cover image Diderot: A Critical Biography

Diderot: A Critical Biography

P. N. Furbank, Philip Nicholas Furbank. Alfred A. Knopf, $30 (524pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41421-6

``Truly, posterity would be an ungrateful wretch if it forgot me altogether,'' wrote Denis Diderot (1713-1784), ``seeing how often I remember it.''305 Diderot was not to be forgotten but rather misremembered, often as simply the cutler's son who for 20-plus years labored over that monument of the 18th century, the Encyclopedie. This account gives short shrift to a life that included a spell in prison, the writing of a pornographic novel, an eccentric family, a longtime love affair and a circle of celebrated friends, among them D'Alembert, Mme d'Epinay, Grimm and Rousseau. It also shortchanges the works that are uniquely Diderot's own. Furbank's ( E. M. Forster ) special strength is in illuminating Diderot's plays, philosophical writings, art criticism and fiction, lucidly following his struggle with two ideas--fiction as deception and fiction as illusion. Weaving together biography and criticism can distort a subject's chronology and can strain a writer's transitions and place undue demands on a reader, such as having to recall the dates of works each time they are mentioned. But works and life are unavoidably integral; as Marmontel notes, ``He who knows Diderot only from his books does not know him at all.'' Furbank certainly does not fit into this category. Illustrations not seen by PW . (Nov.)