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Author of that inexhaustibly strange masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (1713-84) was also a dramatist, a speculative philosopher, the founder of modern art criticism and a tireless correspondent; he has also been called the most talkative man of his generation. His genius was profoundly subversive, and he spent much of his working life under the threat of exile.
The son of a cutler, Diderot had an empathy with trades, tools and machinery that flowered magnificently in some of his contributions to the great Encyclopédie, which he edited with d’Alembert and published over a period of some twenty years. Diderot’s range of contacts was prodigious: a close friend of Rousseau, Grimm and d’Alembert, a familiar figure in the literary salons of Paris, he also met and corresponded with Hume, Garrick and Laurence Sterne. It was the support of Catherine the Great (as her agent, Diderot in effect laid the foundations of the Hermitage collection) that led to the most extraordinary episode in an astonishing life: at the age of sixty Diderot travelled to St Petersburg where he drew up outline plans for the conversion of Russia into an ideal republic.
P. N. Furbank’s sympathetic and probing analysis of Diderot’s work and influence was first published in 1992 and won a Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.
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