Long before he died in November, 2000, at age sixty-eight, Malcolm Bradbury had turned the heart condition that had forced, or rather allowed, him to spend his youth reading into one of the most prolific, varied, and influential literary careers in postwar Britain. He wrote fiction, plays, literary criticism, screenplays, and teleplays, and edited volumes of fiction and criticism. Long associated and even confused with his friend, former colleague, and fellow academic-writer-critic David Lodge, he was half of a mythical creature called Brodge, sometimes said to dwell at an equally mythical writer’s retreat called Bradbury Lodge, where he, or they, perfected that peculiarly English invention, the campus novel. Yet Bradbury did more than wake the English novel out of its sleepy postwar provincialism. He helped introduce American literature and American Studies into the British university system and in 1970 cofounded Britain’s first (and still premier) American-style university writing program at the University of East Anglia, whose graduates include novelists Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. As chair of the 1981 Booker Prize committee, he was instrumental in bringing postcolonial fiction into the contemporary British mainstream with the selection of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Skeptical inquiry and intelligent play are typical of Bradbury’s work, along with a moral questioning that never degenerates into mere earnestness. To the Hermitage, Bradbury’s last, longest, and most leisurely novel, exists, as does much of Bradbury’s fiction, at the point where John Barth and Saul Bellow intersect. It is a shaggy dog story of sorts, as well as “an intellectual sitcom,” a “joyful feast of reason and whimsy,” “a virtual adventure in the history of ideas,” “a love letter to the life of the mind” that deals with “great political ideas and our own human mortality.” It is also Bradbury’s most Lodge-like novel, in its twin, alternating-narrative structure, each story set in a different time and having its own narrator, style, and cast of characters.
“Now” takes place in October, 1993, and starts out in Stockholm, “liberal, simple, decent, and without irony,” where Bo Luneberg, grammarian and member of the Nobel Prize committee, has gathered a “mixed salad” of participants for his Diderot Project. (The real Bo—Goranzon, not Luneberg—organized an actual Diderot Project which included the real Bradbury.) The ostensible purpose of this grant-sponsored academic junket along the “Enlightenment trail” is “to track down what has happened to all our friend’s books and papers after they went to the Hermitage. You know that story, of course,” Bo tells the nameless, Bradbury-like narrator who, of course, does not know the story, though he does know more about Diderot than most of the other “pilgrims.” These are Bo and his wife Alma, a carpenter, a diva, a diplomat, a dramaturge, a trade unionist (all Swedes), the unnamed (British) writer, and an American professor of contemporary thinking at Cornell, hilariously named Jack-Paul Verso, who is as trendy in his dress as he is in his thinking, or rather his theory. They are the kind of caricatures one generally finds in Bradbury’s wonderfully comic novels and the narrator just the latest (and lamentably last), as well as oldest, in a long-line of semiautobiographical naïfs who play the part of hapless protagonist. Once out of his very English element, he is at a loss. At a bank, for example, he manages to exchange one hundred British pounds for just forty U.S. dollars. Cut off from the familiar, he finds himself aboard a ferry named for Lenin headed for a postcommunist Russia he may not be able to enter, for just as the pilgrims leave Stockholm, history in the form of Boris Yeltsin decides to complicate Bo’s project and Bradbury’s narrative. Yeltsin has chosen this moment to decide that the only way to save parliamentary democracy in post-Soviet Russia is to act as despotically as any tsar and dissolve the Russian parliament, the Duma.
Worse, and funnier, once arrived in St. Petersburg the narrator is the only one of the project’s participants interested in actually seeing that obscure and ostensible object of the pilgrims’ desire, Diderot’s library, purchased by Catherine the Great. Thanks to Madame Galina Solange-Stavaronova, see it he does, or rather, see what she has managed to salvage from the Hermitage’s vast and uncatalogued holdings. Anything that has not yet been stolen or sold and that looks like it may date from the eighteenth century she has placed in a damp room with a leaking ceiling. It is a strange act of salvage and preservation,...
(The entire section is 1914 words.)