This Is Not A Conversation: Robert Cremins and Rob Zaretsky on Denis Diderot, Malcolm Bradbury, and Why We Write

ROB ZARETSKY: After years as friends and colleagues, we realized we had a couple of mutual friends: Denis Diderot and Malcolm Bradbury. Over lemonades on a sultry Houston morning, I told you about the book I was writing, about the epic journey that Diderot made from Paris to Saint Petersburg in 1773 at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Prying the straw from your teeth, you blurted: “Have you read To the Hermitage?” It was, you explained, a novel about this very same trip — written, moreover, by your late and beloved professor, Malcolm Bradbury.

ROBERT CREMINS: As Diderot says in Malcolm’s novel, every Moi needs his Lui, and if wily LARB readers begin to suspect that these two separate “Roberts” who teach at the University of Houston are facets of the same self-disputing, ever-restless, slightly addled modern mind, then so much the better.

ZARETSKY: At first, my Moi was pissed at your Lui! Honestly, I was bummed by your news; I thought no one else had ever thought to devote a book to this extraordinary but little-known event. And, to be honest, I was even more depressed after reading the novel. What, I wondered, was there left to write? You’ll be glad to know, as will my editor, that I’ve since found more to say, though not half as well as Bradbury, who in turn did not say things half as well as his hero Diderot. Who could, after all?

And so I thought we should have the very thing that Diderot lived for, and I suspect Bradbury did as well: a conversation about these two remarkable individuals, both of whom are mostly forgotten today. As for whether this will spur LARB readers to dust off copies of these writers’ books at their nearest used book stores, well, as Jacques the Fatalist would say, it is already written on the Great Scroll above …

CREMINS: I imagine Malcolm, in the Library of the Great Scroll above, would be delighted that you have found more to say about Diderot’s Russian adventure, for a recurring truth in Hermitage is that “books breed books.”

The formal pretext for Diderot venturing east in 1773 was his appointment to Catherine’s imperial court as librarian. In his novel, Malcolm juxtaposes a witty recreation of Diderot’s journey with a narrative that is far more typical of the fiction — campus novels such as The History Man — that made him a prominent part of the British literary landscape in the second half of the 20th century. The counterpart story in Hermitage is a kind of floating campus satire, set in 1993; an aging British novelist and intellectual, not unlike Malcolm Bradbury, is part of a motley crew of conference attendees (Malcolm loved conferences, and conferences loved Malcolm) sailing across the Baltic to Saint Petersburg in search of the Diderot’s legacy. The Malcolm character befriends a larger-than-life Russian woman whose life’s work is the reconstitution of Diderot’s library. Scanning the shelves containing the philosophe’s precious volumes, the novelist thinks about the days “when cultivated men and women kept a genuine storehouse, a sequence of grand leatherbound monuments to their own true seriousness.”

That moment brings to mind something I heard on the BBC. Anthony Burgess’s biographer quoted Malcolm saying Burgess was “a storehouse of culture.” I think the same could be said about Malcolm himself. When he died in 2000, I remember feeling that we had lost not just a wonderful person and writer, but also a whole archive of wisdom. Sir Malcolm was, among many other accomplishments, a pioneering professor of American studies in Britain at the innovative University of East Anglia, where I was fortunate to study with him in the creative writing program. Minds like Bradbury and Diderot — they didn’t just create libraries, they were libraries.

ZARETSKY: Yes, you’re right about the libraries: Diderot and Catherine had a library in common, but it wasn’t the imperial one in Saint Petersburg — at least, not yet there. You see, the library in question — all 3,000 books or so — happened to be in Diderot’s flat in Paris. It was the warehouse not just of Diderot’s dizzying eclectic interests, but also one of the workshops that crafted the 18th century’s greatest work: the Encyclopédie, the work that first introduced Diderot to Catherine.

In 1759, the royal censors tried to shut down Diderot and his merry (and free-thinking) band of scribblers. A couple of years later, eager to ingratiate herself with the philosophes, Catherine wrote to a harried Diderot from Saint Petersburg, offering to provide him with everything he needed to continue to publish the massive work. Perhaps because it would be located in Riga, Diderot replied “Merci, mais non merci.” But Catherine was persistent. A few years later, when she learned that Diderot had decided to sell his library in order to provide a wedding dowry for his daughter, Catherine pounced. She offered to buy the library for a royal sum, allow Diderot to keep it until his death and, with a flourish that rippled through the literary salons of Paris, appoint Diderot as his own library’s librarian, with a princely salary to boot.

Nice work if you can get it, right?

CREMINS: Nice work, indeed. Which is not, I should point out, an allusion to the title of a campus novel by Malcolm Bradbury — it’s the title of a campus novel by Malcolm’s virtual double, David Lodge. How often they were confused became a running joke between the two writer-academics; it didn’t help that as a visiting professor Lui-Lodge was assigned Moi-Malcolm’s vacant office (or possibly it was the other way around); another Lodge novel is entitled Changing Places.

