To the Hermitage

Volume 2, Issue 2

Cross-cultural encounters permeate this issue, although by accident rather than conscious decision. In To the Hermitage Malcolm Bradbury weaves parallel stories of an English novelist’s voyage to Saint Petersburg in 1993 and Denis Diderot’s visit to Catherine the Great in 1773. The juxtaposition allows Bradbury to address both the Enlightenment and its critics and, as Kent Wright argues in his illuminating review, to offer his own rejoinder. He was not alone, moreover, in believing that fiction offered the best vehicle for a sympathetic rendering of the Enlightenment. The novel combines tongue-in-cheek pastiches of academic wrangles and eighteenth-century literature with realistic narrative, and can therefore be read (and hence taught) on multiple levels. Like David Lodge, Bradbury brings to his romps a profound literary knowledge and his novel is as good a guide as any to the literary currents of the late twentieth century. One might hesitate to assign Patrick Suskind’s Perfume or Andrew Miller’s Pure, despite their vivid recreations of eighteenth-century Paris, when one can have students read Diderot, Mercier, or Marivaux, but To the Hermitage does something more. Unlike Woody Allen who, in juxtaposing two eras, asks that we distance ourselves from an imaginary past, Bradbury uses the juxtaposition to bring us into the past.

To the Hermitage

Kent Wright
Arizona State University

To the Hermitage stands out among Malcolm Bradbury’s novels, and not merely for being the last.  Its many predecessors – including Eating People is Wrong (1959), The History Man (1975), and Doctor Criminale (1992) – had long since established Bradbury as David Lodge’s only rival as Britain’s premier academic novelist. The targets of his satire naturally changed over the decades, as intellectual fads came and went, from the heyday of New Criticism to the dismantling of Deconstruction. But the basic schema remained the same: fictions in which a mild-mannered narrator-observer encounters one kind of intellectual-cum-social extravagance or another, with destruction typically the result. Center-right in political sensibility, Bradbury was always pleased to demonstrate the ways in which academic extremes tended to meet, at the far ends of the spectrum. The formula is at work once more in To the Hermitage, in which an amiable English novelist describes his participation in “The Diderot Project,” a cockamamie cruise-ship colloquium, sailing from Stockholm to St. Petersburg and back, in October 1993. This time, however, the scholarly burlesque is paired with a parallel narrative, recounting a rather different voyage to St. Petersburg two centuries earlier – that of Denis Diderot himself, who spent much of 1773-74 at the court of his royal patron, the Empress Catherine II. The result is to make To the Hermitage a far more ambitious novel than any of its antecedents, both formally and intellectually. Not just its author’s sole experiment with the historical novel, To the Hermitage is in fact one of a striking cluster of fictional statements about the Enlightenment, self-consciously “postmodern” in form and content, which appeared around the turn of the century. That Bradbury should have died shortly after its publication, at only 68, adds a further poignancy and pungency to a novel whose central theme is quite literally “the death of the author” – or, as Bradbury’s narrator puts it, postmodernism understood as “postmortemism.”

Bradbury’s Preface informs us that there really was a “Diderot Project,” hosted by colleagues at the Royal University of Stockholm, whose meeting he attended in October 1993, in the company, among others, of the British historian Jon Cook and the American philosopher Stephen Toulmin. There really was a Denis Diderot, of course, whose portrait here owes much to P. N. Furbank’s biography – and a Catherine the Great, and a Boris Yeltsin, who really was engaged in directing a lethal artillery assault on his own legislative branch in Moscow, while Bradbury and his colleagues enjoyed the sights in St. Petersburg. Describing himself as “a wee postmodern Haussmann,” Bradbury warns us that he taken some liberties with the facts, when they seemed “dull or inaccurate”; on occasion bent time or space; staged encounters between people “who never met in life, but certainly should have”; and generally acted as “Posterity’s spin doctor.” But there is actually little in the way of postmodern license or fancy in To the Hermitage. Both of its narratives are perfectly realistic, in the conventional sense of the term; the story of Diderot’s journey to Russia is in fact based on admirably extensive scholarly reading, described in a bibliographic “Note” (pp. 497-8). Whatever “magic” attaches to the realism of To the Hermitage results entirely from the juxtaposition of its parallel narratives.  These are spliced together very tightly indeed. An Introduction, describing the initial meeting between Diderot and “the most powerful woman in the world,” is followed by thirty-six numbered chapters, alternating between those entitled “Now” and those entitled “Then” – the former, the first-person chronicle of the adventures of the “Diderot Project,” the latter’s third-person account of Diderot’s own trip to St. Petersburg and back.

