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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Rameau's Nephew

Denis Diderot

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To purchase Rameau's Nephew

Title: Rameau's Nephew
Author: Denis Diderot
Genre: Dialogue
Written: (1761) (Eng. 1966)
Length: 125 pages
Original in: French
Availability: in Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream - US
in Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream - UK
in Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream - Canada
Le Neveu de Rameau - Canada
in Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream - India
Le Neveu de Rameau - France
Rameaus Neffe - Deutschland
Il nipote di Rameau - Italia
El sobrino de Rameau - España
  • French title:
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Leonard Tancock
  • Published together with D'Alembert's Dream

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining dialogue

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       There's a brief introductory section to Rameau's Nephew, but then it's all dialogue, between Diderot and the famous musician's nephew. Rameau's nephew has made a career of worming his way into "good homes", a figure tolerated and even welcomed -- as long as he understands his subservient place, there to entertain when called upon and to be unobtrusive when not. It's a lifestyle that offers some rewards, but it also eats at him -- and the occasional misstep sees him fall from favor; among the questions debated here is whether or not he should apologetically go crawling back.
       Rameau's nephew also suffers some from being in the shadow of his famous uncle -- and resents the great man for it being such a dark shadow he casts: the composer may be a genius but:

He thinks about nothing but himself, and the rest of the universe is not worth a pin to him.
       Rameau's nephew, on the other hand, understands that he is a mere mediocrity -- and: "I have been and still am angry at being mediocre." It makes him petty, too, jealous of geniuses:
I am envious. So when I hear something disreputable about their private lives I listen with pleasure. It brings us nearer together and makes my own mediocrity more bearable.
       He's ashamed of his own talents -- of the bootlicking sort -- but also revels in them; he's quite the master. Even Diderot acknowledges, in at least part admiringly:
I must say you have taken the talent for making fools of people and bootlicking as far as it will go.
       But Rameau's nephew is torn. The path of genius is not open to him, but kowtowing to those who can provide him with the comforts of life he enjoys is soul-crushing.
       The renowned intellectual Diderot is in a rather different position, of course, but equally unimpressed by how real learning is under-valued in these times. He makes the case for more superficial expertise as well:
It seems to me that social talents, even if mediocre, do carry a man speedily along the road to fortune in a nation with no moral standards and given over to debauchery.
       It's all quite witty and entertaining, with many of the critiques specific to their time and circumstances -- the opponents of the encyclopedic project that Diderot was so devoted to being a particular target -- but sharp and general enough not be entirely lost on contemporary readers; the Introduction by Leonard Tancock and the footnotes help.
       Rameau's nephew is entertainingly conflicted -- and appealingly honest. He keeps Diderot in line too:
I don't follow much what you are holding forth about. It is apparently philosophy, and I warn you that I give that a wide berth.
       Meandering across various matters -- Tancock notes that there is no clear object to Diderot's dialogue, and that there are rather many possible ones -- it is more than mere entertainment, but also doesn't get too bogged down in a single issue or concern. If somewhat unfocused -- as dialogue often is -- it's still good fun, and includes some choice bits of writing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 December 2014

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Rameau's Nephew: Reviews: Denis Diderot: Other books by Denis Diderot under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Denis Diderot lived 1713 to 1784.

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