Sunday, September 23, 2007

No crime at all. Review of "To The Hermitage" by Malcolm Bradbury and The Eight by Katherine Neville

To The Hermitage (TTH) by Malcolm Bradbury is a most rewarding, if occasionally challenging, book. It contains two parallel stories. One story describes the great French philosopher and intellectual Denis Diderot, contemporary of Voltaire's and author/editor of the monumental Encyclopedia, finally making the perilous journey in 1773 from Paris to St. Petersburg. With this trip, he is fulfilling his long-avoided promise to visit Catherine the Great, who had purchased his vast library for her collection. The other story is a modern academic/artistic pilgrimage, The Diderot Project, following partly in the philosopher's footsteps to St. Petersburg on the eve of violent social change in Russia (in 1993).

One odd thing is that I read Katherine Neville's The Eight while reading TTH, and they had many of the same characters, in addition to having the same sort of temporally-split story line featuring contemporary and 18th century settings. The Eight is a thriller that mixes old myths, chess and modern intrigue. It pre-dates The Da Vinci Code by many years (published in 1988) and is quite well written, only losing some taughtness of storyline towards the end. What TTH and The Eight have in common is a large number of real historical characters, and reading them nearly simultaneously helped me recall or learn some history through immersion in Europe before (1773) and during (1789) the French Revolution.

What does one feel on first looking into a 500 page novel about a philosopher and some academics and sundry artistic types? I could admit to a little trepidation, even being a huge fan of Bradbury's. Luckily, the author put me at ease immediately, after a brief introduction, with an uproariously hilarious Chapter One. It begins with the remarkable shell game played on our modern narrator, an English novelist, by a delightful Swedish bank teller, who reduces a decent amount of English money to a tiny number of American dollars by a process of charging tax at every possible opportunity (and some that seem impossible). The bank converts everything to Swedish kronor both coming and going . All of this is done while denying the validity of credit cards (in 1993!) and offering the most cheerful, beautiful, blond, blue-eyed smiling face. The IRS might want to note the deadly tactics.

A series of initially confusing chapters take place THEN, with the great philosopher, but these are sandwiched in between each chapter taking place NOW, where we are treated to the most accessible and frequently funny assemblage of Diderot Project members and their subsequent departure on a ship to St. Petersburg. The events leading up to departure include a continual comedy of manners and errors, starting with

  • A futile search of Stockholm for Ren√© Descartes’ tomb
    • It turns out that Descartes died in Stockholm, but the journey that his remains took outdoes even the Australian Philosophers' Song for Groucho Marxian hilarity (see the link for lyrics or YouTube for audio/video). Trying to trace the remains of M. Descartes could reduce a man to tears.
  • An extraordinarily chilly reception by our English narrator's Swedish hosts, the married couple Bo and Alma Luneberg (Bo is on the committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it is part of his job to give false hope to writers everywhere, as sincerely as possible).
    • Alma essentially says, "we would have been happy to bring you to our home for dinner instead of to this crummy little restaurant, but in Sweden, we keep our homes for our real friends." Such warmth!
  • The absolute inability of the poor narrator to convince his hosts that, as much as he likes it, he does not want to eat herring yet again on his first day in Sweden.
Then, while we begin to develop a feel for Diderot himself and for the form his story of 1773 will take, we meet gorgeous opera singer Birgitta Lindhorst, Swedish diplomat Anders Manders, skilled cabinetmaker Sven Sonnenburg, hip American professor Jack-Paul Verso (author of The Feminists' Wittgenstein) and other project members. In spite of the battle beginning between Boris Yeltsin and hard-line Russian communists, the group leaves port to sail up the Baltic and into Russia, accompanied by a dazzling assortment of chambermaids, bartenders, exotic dancers, and waitresses, all seemingly named Tatyana.

It turns out that the 18th century was a dangerous time for philosophers: a time when Emperors and Empresses needed the great men as advisers in court, but given the nature of the advice and nature of the men, a time when the philosophers often wound up in prison.

So it is with some justified fear that Diderot allows himself to be delivered, through a painful journey, to the court of Catherine. He proceeds to write a treatise on how to improve Russia, which he delivers once a week in written and spoken form to the Tzarina (I paraphrase):
  • "What, you want me to free the Serfs? Are you mad? They would rise up against me!"
  • "But no, Your Most Imperial Majesty, they would not, because of the extreme gratitude they would owe you. They would be your loyal servants."
  • "They are my loyal servants now, with no option to be otherwise. I think it is better. Let us discuss something else- reform of my police force, perhaps."

So we find in Diderot quite an American sense of Democracy, one might say.

As the modern Diderot Project members travel to and around St. Petersburg, its members become rather dispersed, and the concept of The Project seems to crumble due to the combined and contradictory pressures of, for example, the charming Tatyana from Puskin and the thrilling examination of the remains of Diderot's library. The discovery of volumes signed by Diderot, with extensive notes in the margins, and similar volumes with Voltaire's imprint, is, to our novelist, like discovering the lost library of Alexandria. Jack-Paul Verso's discoveries tend more towards Pushkin, and I don't mean the author!

I find that in trying to capture the book I can only come up with a pale imitation of the original, so, enough with the synopsis! Suffice it to say that there are long discussions, practical, theoretical, and always with a hint of danger, that occupy Diderot and his patron, and Denis is quite happy to depart home for France as long as he doesn't have to worry about being executed for treason when he arrives. He achieves his goal eventually.

At the same time, the apparently disintegrated Diderot Project really ends up providing each member with what (or whom) he or she sought. Plans are already being drawn up for a second Project, if only, Alma reminds everyone, they would write their papers on Diderot before arriving, next time.

So what is the bottom line? This book might not be for everyone, but if you have a love of history, or philosophy, or writing, or language, and a desire to learn a bit about vastly disparate European cultures while laughing quite a lot through the nervous times of the 1770's and 1990's, pick it up right away.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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