The “Now” narrative launches To the Hermitage and its contemporary comedy dominates the first half of the novel. Bradbury’s author-narrator has arrived in Stockholm in a mood rather like Ishmael’s in Manhattan – “oddly anxious, grey of soul” – with death very much on his mind. Recalling that René Descartes perished shortly after his own arrival in Stockholm, the novelist spends much of his first day there in a fruitless search for the grave of the French philosopher. The dull civism of his Swedish hosts does little to lift the Nordic gloom, nor are they willing to shed much light on what the “Diderot Project” is about. Things do pick up, however, when the novelist boards the cruise ship (not the Anna Karenina he expected, but the Vladimir Ilich, named, alas, for “perhaps the man of our century I dislike the most”) and meets the rest of the Diderot “pilgrims.” For the most part, these are the cast for a Swedish “Gilligan’s Island” – retired diplomat, buxom opera star, table-making carpenter, blonde activist, sober dramaturge – few of whom have even heard of Denis Diderot. Not so the only other foreigner, an American already well known to the narrator – Jack-Paul Verso (sic), Professor of Contemporary Thinking at Cornell, author of the famous book The Feminists’ Wittgenstein and determined foe of Enlightenment rationalism – indeed, wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the motto, “I Love Deconstruction.”

Neither intellectual discord, nor television reports of Yeltsin’s bombardment of the White House, however, prevent the Vladimir Ilich from setting sail for St. Petersburg. The usual high jinks ensue. Having first re-staged, with the assistance of “Tatyana from Pushkin,” the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, and then spent the night in the arms of the opera star, the affable narrator is forced to improvise, when he is called upon to deliver a shipboard paper on Diderot the next morning. “A Paper that is Not a Paper” is what he comes up with – shaggy-dog tribute, by way of Barthes, to Tristram Shandy and Jacques le fataliste, recounting how Sterne’s book ended up in Diderot’s hands, while his corpse made its way around Britain to a final reburial by university students in 1968, attended by the author himself. Instead of reading his own Xeroxed, and perhaps plagiarized, paper – “All You’ll Ever Need to Know,” arguing that the Internet is merely the latest replacement for Diderot’s Encyclopédie – Jack-Paul Verso protests that his British colleague has misrepresented Barthes, whose theme was not the literal death of authors, but the death of authority itself. No surprise, then, that the putative antagonists end up together in the Vladimir Ilich’s bar, with a bottle of Jim Beam, watching the shelling of the White House in Moscow on the telly. Abandoned by the Swedish soprano, the narrator devotes the last evening before arrival in St. Petersburg to another Shandyesque diversion – a winning tale of nearly getting there, years ago. The publication of the Finnish translation of his first novel brought him to Helsinki, and then to a small village on the Russian border, where, mistaken by the inebriated populace for the author of Lord of the Flies, he was treated to a literary hero’s welcome, together with an invitation from the town’s lovely blonde mayor to bear his child – declined, reluctantly but gallantly, on that grounds that he wasn’t really William Golding . . .

