To the Hermitage tells parallel tales of men who travelled to St Petersburg. Both are fictionalised versions of actual journeys.
One being that of Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, who visited his patron, and Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, in 1773.
The other being the anonymous narrator of To the Hermitage, a version of Bradbury himself —English academic and author— making his way to St Petersburg as a member of a distinguished study group, the Diderot Project, in October 1993.
The very temporal settings speak of the novel’s parallelism.
Russia then as now was in trouble, tugged as it ever has been between east and west.
If Only You Knew sees a life transformed as another life dies. Its place and time —Moscow in the year of the Soviet collapse— serves as metaphor for the developing story.
Eva and Rob arrive in a city that is recognisably Soviet in its restrictive and proscriptive milieu. By the novel’s end, intimations of emerging life in all its chaotic and elemental potential are visible on the streets of Russia’s capital.
If Only You Knew is Alice Jolly’s second book and her only foray into Russia as a setting. Specifically, the setting is Moscow in the year in which the Soviet Union disappeared and an independent Russia re-emerged.
The story starts in November 1990, as the novel’s first person narrator, Eva, arrives in Moscow to live with her partner, Rob, who works in democracy promotion.
The turmoil of Russia’s politics during the 13 months in which If Only You Knew takes place forms the backdrop to the emotional turmoil in Eva’s life, which is the focus of this story.
This short post is prompted by a line in Anna Blundy’s novel Neat Vodka. Her heroine, foreign correspondent Faith Zanetti, flies in to her latest assignment in Moscow, reading on the plane ‘my predecessor’s “Whither Russia?” book’.