A love letter of sorts to the leading “philosophe” of the Enlightenment, as well as an urbane satire on the pretensions and absurdities of academe.
This tenth (and last) novel by the accomplished writer-critic, who died last year at the age of 68, consists of two alternating plots, one set in 1773, the other 220 years later. In the 1993 story, seven latter-day Canterbury pilgrims (including its narrator, an unnamed novelist and teacher who might as well be Bradbury himself) are gathered together for a scholarly enterprise known as the Diderot Project—and travel to Stockholm, then St. Petersburg. The varied group includes an overripe diva, a carpenter, a diplomat, and a skirt-chasing deconstructionist: representatives of Denis Diderot’s wide range of interests. Juxtaposed against their misadventures (which begin on the rundown Vladimir Ilich, the ship conveying them eastward) is the novelist’s imagined reconstruction of Diderot’s own journey to Russia, made at the behest of Empress Catherine the Great (who wants his library)—and of their deliciously witty conversations (presented in play form), in which the philosopher’s passionate libertarian views make little impression on the monarch’s serene political pragmatism. Bradbury attempts parallel discourses in the contemporary sections—but his oblique lampoons of academic double-talk and Boris Yeltsin’s beleaguered tenure are unexceptional (they’re in fact the kind of thing he did better in The History Man, 1975, and the Booker-nominated Rates of Exchange, 1983). Still, the best parts of this awfully overstuffed novel are its most discursive moments. Bradbury had a versatile, interesting mind, and there’s something quite moving about his reverence for the transmission of a broad general culture and his evident belief that the power of an agile, restless mind like Diderot’s can have influence far beyond the reach of political expediency.
Not much happens in Hermitage, for all its length. But readers should enjoy eavesdropping, especially on the philosopher’s attempts to “civilize” the imperturbable Empress. Bradbury’s grave and reverend (at times downright farcical) swan song is one of his most assured and entertaining performances.