St. Petersburg, The Bronze Horseman, Falconet

Amid the entertaining tomfoolery of the “Now” chapters, Denis Diderot initially has a difficult time getting a word in edgewise in the “Thens.” Their narrator – whose voice and diction is identical to that of the “Nows” – has plainly made good use not just of Furbank, but of Wilson, Crocker, Proust, et al., as well as Diderot’s own correspondence, in constructing a psychologically plausible portrait of the philosopher’s inner life, as he makes his way laboriously from Paris to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1773. The circumstances of the trip – Catherine’s patronage, purchase of his library, Diderot’s art dealership on her behalf – are carefully explained, and the dramatis personae of his life introduced. These include Diderot’s wife (“The Great Particularist”), his mistress Sophie Volland, and the friends awaiting him in St. Petersburg: Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm, the indispensable go-between of the European Enlightenment; and Etienne Falconet and Marie-Anne Collot, hard at work on what would become the famous “Bronze Horseman,” a commission arranged by Diderot himself. Bradbury’s imagining of his reunion with the two sculptors is a wonderful set piece. But the “Then” story really only clicks in with the appearance of the Empress Catherine. Where the story of the “Diderot Project” switched to its pastiche of Sterne, the account of Diderot’s sojourn in St. Petersburg is henceforth given over almost entirely to dialogues between philosopher and empress, plainly modeled on those of Jacques le fataliste and Le neveu de Rameau. The relationship between Diderot and Catherine makes a slow start, as they warily take one another’s measure. They spar, amiably enough, over religion, but politics naturally proves a thornier topic.  Diderot criticizes Catherine for not moving quicker to enact the reforms sketched out in her Nakaz, or for cleaving too closely to the advice of Voltaire in regard to Poland or the Ottomans; she accuses him of naïveté – of being an incoherent dreamer, a rigid rationalist one day, corrosive skeptic the next. Worse: by the end of Part One of To the Hermitage, Catherine, having intercepted a letter from the French ambassador, accuses Diderot of spying on behalf of Versailles. That evening, Diderot dreams, à la d’Alembert, of erotic consummation with the empress herself – only to be discovered by her courtiers, who throw the naked philosopher out of the window of the Winter Palace, into the freezing Neva!

But the Empress relents, Diderot remains in St. Petersburg for the winter, and their dialogues resume. The tone of To the Hermitage alters considerably in its shorter second part, its colors becoming ever darker as its two narrative streams begin to converge upon a common end-point. Once they reach St. Petersburg, the “Diderot Pilgrims” of 1993 scatter to separate Russian destinations – academic lectures, opera, labor relations, table-making, dramaturgy. Jack-Paul Verso runs off with Tatyana–from-Pushkin, for parts unknown – perhaps heading for Moscow, to investigate the evolution of “post-Marxist” philosophy in the new Russia. It is left to the narrator alone to take advantage of the tour guide provided by the “Diderot Project,” who turns out to be his own private Catherine the Great – Madame Galina Solange-Stavaronova, the seventy-something polyglot, Francophile librarian, who has devoted a career to the books and manuscripts of Voltaire and Diderot, whose home in the Hermitage is the permanent tribute to the depth of Catherine’s own Francophilia. Which of the two philosophers does Galina herself prefer? “I can tell you this. Voltaire is always French, as the French like to see themselves: clarity, wit, and reason. Didro is not a French writer, he is British and German and Russian too. In Paris they call him Denis Diderot; here we have our own name for him – Dionysian Didro. He made the journey to Russia, he learned the mystery of our city. He looked in its mirror, he invented the double. He influenced Pushkin, who influenced Gogol, who influenced everyone. In him we can find all our other writers. Yes, monsieur, it’s just like those dolls you carry” (321-2).  What Galina cannot conceal, however, is the fact that the library itself is a shambles, its relentless decay in Soviet hands now turning to destruction. An entire night talked away in Galina’s apartment reveals the personal toll of the failure of the Soviet experiment: a husband lost to the Gulag long ago, estranged from her children, she deems her life a failure. Once again, the novelist finds himself in the arms of a stranger – this time kissing away her tears. Looking ahead, he tells us that on a return trip to St. Petersburg two years later, he learned that Galina Solange-Stavaronova had died in the meantime, never realizing her own dream of visiting Paris. But in 1993 she left him with an astonishing gift, which he only unwrapped later – nothing less than Diderot’s own copy, heavily marked with his notes, of the final volume of Tristram Shandy, in whose pages the narrator discovers the lost ending to Jacques le fataliste. “Books breed books,” is the one certainty on which the narrator insists, throughout To the Hermitage – and now, we are given to understand, it was this gift from Galina that bred the book the reader holds in his or her hands.