ZARETSKY: Aha. But as for Diderot, although he didn’t have to change places, he now had no choice but to accept the invitation to visit her in Saint Petersburg: Catherine’s coup de théâtre had determined Diderot’s future even more securely than the Great Scroll. And so, at the ripe age of 60, he mounted a carriage and rattled out of Paris for the long trip to Mother Russia. It was an epic journey on which his companion Prince Narishkin, a simple and impressionable Russian francophile — something of a redundancy in the 18th century — played the audience to Diderot’s dazzling riffs on every imaginable topic and straight man to Diderot’s daring antics.

Here lies one difference between Bradbury and Diderot. While your teacher could not get enough of the academic racket of conference junkets, Diderot had enough to do simply thinking about traveling. Why cart one’s carcass across the continent, he asked, when you could travel anywhere by reading a book in the comfort of your study? In fact, the trip to Russia was the first time he ever left Paris and its surroundings. Otherwise, yes! Both men were storehouses of culture. But I wonder if Bradbury matched Diderot’s gift of sharing the contents of that storehouse through conversation.

CREMINS: Bradbury wouldn’t have put himself in the same league as Diderot, but if some time machine had allowed them to enter into a dialogue, I believe the philosophe would have soon recognized that here indeed was “un grand causeur” like himself. In a sense, Hermitage is that time machine, a sly extended dialogue with Diderot. Malcolm goes back to Diderot’s time, and brings Diderot into our own. The novel includes a shrewd series of anachronisms by which Bradbury’s Diderot anticipates the contributions of subsequent figures such as Whitman, Darwin, Beckett, even Andy Warhol.

I think Malcolm regarded writing as, potentially, the highest form of conversation. But he married this attitude with a practical approach to the business of writing. His advice to us younglings was to always have two projects on the go, so when you get stuck on one you can turn to the other and stay productive. Malcolm might be working simultaneously on an essay about deconstruction and his “Desert Island Drinks” column for the London Evening Standard. He maintained a lively presence in both the academy and the public imagination. While remaining a prolific critic, he became more involved in brainier kinds of entertainment; for example, he adapted Stella Gibbons’s celebrated satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm for the screen. Malcolm was an unabashed popularizer (and sometimes satirist) of great ideas. I’m thinking that there’s an affinity here with Diderot, especially in his role as encyclopedist, in this bridging of the high- and middle-brow …

ZARETSKY: Robert, Diderot loved adapting other people’s work, too. Take the Encyclopédies’il te plaît! (I’m certain Diderot would have loved the word play of Borscht Belt comedians.) The Age of Reason’s greatest monument to itself began life, well, as an adaptation of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia. When Diderot was hired in 1747 to oversee the translation of the English writer’s one-volume work, he decided to improve on it. Twenty-five years later, the 28th and last volume of this “adaptation” rolled off the press.

If we could ever use the words “encyclopedia” and “laff riot” in the same sentence, it would be with Diderot’s work. On subjects too sensitive to critique in the 18th century, such as religion and politics, Diderot used an Onion-ish approach. Orthodox experts were called upon to write on subjects like “soul” and “angel,” producing articles of such stupefying scholasticism that they seem like self-parodies. But Diderot did not stop there. At times, he tacks on his own commentaries, marked by an asterisk, which send up the incongruities and lunacies lacing the original articles. At other times, Diderot appends his era’s own version of hyperlinks, cross-listings, which take the reader to other “sites” in the encyclopedia that contradict the original entry — so that, as he wrote, the “entire mud edifice” of baseless claims will collapse into a “vain heap of dust.”

The Encyclopédie, though, only begins to suggest Diderot’s stunningly postmodern humor and sensibility. For example, in his brilliant short story — appropriately titled “This is Not a Story” — he runs riot with the usual narrative conceits of fiction writers. Bradbury is understandably under the spell of the Frenchman’s love of playing hide and seek with his readers.

CREMINS: Yes, he is. For Bradbury, postmodernism was not a recent innovation, but a tradition — a tradition of novelists who are gleefully aware of the grand artificiality of their own texts, who see (as he says in Hermitage) “books as an open play of floating signs between writer and reader.” His favorite was the Laurence Sterne of Tristram Shandy — the very book that inspired Diderot to write Jacques the Fatalist.

ZARETSKY: Did you know Diderot met Sterne in Paris? They became fast friends. Sterne presented Diderot with Tristram Shandy, and Diderot was blown away. He blurted to a friend: “I am reading the maddest, the wisest, the gayest of all books.” But unlike Sterne’s book, Jacques went unpublished, like so much of his work, during Diderot’s lifetime — for the good reason that Diderot wanted that lifetime to be as long and healthy as possible.

