which many thousands died, and which the churchmen of the time blamed on the sinfulness of man. The parallel with the recent tsunami is instructive: still, the church maintains that the universe is ruled by an all-loving and all-powerful God, but is unable to explain why he does not love man enough to stop the disasters which kill thousands of innocents. Voltaire doesn=t have an answer, but his demolition of Christianity is complete and perhaps unanswerable. >The people who need the help of religion to be honest men are much to be pitied=, he said – going on to hope he might live to see >the most ardent of my wishes fulfilled – the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.= Would that he were alive today, if only to hear his views on Mr Blair and Mr Bush.

He wrote incessantly – hundreds of thousands of words poured from his pen: plays, poems, essays, countless letters. His friendships with Frederick the Great and Catherine of Russia were close, but insufficiently close to rescue him from Frederick when he was too impertinent, and was chased from the Prussian court with spies at his heels. The lost of his life was one of the most intelligent women in Europe, Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet; yet by the time she died (giving birth to a child by another man) he was already living with his niece, a vulgar ignoramus whose only appeal was presumably in the bedroom.

This is the first biography for some time of one of the most remarkable men of eighteenth-century history – the man who, at the end of his life, was almost crowned by his countrymen.

Viltaire should be available at good bookshops in the UK, USA and Australia. It is published by Sutton, and its ISBN number is 0-7509-3440-9