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October 27, 2005

William Gerhardie, the "rediscovered" author, and the "cult" novel

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Seamus Sweeney ponders the novels of William Gerhardie - especially Futility and Doom - and considers the phenomena of the "rediscovered" author and the "cult" novel.

"Cult fiction" is, as I have observed previously, a marketing term with vague connotations of youthfulness, of eccentricity. It is also meaningless, or rather only meaningful when applied to works which have inspired a genuine cult-like devotion (such as the novels of Ayn Rand) for reasons unconnected with their literary merit (putting it mildly). It is applied to novels such as Catch 22 and To Kill a Mockingbird which are high in the list of all-time best sellers. It is applied to novels about drug dealers and serial killers. It is applied to any book which is turned into an artificially "edgy" Hollywood film. "Cult" and "mass market" are interchangeable, really.

William Gerhardie is established so firmly as a "lost writer" that, in fact, it seems churlish to encourage his rediscovery by a wider readership, and I recoil at the prospect of labelling him a "cult" writer. Part of the pleasure in reading Gerhardie is the sense of ownership, and thus it would be somehow disturbing if Gerhardie became as well known as, for instance, Evelyn Waugh. Even the loyal if somewhat obsessive devotion shown by admirers of Anthony Powell would seem excessive if Gerhardie were its subject.

Gerhardie, today, has a knot of literary champions – William Boyd and Michael Holroyd seem to feature on the blurbs of most reissues of his books – and, in his own time, was seemingly marked out by the Waugh-Greene-Powell generation as the real genius of the age. Waugh said of Gerhardie:

I have talent, but he has genius.
Greene said:
to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.

Those of an earlier generation were also admirers; Katherine Mansfield described his debut, Futility, as a:

living book … one can put it down and it goes on breathing.
Edith Wharton provided a preface for Futility, saying:
Mr Gerhardie's novel is extremely modern; but it has bulk and form, a recognisable orbit, and that promise of more to come that one always feel latent in the beginnings of the born novelist.
Perhaps part of the enjoyment of discovering Gerhardie is the Ozymandias effect; encountering a writer whose reputation once threatened to be vast and who ended up dying in obscurity and penury. To a certain temperament, sic transit gloria mundi is a beautiful lament.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1895, Gerhardie's father was English. During the 1905 Revolution Gerhardie senior was thrown into a sack and taken to the dock to be drowned. A revolutionary asked who was inside the sack, and misheard the name as that of Keir Hardie, thus sparing Gerhardie to be ruined by the 1917 Revolution. After a Russian education, Gerhardie junior - marked out as "the dunce of the family" - was sent to England to begin a vague commercial career. Gerhardie preferred to affect a languid expression and a Wildean demeanour, dressing dandyishly while lounging around dreaming of theatrical triumphs.

During the First World War he was posted to the British Military Attachι in what was now Petrograd, where he witnessed the 1917 Revolution. Later he would serve in the British Military Mission to Siberia, taking a part in the attempted intervention by the Western Powers. This would feature in Futility, and his long return journey from the East – via Singapore, Colombo and Port Said, and bearing the Order of the British Empire for services rendered during the expedition – would feature in his second novel, The Polyglots. On his return he began study in Worcester College, Oxford.

Oxford would feature in much of his work; as he wrote in The Polyglots:

Oxford is best in retrospect … There are as many fools in a university as elsewhere … but their folly, I admit, has a certain stamp – the stamp of university training, if you like. It is trained folly.
He was very glad to have gone there, because otherwise he would have had an exaggerated respect for an Oxbridge man. His time at Oxford was not entirely wasted, for while there he wrote the first book in English about Chekhov and Futility.

Erotic longing – as well as awareness of the absurdity of erotic longing – dominates the novels. All through his life Gerhardie craved female company – as an officer in Russia, he attracted the disapproval of his fellows for regarding:

the bodies of [lovers or wives of other men] as his own.
The novels feature a cavalcade of beautiful, teasing sisters, with interchangeable names like Nina and Zina. These ladies are, inevitably enough, accompanied by platoons of eccentric relatives.

