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Book Review: To The Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury

Two books for the price of one, that’s the intriguing proposition of Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, the author’s final novel published shortly before his death in 2000. Divided into ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ the novel tells two stories linked together by two pilgrimages to St Petersburg – the author’s contemporary voyage and that of French philosopher Diderot some 200 years earlier.

Bradbury starts his novel in the present day. The protagonist is an academic (what else?) invited to attend ‘The Diderot Project’, a mysterious and rather ill-defined mission which will lead this select group from Stockholm all the way to St Petersburg – location of Catherine the Great’s ‘hermitage’ and where the Russian monarch once upon a time entertained the great French philosopher.

Organised by an academic called Bo, the unnamed academic arrives in Stockholm. Bradbury’s descriptions of the Swedish capital are always evocative if a little wry: yes, it’s a society of advanced liberalism but isn’t it also just a little bit dull, mechanical? It soon becomes apparent that the novel’s chief protagonist, the wry, slightly cynical British academic is a thinly-disguised portrait of Bradbury – of course. (Bradbury did indeed travel to St Petersburg on such a conference).

So, when the author hints at a one-night stand with a fellow attendee – a Swedish diva – fact and fiction meld deliciously together: just how much of ‘Now’ is invention? Bradbury enjoys teasing his reader, and why not? Anyway, the fictional Bradbury is one of a disparate band of pilgrims selected by Bo to travel to the Russian city of tragedy and fragility, the city which Catherine wished to transform into a cradle of culture.

The switch to ‘Then’ occurs every other chapter, back and forth. After introducing the reader to the pilgrims and describing the jaws of the Baltic Sea ferry upon which they will travel, it’s back 200 years to Diderot’s own Russian odyssey. Much of the ‘Then’ story consists of Diderot and Catherine in conversation. While the philosophical elements of the discussion might not be to every reader’s taste, the playful, flirtatious style will surely compensate. Catherine had a thing for French philosophers apparently. Hence, the novel contains plenty of material regarding her long-distance (platonic) love affair with the great Voltaire.

Meanwhile, Bo’s conference descends into farce. The pilgrims get bored, wander off round the ship, start having liaisons etc. Our author observes it all, but his co-travellers always remain somewhat minor two-dimensional characters. Possibly Bradbury could have developed them more had he not been writing two novels?

When the pilgrims finally arrive in an icy Saint Petersburg the sense of anti-climax is wonderfully comic. By this time, the party has dispersed leaving just the British academic to make his way to the hermitage – the original objective of the trip. Here Diderot’s papers are scattered in the immense library. It’s a gigantic puzzle to which no key exists. Our hero has fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition, but to what end?

The ’Now’ narrative ends with the pilgrims once again reacquainted on the ferry back to Sweden, the diffident British academic once more being propositioned by a sultry Scandinavian Goddess. The Bradbury character is, as it transpires, somewhat of a babe magnet. Ah, the vanity of the author . . .

Meanwhile, Diderot and Catherine part ways. Exiled in Holland the philosopher eventually meets Voltaire and Bradbury conjures up a wonderful scene in which the two great colossi of the enlightenment meet. As for Diderot’s papers – his life’s work – Catherine the Great decided not to follow his blueprint for the perfect city of learning and light. Instead, a certain individual called Thomas Jefferson inherited those cherished papers. . .

To The Hermitage is an enjoyable . . . romp. Yes, it’s a romp, but owing to the schizophrenic nature of the book it’s difficult not to feel Bradbury missed a trick or two here. Personally, I prefer the ‘Now’ narrative and would liked to have learnt more about the colourful cast of pilgrims and their amorous adventures. The fictional Bradbury character too could have been developed further had the novel not compromised with the ‘Then’ narrative.

This book is almost hilarious, almost brilliant, but as with several other Bradbury works – Rates of Exchange, Eating People is Wrong, Stepping Westward – just falls short. Nonetheless, it’s a novel which scores well in terms of its descriptions of place. In some ways Stockholm and Saint Petersburg are the novel’s main characters; the former in all its neat, rational modernity, the latter in all its icy, chaotic antiquity. Historical accuracy is also evident, not least in the volume of sources consulted.

At 400 pages plus, this is a novel that requires a fair investment of time. With its past-present structure and its ambiguity between fact and fiction, Bradbury has created a rather intriguing brew here. If nothing else, To The Hermitage’s ingenuity is worth the effort alone.