In alternating chapters, our narrator, an unnamed British novelist, describes two journeys to St Petersburg. One is his own, made as part of a slightly mysterious international junket in October 1993. The other is a visit paid by the French encyclopaedist and philosopher Diderot to the court of Catherine the Great in the 1770s.
The modern junketeers, brought together by a well-connected member of the Swedish Academy, aim to justify their grant by discussing Diderot. Most of them are not academics - there's a carpenter and an operatic diva, for example - but this is in keeping with the great polymath's wide field of interests.
The group convenes in Stockholm, from where a cruise ship will take them across the Baltic. The narrator wants to change sterling into dollars for use in Russia, so he finds a bank. "At a handsome blonde desk a handsome blonde teller sits, tapping away at her handsome computer console." This is one of the many would-be stylish sentences that don't quite work. It goes for the rule of three, then gives up because there's no such thing as a blonde computer.
Elsewhere, Diderot walks "through the crisp winter evening to the crisp winter palace". The second "crisp" does not describe rococo architecture at all well, so it seems forced and lame. And when the narrator contemplates the opera singer, "the bosomyness of her bosom, the booming boomingness of her sonic boom", the effect is lamer still. The alliteration has got out of hand - and besides, the racket made by a soprano bears very little resem-blance to the thud you hear at Land's End as Concorde accelerates out to sea.
Malcolm Bradbury - who received some critical stick for the feeble wordplay in his earlier novel Cuts - perhaps realises that this sort of thing is not his forte, and intends it to be taken as one of the vices of the narrator, a self-confessed "postmodernist". In similar postmodern vein, the 18th-century scenes include capricious anachronisms among all the period detail. A friend of Diderot's has an affair with a ballet dancer, "one of those advanced Californian types . . . a therapy guzzler". At one point, Diderot sends Catherine a fax. Later, he quotes at her the as yet unborn Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself."
But the narrator, oddly enough, does not much care for the postmodern era, "with its lazy decadence, ideological vacancy, consumerist ethics, empty narcissisms". Like, one suspects, Bradbury, he regrets that the "seasoned, reasoned, puritanically serious world I've taken as history since the Fifties seems to be wearing out. Newly bereft of a clear political order, it seems to have given itself over to nothingness, froth . . . media-fed public moods and crazes."
He digs at one recent craze by referring to Catherine as "a popular princess . . . a true queen of hearts". This is arguably unfair to Diana, who did not share Catherine's habit of putting people to death. Diderot's mighty Russian patron is a bit of a shopper. She has bought up whole libraries and art collections, and now she wants to buy a philosopher.
The dialogues between Catherine and Diderot have sparkle and edge. Bradbury shows great affection for the French sage and skilfully models this fictional version of him on Laurence Sterne - indiscreet, ever-curious, forever digressing, sharp but just a little batty. Sterne himself is given frequent honourable mentions. The narrator's paper for the shipboard Diderot conference is an appropriately irrelevant account of the time he attended Sterne's funeral in 1968: the London graveyard was being sold for development and the writer was exhumed for reburial near his Yorkshire home, except that British Rail misrouted the remains to Wales, so the funeral went ahead without him.
The ending, with Diderot passing the torch of enlightenment to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, seems like a shameless pitch for American sales. But note that Jefferson appears with a black slave in tow, and that Diderot dies of apoplexy while eating one of Jefferson's Virginian apricots. Bradbury may be qualifying his enforcement of the values that now rule the world.
If the novel were roughly a third shorter, the amount of wit and ideas on display would fill it nicely. As it is, it feels rather padded.