For this reason, reading two novels of Gerhardie in one consecutive sitting can be somewhat disorientating. One expects the characters of one to wander into another. One reason advanced for his relative lack of success compared to Waugh is the tighter plotting of Waugh's work; one can drift in and out of a typical Gerhardie novel, beginning at the end or the middle seems to make little difference. Futility is, however, more accessible in this regard than other Gerhardie novels.

The title of the first section, "The Three Sisters", is an obvious nod to Chekhov. The Anglo-Russian narrator, Andrei Andreiech, is adrift in the dizzyingly complex family life of Nikolai Vasilevich, his three young daughters, and his longtime live-in lover who he has now abandoned for a young woman, Zina, who brings her own retinue of eager dependants. Nikolai Vasilevich is seen by all as a man of considerable means, based on what turn out to be utterly worthless mines in Siberia.

The eager dependants are exemplified by Uncle Kostia. Uncle Kostia is a writer, who has of course never published a word or given any indication of writing anything, but is nevertheless allowed to live as he wishes by the family out of respect for his apparent vocation:

one was never never sorry to give him all he wanted since the man is clever, you understand, and writes.
Eventually, when Revolution and Intervention make generosity even more expensive, Andrei Andreiech is prevailed upon to try and persuade Uncle Kostia to publish something:

"What have you been thinking about, Uncle Kostia?" I asked.

"That's just the trouble," he said. "I can't tell you."

I waited.

"I don't know myself," he explained.

I still waited.

"I have been thinking of this and that and the other, in fact, of one thing and another – precious but elusive thoughts, Andrei Andreiech. Beautiful emotions. A kaleidoscope of the most subtle colours, if I may so express myself. And, Andrei Andreiech, it has taught me a great truth. It has taught me the futility of writing."

Thus the eternal preoccupation in Russian culture with the proper role and duty of the intellectual is reduced to absurdity. Rather than the habit of some authors of attempting to create "character" by piling on detail, Gerhardie gives each character a recurrent phrase which manages to pinpoint them in the mind - the perpetually drunk Russian general who repeatedly mourns the "damrotten game" that is politics and greets any halfway attractive women with the words:
What eyes! What calves! What ankles!
There is Sir Hugo of the Admiralty whose response to most situations is an enthusiastic "Splendid! Splendid!", and the hero of Gerhardie's second novel, George Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who is forever insisting to other characters and to the reader that he is:
good-looking… you think I'm conceited? I think not.

Intervention, for Andrei Andreiech, consists largely of an eternal train journey with Sir Hugo, an increasingly splenetic Admiral who is ultimately reduced to unhappily complaining, when finally worn down by the obscurantism and incompetence of the various White Russian factions, and the whole menage of Nikolai Vasilevich:

Some people think snow beautiful. I think it idiotic.
The expectations of the Admiralty are confounded by Russian incomprehension of such concepts as organisation and efficiency. It is no surprise, having read Gerhardie, that Trotsky's Red Army won the civil war easily enough in the end. In the final sequence, Andrei throws in life in Oxford to travel back to Vladivostok and proclaim his love to Nina, the loveliest of the three sisters:
No more novels! Life, I thought, was worth all the novels in the world. And life was Nina. And Nina was life. And, by contrast, the people I encountered seemed pretentious and insincere. The women in particular were unreal. They talked of things that did not interest them with an affected geniality. They pretended a silly superiority or else an unconvincing inferiority. They said "Really?" and "Indeed?" and "How fascinating!" and "How perfectly delightful!" Nina was not like that. My three sisters were not like that. They were real. … Oxford with its sham clubs and sham societies appeared a doll's house, a thing stationary and extinct of life, while the world, the Outside World, was going by. And I asked myself: What am I waiting for?
In Vladivostok, however, it turns out that Nina is disappointed to see him. She never loved him, she says. Andrei is just in time to see the sisters depart for Shanghai, and brood miserably on the quaside Now it is Oxford that seems to be a hub of pulsating life. Romantic longings, the whole idea that life is elsewhere, the "faraway hills" delusion – all are exercises in futility too.

