To the Hermitage tells two stories. The first is of the narrator, a novelist, on a trip to Stockholm and Russia for an academic seminar called the Diderot Project. The second takes place two hundred years earlier and recreates the journey the French philosopher Denis Diderot made to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great, a woman whose influence could change the path of history...Malcolm Bradbury's last novel is rich with his satirical wit, but it is also deeply personal and weaves a wonderfully wry self-portrait.
In one timeline, Denis Diderot, the brilliant Enlightenment philosopher/author (the author of the famous Encyclopeda (go find this on the internet; it is a fascinating topic) has been invited and has put off several times an invitation to visit Empress Catherine the Great at her newly-built Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. She meets with him each afternoon; she has decided she wants to be an enlightened ruler, but the more Diderot discusses how an enlightened ruler should rule, she counters with the fact that if she followed his way of thinking, she'd be assassinated. To me the scenes (told along side in parallel fashion to a modern journey to St. Petersburg) set at the time of Catherine the Great were the best -- I couldn't wait until the chapter reading "then."
A second journey to St. Petersburg is taking place, ironically, the Diderot project celebrating the age of reason is taking place in Russia just as the last vestiges of the Old Guard Communists are trying to get Yeltsin out of power, staging their well-publicized coup. It seems that the participants of the Diderot project are going to the Hermitage in search of Diderot's works which were bought and shipped in full to Catherine the Great. However, what really happens on the way to Russia and once in Russia are vastly different.
There is a lot written on this book; I will tell you that I enjoyed it very much but I took a long time to get through it and have copious notes which I will have to go through here shortly. Not for an everyday kind of read, but well worth sticking to it through the 500+ pages.