Unlike the torrent of stories, plays, critical studies, parodies, television scripts, anthologies and book reviews that poured from the pen of the late Malcolm Bradbury, his full-length novels came grudgingly, but once a decade: ''Eating People Is Wrong'' (1959), ''Stepping Westward'' (1965), ''The History Man'' (1975), ''Rates of Exchange'' (1983) and ''Doctor Criminale'' (1992).
Though each of these neatly captures the cultural preoccupations of its day and each experiments with style, they are more or less cut from the same cloth: most offer some version of a liberal British academic (who closely resembles Bradbury himself) confronting the farcical yet inevitably corrosive forces of postmodernity. There's the usual stuff of the academic comic novel -- the exposure of pretentious theorists, a splash of adultery, the bewilderment of the well-intentioned humanist and a bit of fun with the English language. Character and plot matter less than ideas. And what starts out in a comic vein invariably takes a darker turn.
Bradbury was often confused with David Lodge -- they were colleagues early on in their careers, wrote collaboratively and even make cameo appearances in each other's books -- but Bradbury's novels tend to be more grim and more technically ambitious, less funny and, as a result, a lot less successful commercially. Bradbury was aware of the price he paid for his experimental approach. As he put it in an interview in The Paris Review, there ''remain many writers for whom writing is not an economic activity but a vocation, the book not a commodity but a site of exploration.''
Nonetheless, Bradbury's previous novels were all published on this side of the Atlantic by big-name houses. But not this one. It is easy to imagine harried acquisition editors skimming through the hefty manuscript of ''To the Hermitage,'' failing to see what Bradbury was up to and deciding that there was no money to be made here. It is no small irony that the Overlook Press acquired the American rights to the one Bradbury novel that transcends its cultural moment and may well attract a coterie of admirers and have a long and happy shelf life.
In ''To the Hermitage,'' Bradbury breaks new ground. While the usual Bradbury stand-in appears, his role is now secondary to that of the novel's real hero, the great Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot (best remembered these days, as Bradbury ruefully notes in his preface, ''as a Parisian district or a Metro stop''). Those who still read Diderot today tend to dip into his Encyclopedia rather than his daring fiction -- This Is Not a Story,'' ''Jacques the Fatalist'' and ''Rameau's Nephew'' -- to which Bradbury is powerfully drawn.
Along with a literary hero comes yet another innovation: a surprising final turn toward the elegiac. Yes, a lot of the old ingredients are still included -- the satiric riffs, the knocks at deconstruction, the sleeping around -- but these often seem stale and do little more than enable Bradbury to address what's really on his mind: what does posterity have in store for writers? It's as if Bradbury started out to write one kind of novel in the early 1990's, when the old academic battles still seemed to matter, and then took his book in an entirely new direction when thoughts of mortality -- Diderot's and his own -- loomed larger.
''To the Hermitage'' is woven together out of two baggy plots, both based on actual journeys, which unfold in alternating and interwoven chapters labeled ''Now'' and ''Then.'' ''Then'' takes us back to 1773, when the aging Diderot arrives at the court of the world's most powerful woman, Catherine the Great. While Diderot spends his mornings filling up notebooks with dazzling plans for how to improve Russia, ''the Cleopatra of the age'' busies herself with the nasty business of running an unruly country. As she likes to remind him, he writes on paper, she on skin.
For a few hours on most afternoons, though, they meet at the Hermitage to argue and flirt -- and Bradbury does his best to reconstruct the sparring between these intellectual and despotic heavyweights. (It's sometimes unclear which one is which.) After several months of this, Diderot returns to Paris, Catherine's attention having turned to Potemkin. Upon Diderot's death, his extraordinary library, which Catherine had purchased and left in his possession, is carefully packed up and shipped off to its final resting place at the Hermitage.
Rather than romanticizing the Enlightenment and using it as a stick to beat our postmodern age -- as one might have expected from Bradbury -- the novel emphasizes just how much the two periods have in common. ''Now'' takes place in 1993, when an unnamed English novelist (the Bradbury stand-in) joins an academic junket called the Diderot Project, bound for St. Petersburg. The members of the Diderot Project include an unusual cast of academic hangers-on, each thinly drawn and each exemplifying a different part of Diderot's range of intellectual interests: a diplomat from Sweden, a philosopher from America, a writer from England and so on. Their ferry ride from Stockholm to St. Petersburg provides an excuse for some first-rate philosophical and literary set pieces.
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