Doom, Waugh's favourite Gerhardie novel, was, confusingly, also published as My Sinful Earth in 1947 and Jazz and Jasper in 1927. It begins with a postmodern avant la lettre touch - the narrator, Dickin, reads an account of his involvement with two beautiful sisters to Lord Ottercove, the Beaverbrook-based press baron, and afterwards walks into a taxi with one of the sisters who has featured in the narrative. Dickin, constantly assumed by other characters to be a relative of Charles Dickens, is drawn into Ottercove's orbit. Playing an increasingly large part in events is Lord de Jones, major proponent of an scheme to increase global food production by sealing volcanoes, thus increasing the Earth's heat, and thus increasing the growth rate of crops. De Jones, it emerges, is more interested in apocalypse than in agricultural improvements.

Ottercove takes liftboys and gives them important branches of his empire to run – if they succeed he has discovered a genius, while if they fail they can always go back to being liftboys. He repeatedly promises Dickin an evening newspaper to edit as a wedding present. The restless extravagance of extreme wealth – an extravagance that is casual, without regard for power or even pleasure – is the keynote of Ottercove's personality. Despite Ottercove's apparent absurdity, A. J. P. Taylor – who wrote a biography of Beaverbrook - described Doom as the most convincing portrait of the press baron in print.

Ottercove is an extraordinarily vivid and dynamic creation, and his end – a literal disappearance into thin air – exemplifies the giddy, disturbing spirit of the book. It moves from romantic fantasy to evocation of what could be called High Media Mogulry to the bizarre apocalyptic coda set on a Swiss hillside. This finale – based on an idea of Gerhardie that the world might end piecemeal, in stages – was inspired by a suggestion of D. H. Lawrence that the world might end in the same way as a stocking ladders. Gerhardie also canvassed H. G. Wells for ideas on how to accomplish this bit-by-bit apocalypse, which stumped the father of science fiction.

In real life, Beaverbrook had made contact with Gerhardie, with a peremptory summons to London from Vienna to hear the tycoon discourse on the excellence of The Polyglots. Gerhardie fell into the Beaverbrook orbit just as Dickin fell into Ottercove's. Beaverbrook would also toy with giving Gerhardie a newspaper to edit as a wedding present, although Gerhardie preferred to see himself as an artist rather than journalist. Beaverbrook's attempts to turn Gerhardie into a best seller failed, though not for want of trying. Thus, despite the praise of his peers and the might of Beaverbrook, Gerhardie continued on the path to his later obscurity. It seems clear he lacked a certain industriousness – a literary virtue rarely celebrated in all the mystic blather about "inspiration" – and a seriousness that would have perhaps anchored his books.

In the Thirties he wrote, with Prince Leopold of Loewenstein, Meet Yourself as You Really Are, which has been described as an early example of hypertext. Loewenstein would sit around talking about psychological types, while Gerhardie rendered the whole into witty, elegant English. The reader would choose which option to take at the end of each paragraph, something in the manner of those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were so popular in my childhood. A future of broken relationships, alcohol and relative penury loomed. Gerhardie would never achieve the glittering reputation his early praise seemed to merit.

In a 1990 biography of Gerhardie, Dido Davies discusses Malcolm Bradbury's concept of different approaches to novelistic comedy. One is based is on extraordinary, eccentric characters and incidents – Don Quixote, the Pickwick Papers, or Tristram Shandy – and the other on a comedy of more everyday life and experience –Jane Austen, or Kingsley Amis. Gerhardie, in Davies' view, exemplifies both types – the eccentric relatives and absurd political and military adventures revolve round a core of universal erotic longing, of the banality of everyday existence, or boredom and gaiety. Futility is Gerhardie at his simplest and most effective, as well as a book which saddens with the vastness of the promise not wholly fulfilled. His other available works are looser and more obviously flawed, with moments of tremendous wit and brio. If only "cult" has not acquired its irritating implications, it would be the perfect description of his writing.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).


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