09 September, 2009

Book 23 - To the Hermitage, or: "Erotics Adventures!! Brand New Positions!!! Please keep the sound low and try not to disturb your neighbours."

When you were a young warthog (sorry, caught part of The Lion King on tv the other day and that song's been stuck in my head ever since) did you ever read those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories? I remember them being all the rage at school and I remember hating them, because I could never get the 'good' ending. I'd always end up dying of starvation or being eaten by the monster or what have you.

Anyway, the other day when I was browsing the Young Adult section of Borders... I found some of them. Not the adventure-laden choose-your-owns of my youth, though; know, the point of these books were to make the right choices in order to... end up with the right guy. You stay classy, young adult lit. OK, I admit it, I read a couple of them, but they frustrated me to no end - for the same reason they did when I was a kid: I'd get to the end of the page, read my two choices, and think, "But I wouldn't do either of these things. These are both equally terrible choices. Why would I do either of these things? Why would my attractive but angst-ridden avatar do either of these things? What kind of the moron is she?"

In conclusion: Choose Your Own Adventure stories are one thing that I just never understood.

Today's novel is not, in fact, a book with a choose-your-own ending, but when I was trying to come up with a way of introducing it my brain suddenly spazzed out and couldn't remember if the correct phrase was "without further ado" or, "without further adieu". So, dear read-

If you would like to continue reading without further ado,
turn to page 19
If you would like to start reading without further adieu,
turn to page 67

Title: To the Hermitage (2000)

Malcolm Bradbury

Why this book?
Rec'd by a work colleague.

What's it all about, anyway?
To the Hermitage is written in two part: THEN and NOW.

THEN describes the time that French philosopher Denis Diderot spent in the court of Catherine the Great. Catherine was a great admirer of his; when she heard he was seriously short on money, she bought his entire library but allowed him to keep it until his own death. For some years she pressured him to come to Russia, and eventually he was no longer able to tell her 'no' - not least because other European rulers were starting to take a dislike to him.

Diderot is - perhaps typically for a philosopher - interested in everything, and his own great work is an Encyclop├ędie which he hopes will one day contain everything. He is uninterested in court intrigues, perhaps even to the extent that he will not even sleep with Catherine herself - but he does have grand plans for Russia, and grand ideas about how she should be - could be - ruled; and he has to do his best to convince Catherine of his ideas' merits before she transfers her admiration of him on to somebody else.

In the NOW, a novelist who is also a great admirer of Diderot's has been summoned to Sweden by an old friend to take part in a pilgrimage of sorts - a trip to Russia as part of the Diderot Project. The actual purpose of the Project itself is ambiguous at best; the other members include carpenters, opera singers, university lecturers, some of whom have never even heard of Diderot before now. But as the others gradually lose interest in the Project, our novelist pushes on - after all, great mystery surrounds the fate of Diderot's library, and it's not impossible that he might himself discover a book or a manuscript of Diderot's which has not seen the light of day for hundreds of years...

The Good and the Bad
This is one of those books which is pretty hard to describe; because while there is a plot of sorts it's not a story you're reading for its page-turning action sequences. It's Bradbury's words, the dialogue and the descriptions, which make this book so brilliant. A book which is essentially about a philosopher and a boat trip could be so very dry; but Bradbury's writing is lively and humorous and really, just beautiful. I can't pay it any compliment higher than that.

It begins with the lines,
"This is (I suppose) a story. It draws a great deal on history, but as history is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past I have improved it where necessary."
That should really tell you everything you need to know about this book.

It also took me an extraordinarily long time to read - I'd usually devour a book this size in maybe three days, tops - but it was just so dense, in terms of information. I spent a hell of a lot of time with my good friend Wikipedia looking up places and people. Actually, saying that will probably turn most people of reading it so I guess if history and geography and philosophy and political theory don't excite you this might not be the book for you.

But if history and geography and philosophy and political theory do excite you than hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen.

So should I read this book or what?

1 comment:

Sadako said...

Hells yeah. I'm STILL a young warthog always on the look out for a good choose your own adventure. Or chews your own adventure.

And this book looks really cool!