CREMINS: Bradbury didn’t have to fear publishing his novels in his lifetime, but I think he did wish he had published more; he tended to finish one every seven to 10 years. As journalist Quentin Curtis observed, “Critics began to talk about Bradbury decades.” However, I do wonder if he would have preferred his fiction to have been measured more in years than decades. The long gap between novels was in part due to his busy life as a critic, teacher (and, yes, conference-goer). In part, it was due to his painstaking approach to writing fiction.

I remember Malcolm telling me, wistfully, that his novels were out of date as soon as they were published. In fact, though, they remain relevant (as Lodge has argued). Take the immortal Howard Kirk, the eponymous History Man. He is very much a man of his time, that time being sociology’s brief reign as queen of the sciences, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Howard is a sociologist, but he’s also an opportunist, using a glib Marxist ideology to “beat people up intellectually,” and to get what he wants and whom he wants. I hardly need to point out that we are not rid of political opportunists and crass ideologues. Like his hero Diderot, Malcolm was a witty underminer of unethical “mud edifices.”

That’s one of the reasons we have missed him over the past 15 years or so. We could have done with a couple more “Bradbury Decades.” Back in 1992, at a time when some people were claiming that history was done and dusted, Malcolm made an all-too-accurate prediction to Quentin Curtis: “I think there will be new ideologies, but probably they’ll take unpleasant fundamentalist forms. As an eternal liberal I fear that.”

ZARETSKY: Yes, Diderot was also an eternal liberal. So much so that he would be no more at ease with certain student movements on university campuses today as he was with certain rulers in his own day. At the start of his dizzying Rameau’s Nephew, the narrator describes how he gives his mind “free reign to follow any idea, wise or mad, that may come uppermost.” His ideas, he announces, “are my trollops.” As you know, Diderot moldered for several months in a Paris prison for his “liberal” writings. While university students have not yet demanded that dungeons be built alongside their climbing walls, theirs is a world that would have deeply depressed Diderot. In a realm of safe zones, trigger warnings, and micro-aggressions, not only would Diderot be punished for treating his ideas like trollops, but would also be upbraided for using such language. Who knows? He might even prefer life in the Old Regime to that of this New Regime.

CREMINS: I have a different take on this, Rob. Granted, there is plenty of grist for the mill of a campus satirist in the academy at the moment — there always was and there always will be. But I think that Diderot, as I read him through Bradbury, would put the more zealous moments of university life in perspective. And it’s a perspective that Catherine gave him. The philosopher of power finally encountered real power, kid-gloved tyranny. As Bradbury’s Diderot puts it: “What a difference there is when we see a painting of a tiger … and when we meet a real tiger in the forest.” The less nuanced student demands are painted tigers, which can be retouched. Of much greater concern, surely, are the real tigers, which in 2016 appear to be leaving the forest to meet us.

ZARETSKY: Well, as Diderot’s collaborator Voltaire never said — at least in so many words — “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” While these student groups do not wield the same immense powers as an empress, their conviction that there is just one truth, one valid set of claims, and one standard to judge the limits of debate would have shocked not just Diderot — who would have recoiled at the notion of political correctness — but even Catherine. As Diderot knew and appreciated, Catherine had tried to liberalize Russian society during her first years in power, allowing a relatively free press and encouraging criticism of Russian institutions. Bradbury also seems impressed by this aspect of Catherine’s regime and personality, in which she gives freer reign to Diderot’s cascade of thoughts than he would ever be allowed at many liberal campuses today.

CREMINS: I understand that it was the long shadow of the guillotine that chilled Catherine’s liberalizing tendencies, that caused her to recoil into authoritarianism. In the case of today’s campuses, I don’t think we are dealing with proto-Jacobins, though if we do end up getting carted away from our Texas university in a sports utility tumbrel you’ll have every right to say, “I told you so.”

Recently, Rob, you had a great conversation with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik about another French thought-hero, Albert Camus. In a recent podcast, Gopnik reminds us that “‘politically correct’ actually began as a term of self-mockery used by the hypersensitive, ruefully, against themselves.” This is one of the reasons I am more optimistic than you are about PC culture. I don’t see it as being collectively deaf to the kind of rejoinder Gopnik offers on the topic of “cultural appropriation.” One of his sentences jumped out at me as being relevant to our hero’s journey: “Innocent imitation is always the engine of cultural innovation.” Those near-ubiquitous Russian francophiles you mentioned earlier would be a fine example of this.

ZARETSKY: But even they might be yawning by now. Perhaps we should let our readers get on with their lives.

CREMINS: I think we have come to what Malcolm in Hermitage calls “the awful business of ending,” awful in part because every “conclusion [save death] is an evasion.” But evade we must, though with an au revoir not adieu.


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.

Robert Cremins is a writer and lecturer at the University of Houston. He has published two novels, one of which has been highlighted as an LA Times notable novel of the year.