Well before the “Now” story ends come to this conclusion, however, the center of gravity of To the Hermitage has begun to shift decisively to the past. This has much to do with the delicacy of Bradbury’s depiction, in Part Two’s dialogues, of the last stages of Diderot’s relationship with Catherine – which deepens considerably, before coming to its inevitable conclusion. The philosopher’s criticism of the empress’s “despotism” earns a stinging rebuke; but she makes up with a gift of one of Voltaire’s watches, from the factory at Ferney, together with assurances of Voltaire’s jealousy of Diderot; unsettled by his corrosive skepticism about the existence of a unitary “self,” Catherine, lonely in an otherwise empty palace, begs him to stay with her. There are good reasons for the Empress Catherine’s anxieties, with Pugachev’s revolt – far graver equivalent to the Constitutional Crisis of 1993, which in fact disappears from view altogether in Part Two, along with Jack-Paul Verso – now reaching its climax (Bradbury here compressing time slightly). One day, finding the empress reading “her favorite English novel,” Tristram Shandy – no doubt the same volume passed on to the narrator in 1993 – Diderot recounts the famous anecdote of the cruel practical joke that Chesterfield played on Montesquieu during their stay in Venice. Diderot claims that the story isn’t true – but Catherine understands that it is time for the philosopher to return to France. To his lament that his trip to Russia has been in vain, she responds, “But you made every difference, my dear Didro. You and Monsieur Voltaire can tell the world now that my ideals always reached higher than my deeds. I sometimes think we dreamed each other. I dreamt you, and you say you dreamt me.” It is the philosopher who weeps, as the Empress turns her attention to his replacement, Potemkin. Furnished with a new coat, precious ring, and an English carriage, Diderot makes his way laboriously back to Germany, the Netherlands, then Paris.

To the Hermitage ought to conclude at this point, with both voyages complete, our narrator-novelist already furnished with his invitation to the next conference, in Norway in 1994 – the “Wittgenstein Project.” Instead, the novel ends with a surprise – a final chapter, twice the length of any of its predecessors, and extending far beyond the requirements of the double narrative, without equivalent in the “Now” narrative. It recounts Diderot’s last years, from his return to Paris to his death a decade later, concentrating on a series of encounters with luminaries of the late Enlightenment – all fanciful, none beyond plausibility. In order, one meeting leading to another, we meet Raynal, Diderot’s co-conspirator in the Histoire des deux Indes; Benjamin Franklin, introduced by Beaumarchais, both hard at work on behalf of the American rebellion; and then, thanks to Franklin, Voltaire himself, during his triumphant final appearance in Paris, indeed fuming with jealousy about Diderot’s intimacy with Catherine. Voltaire is soon gone, however, and in the same year, Diderot’s former protégé, Rousseau. Diderot’s own thoughts turning autumnal, there are appearances by three acquaintances from the east, to keep Catherine in his view: Orlov, Princess Dashkova, and then the Archduke Paul himself, in disguise. The final visitor imposed on Diderot by the irresistible Grimm, is the Minister Plenipotentiary of the new American confederation, with daughter Patsy and slave James Hemmings (his sister oddly called “Sarah” rather than “Sally”) in tow. On this occasion, it is Jefferson who remarks that “books breed books,” referring to the influence of the Encyclopédie on his Notes on the State of Virginia.  Diderot reaches a sudden decision, to bestow the schemes and plans he had drawn up for Catherine on Jefferson instead. He dies that very evening, in 1784, choking on an American apricot brought by the Minister Plenipotentiary – but a happy man, reckoning that the trip to Russia had perhaps not been in vain after all. Buried in the church of Saint-Roch a few days later, Diderot’s body soon disappeared, rather like those of Descartes or Sterne, or . . .

As even a brief summary suggests, Bradbury went to extraordinary lengths to please and to instruct in To the Hermitage. If he mostly succeeded at both – such that the novel can be recommended warmly for pedagogical purposes, to students of the French Enlightenment and Revolution, or of eighteenth-century literature more generally – this owes much to the formal devices he adopted. On the one hand, there is the fact that both narratives, once underway, are largely given over to pastiche of eighteenth-century forms, in tribute to the authors who are the main objects of attention. It is hard to imagine a vehicle more suited for capturing academic shenanigans than satire à la Sterne; and what better introduction to Diderot than philosophical dialogues in the manner of Jacques or Rameau? On the other, there is the double narrative itself.  This is a form with a very long history, from Plutarch to Dickens, down to its postmodern proliferation today, with a wide variety of uses, typically combining the resources of comparison and contrast. Among many possible candidates, it seems likely that To the Hermitage owes something to the inspiration of Byatt’s Possession (1990), whose stories, Victorian and contemporary, are also tied together by the recovery – “possession” – of lost texts. But where Byatt set out to give new life to a specific literary tradition, that of the romance, the purpose of Bradbury’s use of the form is to return us to what is still typically regarded as the defining intellectual movement of modern history. What will readers of To the Hermitage learn about the Enlightenment?  More specifically, if the novel can be construed as a kind of postmortem or obituary, as it repeatedly describes itself, who or what has died?

