In a dual biography crafted around the famous encounter between the French philosopher who wrote about power and the Russian empress who wielded it, Robert Zaretsky invites us to reflect on the fraught relationship between politics and philosophy, and between a man of thought and a woman of action.
Compact, intensely readable ... sparklingly chatty ... The dozens of meetings Diderot ended up having with Catherine come off as serio-comic, even in Zaretsky’s gimlet-eyed by sympathetic summaries ... Since these meetings, interesting as they are, don’t provide enough of a framework to support an entire book, Zaretsky amplifies them on all sides and in all directions, telling readers about the intellectual currents of the time, about the details of Catherine’s rise to power and rule, and especially about Diderot himself, who catches Zaretsky’s fascination and affection in much the same way he caught the affection of so many who knew him - simply by being Diderot ... Readers of Catherine & Diderot won’t have much trouble picking out the real mensch in the story, but as a glimpse at a very odd meeting of the minds, this little account could scarcely be bettered.
For the most part [Zaretsky's] effort sparkles despite a propensity to quip at all costs (what is the point, for example, of remarking that 'Diderot was a mensch'?) ... Zaretsky is a great storyteller, however, and he has chosen to tell a story that still astonishes ... Since no secretary wrote down the gist of these conversations, Zaretsky has to piece them together from comments in various letters and memoirs, and he does so almost seamlessly.
A wonderfully opinionated and erudite evaluation of the whole of Diderot's career, of the Enlightenment, and of Russian culture ... As Zaretsky brilliantly illuminates in a discussion of the era's 'philosophic geography,' Diderot grasped that what Catherine wanted, following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, was to 'Europeanize' Russia, while what Europeans, including Diderot, wanted was to exoticize Russia ... Catherine comes off extremely well in Zaretsky's account.