20 September 2007

Malcolm Bradbury - To the Hermitage

This was Bradbury's last novel - he died the year it was published, in 2000. It has a double narrative - the narrator, travelling to St Petersburg on a cruise from Stockholm as part of an undefined 'Diderot Project', and the story of Diderot's trip to the same city in 1773 at the request of Catherine the Great, who had bought his library, but let him use it in his lifetime.

I'm quite fond of Diderot, the little I've read of him (mostly Jacques le Fataliste), and Bradbury's enthusiasm for the wittiest of the Enlightenment philosophers was the genesis of the novel. The Diderot Project is a real group that Bradbury was involved with, inspiring the story, and he has a little fun with stock types, the academic satire he's best known for. That element of the story is the weakest, and the pay-off - that each member of the seemingly unconnected group represents one facet of Diderot's versatile career - is predictable.

More interesting is Bradbury's imagining of Diderot's character and interaction with Catherine. Diderot has notions of an ideal society, but as that involves the absence of monarchs, and the devolution of power, they're not well received. The conclusion, that instead of creating a new Russia he's responsible for the new America, emphasises the great influence of an underrated philosopher - less read than Voltaire or Rousseau, but probably more significant, due to the Encyclopedie, which disseminated the Enlightenment ideas and methods of enquiry.

I started To the Hermitage while in St Petersburg, although I didn't get to the parts set there before I left the city. The city was built as an ideal, in the way that few European cities have been, but many in America have. Peter the Great wanted a new Amsterdam, hence the canals cutting through marshy land, and both he and Catherine sponsored learning and culture - Peter founded the Academy of Sciences, and Catherine the Hermitage, which she filled with art partly bought for her by Diderot. Catherine's tribute to Peter, the famous Bronze Horseman, was built by a sculptor recommended by Diderot - his influence pervades the city, but is now forgotten.

The book is pretty funny - not, according to Auberon Waugh, the funniest book ever written, but Bradbury is an experienced comic writer, and his ironies and wordplay are very entertaining. But it's the depth of the book, the suggestion that Diderot is the founder of the modern world, that stays with the reader.


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