Malcolm Bradbury’s Grave

One possibility is that Bradbury’s obsessive concern with the deaths of enlightened authors – Descartes, Sterne, Diderot – is meant to suggest that demise of all intellectual authority, the death of the Enlightenment itself. But this is clearly not the case. That is the position, the verdict of a facile postmodern relativism, that is incarnated in To the Hermitage by Jack-Paul Verso – the absurd incoherence of whose name, combining those of the Continental fathers of Deconstruction with that of the Anglosphere’s leading radical publisher, suggests the vacuity of his arguments, presaging his later disappearance, as it were, into thin air. What has died, however, is not unrelated to the Enlightenment, and it is indicated by what the two narratives of To the Hermitage share. Both involve the journey of a representative of Western intellectual achievement and advance to the same primitive periphery of the European world, to assist in, or at least observe, projects of political reform and modernization; and in both instances, journey and project alike end in impasse and failure – the first set, one is tempted to add, in light of the contrast between the epoch of Catherine and Pugachev and that of Yeltsin and the Democrats, as tragedy, the second as farce. More than that: To the Hermitage ends with a gesture conjuring up the two centuries of history separating its parallel tales, suddenly collapsing them into a single, overarching story. Five years after Diderot’s death, the narrator tells us on the novel’s last page, “the age of reason turned into the age of bloodletting” – the age, that is to say, of the Enlightenment Project of revolutionary regime-change, that began in 1789 with the happy dawn of the French Revolution, and finally concluded in 1989, with the somber night of the end of the Russian. To the Hermitage is an obituary, alternately playful and wistful, for the cycle of history that concluded with destruction of the Soviet Union. But if the Enlightenment Project is dead, Bradbury seems to suggest, long live the Enlightenment itself. For the true spirit of the latter is still with us, preserved intact in the enchanting narratives  – never grand, but rather skeptical, cosmopolitan, humane, and generous – of its most characteristic and attractive figure, Dionysian Diderot, whose books, happily incapable of inspiring revolutions, have also never ceased to instruct, and entertain, and of course to breed more books.

Malcolm Bradbury was far from alone, in that moment when it seemed we had reached the “end of history,” in seeking explanation or consolation in an alternate vision of the Enlightenment, shorn of its presumptuous or sinister political projections. To the Hermitage in fact was one of a set of fictional “takes” on the Enlightenment that appeared, in the 1990s whose convergence is all the more striking for the large differences between them. In 1996, the real Verso published a first novel by the distinguished sociologist Steven Lukes. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat was a faux-Candide fable taking readers on a tour of fanciful countries, each embodying one and only one Enlightenment value – Militaria, Utilitaria, Communitaria, and Libertaria (with a visit to Proletaria confined to a dream). The moral, rendered by the Owl of Minerva, is of course that the best of all possible social worlds would give due consideration to all virtues. A year later, Thomas Pychon’s Mason & Dixon revealed that his long-awaited novel was not about the Civil War after all but recounted the rocambolesque adventures of the astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon between 1761 and 1767, as they set out to establish, with astronomical precision, the southern boundary of Pennsylvania. This was an Enlightenment Project if there ever was one – lofty, if confused, intentions yielding bitter fruit. To the Hermitage, although pedagogically superior to the others, would bear extended comparison with both novels,which share an oddly similar sensibility, in their combination of a dystopian understanding of modern history as a whole, with an affectionate identification with Enlightenment thinkers.

It is a pity that Bradbury is no longer here to update his satire. He might have offered us a novel taking the Arab Spring as its backdrop, describing the mortal combat, at a series of academic conferences throughout the Middle East, between the partisans and the enemies of the redoubtable Professor Jeremy I. Zion, of the Institute of Advanced Thinking, author of the stupendous trilogy, The Ultra-Enlightenment. Ladies and gentlemen, make way for – what else? – “The Spinoza Project”!

Malcolm Bradbury, To the Hermitage.  Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 2000.  498 pp.

Tags: , , , , , , ,