“In the special darkness of the northern winter, where life was centered in small pools of candlelight, beyond which shadows draped and flickered mysteriously, the mind explored the dark side of nature. The underworld creatures of northern mythology are always nocturnal. By candlelight the powers of sight are sharply reduced; the ear is supersensitized and the air stands poised to beat with the subtle vibrations of a strange tale or of ethereal music. …
Romanticism begins at twilight—and ends with electricity. By the era of electricity, the last romanticists had folded their wings. Music dismissed the nocturne and the Nachtstuck, and from the Impressionist salons of 1870 onward, painting emerged into twenty-four-hour daylight.
We will not expect to find striking confessions concerning the sounds of candles or torches among the ancients any more than we find elaborate descriptions among moderns of the 50- or 60-cycle hum; for although both sounds are inescapably there, they are keynotes; and, as I am taking repeated trouble to explain, keynotes are rarely listened to consciously by those who live among them, for they are the ground over which the figure of signals becomes conspicuous.
Keynote sounds are, however, noticed when they change, and when they disappear altogether, they may even be remembered with affection. Thus I recall the vivid impression made on me when I first went to Vienna in 1956 and heard the whispering gas lights on the suburban streets; or, on another occasion, the huge hiss of the Coleman lamps in the unelectrified bazaars of the Middle East—which, in the late evening, quite overpowered the bubbling of the waterpipes. Similarly, in a reverse manner, when the heroine in Doctor Zhivago first arrived in Moscow after having spent her childhood in the Urals, she was “deafened by the gaudy window displays and glaring lights, as if they too emitted sounds of their own, like the bells and the wheels.” In the country, night had been accompanied by “the faint crackling of the wax candles” (Turgenev’s phrase), and she was immediately struck by the change.
Another example: in his diary of 1919, amidst painterly thoughts, Paul Klee paused to listen when, in his Schwabing apartment, “the asthmatic gas lamp was replaced by a glaring, hissing and spitting carbide lamp.””
I taught myself to live simply and wisely,
to look at the sky and pray to God,
and to wander long before evening
to tire my superfluous worries.
When the burdocks rustle in the ravine
and the yellow-red rowanberry cluster droops
I compose happy verses
about life’s decay, decay and beauty.
I come back. The fluffy cat
licks my palm, purrs so sweetly
and the fire flares bright
on the saw-mill turret by the lake.
Only the cry of a stork landing on the roof
occasionally breaks the silence.
If you knock on my door
I may not even hear.
Children of the 1980s recall the pervasive atmosphere of imminent nuclear devastation which we somehow survived. Not unlike Daniel Kalder with the naval base warning siren, I found that the sound of jet engines could trigger a cascade of apocalyptic anxieties. We read – in the various worthy books for serious children in the library – that the world could be destroyed over and over again by the US and USSR’s arsenals each considered alone.
Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War are privileged to have known, in acute form, the terror of the real and imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. It was a peculiar psychological state, and one for which I feel a curious and inexplicable nostalgia: that awareness that at any time the entire human race could be wiped out at the flick of a switch.
For children, of course, the terror was even more profound, as it was so much harder for us to understand why we all might suddenly die by fire. I lived near a naval base in Scotland and the regular tests of the 8-minute warning siren, an eerie wailing audible as I played in my garden, instilled in me a cold panic: Am I really going to burn?
By contrast, today’s most prevalent doomsday scenario- climate change- unfolds slowly, and offers us an escape route so long as we switch to renewable sources of energy and eat more organic carrots. In its sense of imminence, nuclear Armageddon was closer to the terror of the Last Days as felt by the early Christians, but far more capricious, and infinitely more hopeless. A sublime ultra-violence from the sky would kill us all, and whatever unlucky remnant did survive would succumb to slow death by radiation poisoning.
And what exactly was it we were fighting over? Coke vs. Pepsi? Whose skyscrapers were the tallest? Something about noble proletarians and top hat-wearing villains? That, I think. Like Manichaeism, which once reached from the streets of Rome to the endless steppes of Asia it’s all gone, although moth-eaten copies of the sacred texts can still be found. Pick one up, however, and the threat we lived under makes even less sense. I mean, have you read The State and Revolution?
It is Epiphany, or Theophany in Eastern Christendom. Water features strongly in this liturgy; it is the occasion of the Great Blessing Of The Waters. This video, seven years old, is visually and aurally pretty stunning in its depiction of this ceremony in Alaska (in a quite interesting environmentalist context of renewed interest in the Trump presidency):
I’d like to share extracts from a few thought-provoking Theophany posts by Adam deVille at Eastern Christian Books.
On Theophany, I am put in mind of a passage about this loveliest of feasts from Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny and deeply moving historical novel, Helena, which he regarded as his greatest work, and was, according to his finest biographer Douglas Lane Patey, the only of his books he cared to have read aloud:
Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too find room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were no lower in the eyes of the Holy Family than the ox or the ass…. For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.
Thus spoke the richest and most powerful woman in the ancient world, the Dowager Empress Helena, about the Magi and their wealthy if superfluous gifts (in a passage, Patey tells us, which Waugh wrote in the 1950s to offend socialist sentiment in Britain under what he alternately called the “Atlee terror” and the “grey lice” of the Labour government, an “occupying power”).
Today, the ancient and wonderful feast of the Theophany (about which see Nick Denysenko’s book here), will often see many Eastern Christians carving crosses out of ice near newly blessed bodies of water, and then hurling wooden hand crosses into those waters to make of them an offering back to their Creator. This seems a quintessentially Christian ritual, but how was it handled in the Muslim world, where so many Eastern Christians lived and live?
I count it a success in my courses on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam when my students come to appreciate how often the boundaries were more blurred than they realize, or are often thought to be today. I tell them that they should leave the course recognizing that questions of identity, historically situated, are far messier than many thought, and that borrowings of, or at least attendance at, ritual practices of the “other’s” community, happened more than we might realize.
Examples of this include some Muslims venerating Christian relics and praying in Christian shrines, and Christians attending Muslim village festivals, some evidence of which is to be found in such fascinating works as I noted here.
On this lovely festival of the Lord’s appearing and his baptism in the Jordan by John, I refer you once more to the landmark scholarly work of my friend Nicholas Denysenko, whom I interviewed here about his book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Ashgate, 2012), 237pp.
About this book the publisher tells us:
This book examines the historical development of the blessing of waters and its theology in the East, with an emphasis on the Byzantine tradition. Exploring how Eastern Christians have sought these waters as a source of healing, purification, and communion with God, Denysenko unpacks their euchology and ritual context. The history and theology of the blessing of waters on Epiphany is informative for contemporary theologians, historians, pastors and students. Offering important insights into how Christians renew Baptism in receiving the blessed waters, this book also proposes new perspectives for theologizing Christian stewardship of ecology in the modern era based on a patristic liturgical synthesis. Denysenko presents an alternative framework for understanding the activity of the Trinity, enabling readers to encounter a vision of how participants encounter God in and after ritual.
The interview with Denysenko mentioned above is here
Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’
I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.
But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.
And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!
‘She is a woman palpably meant for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being) and yet so casually, it seems, she has chosen solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love …’
This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But one their secret has been decided, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorising. It all becomes comprehensible, reassuring. Now the routine of a relationship, or indifference, can take over. The other one’s mystery has been tamed. Their body reduced to a flesh and blood mechanism, desirable or otherwise. Their heart to a set of predictable responses.
At this stage, in fact, a kind of murder occurs, for we kill this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential that we have encountered. We would rather deal with a verbal construct than a living person….
It must have been during those September days, in a village among forests stretching all the way to the White Sea, that I noted down observations of this type: ‘a being of inexhaustible potential’, ‘murder’, ‘a woman stripped naked by words …’ At the time (I was twenty-six) such conclusions struck me as vastly perceptive. I took enjoyable pride in having gained insight into the secret life of a woman old enough to be my mother, in having summed up her destiny in a few well-turned phrases. I thought about her smile, the wave she greeted me with when catching sight of me in the distance on the lake shore, the love she could have given so many men but gave no one. ‘A woman palpably meant for happiness …’ Yes, I was pretty please with my analysis. I even recalled a nineteenth-century critic referring to a ‘dialectic of the soul’ toe describe the art with which writers probe the contradictions of the human psyche: ‘… A woman made for happiness, but …’
That September evening I closed my notebook, glanced at the handful of cold, mottled cranberries Vera had deposited on the table in my absence. Outside the window, above the dark treetops of the forest, the sky still had a milky pallor suggestive of the somnolent presence, a few hours’ walk away, of the White Sea, where winter already loomed. Vera’s house was located at the start of a track that led to the coast by ways of thickets and hills. Reflecting on this woman’s isolation, her tranquility, her body (very physically I imagined a tapered sheet of soft warmth surrounding that female body beneath the covers on a clear night of hoar-frost), I suddenly grasped that no ‘dialectic of the soul’ was capable of telling the secret of this life. A life all too plain and woefully simply beside the intellectual analysis.
The life of a woman waiting for the one she loved. No other mystery.
Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.
1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie
William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.
He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “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.”
Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.
As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.
Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.
There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.
Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste, while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter, with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.
One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:
He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)
Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.
William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’
After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).
The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:
God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.
Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”
Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various nations – recur.
Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with. Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:
Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.
This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.
But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.
This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.
Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.