Some extracts from “The Woman Who Waited”, Andrei Makine

‘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.


William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

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

Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

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.



William Gerhardie – a perpetually “lost writer” rediscovered again. SAU Blog, 2005

William Gerhardie is a writer whose fame rests on obscurity. Prominent early in his career, and feted by Waugh and Greene as their better, he later became “lost.” Being “lost” became his kind of fame. This can be a form of pleasing eccentricity; the glamour of shabby neglect. Even his biographer, Dido Davies, had something of this quality.

All this obscurity can obscure the books themselves. I wrote a few pieces on Gerhardie a while back. Here is one focusing on two of his better-known novels, Futility and Doom. I would place The Polyglots above Doom (but behind Futility)

William Gerhardie, 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 Attaché 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 Mehgdia 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.


Soviet Timelessness – from “Le Testament Francais”, Andrei Makhine.

From the novel also known as Dreams of My Russian Summers:

I almost leaped up from  my stool beside the television. For I understood so perfectly Charlotte’s reasons for being fond of her little provincial town. It would have been easy to explain her choice to the adults gathered in our kitchen. I should have talked of the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past.  I should have spoken of the dusty streets that led nowhere, as they emerged, all of them, into the same endless plain. Of the town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses’ had banished all notions of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks

Computer games on paper: MiG-25, Colosseum, Mental Mills

Around 1986 my family bought an Amstrad PCW 8256 in Derry. I suppose at this distance it is OK to recall it was hidden under a blanket in the back seat of the car (and  I suppose this sort of thing may happen again)  At that point, computers meant games to me and my brother, rather than the all-purpose panopticon of our lives they have become. Unfortunately, the PCW was not a games machine by any stretch of the imagination. A few years later, I discovered 8000 Plus , a magazine for PCWs, which opened my eyes to a whole world of PCW software (as well as David Langford’s wonderful column) – especially text adventures, but also the likes of Starglider.

However, in the years between getting a PCW and finding out that, actually, games did exist for it, I tended to try and use the word processor Locoscript to “make games” – basically word processor files full of symbol characters which I would move the cursor around (with the arrow keys, naturally) as “gameplay.” I am sure this was very good for my imagination. Recently I discovered a old project notebook from those days  in which I had written out three possible games.

The first was “MiG-25.” This was the Cold War, don’t forget, and the library was full of worthy books about the possibility of nuclear war. Therefore a game based on the Soviet jet was not that much of an outlier

It was over a decade before “Gladiator” but, as well as Soviet weaponry, all things Rome fascinated me. Still does, I guess. However, my spelling needed work – here was “Colossuem”


Finally there is “Mental Mills.” I must admit to finding this one hard to relate to any interest I had then or have now, or any other context, except evidently I wanted to “neutrailise” atom bombs.

from “Bobby Fischer Goes To War”. Edmonds / Eidinow

“There were harsher and potentially more threatening judgments made of [Boris] Spassky.[Boris] Spassky. Baturinskii accused him of being under the sway of ‘objectivist views over the location of his match with Fischer. At a preliminary discussion  with the USSR Chess Federation leadership, Spassky had declared: ‘I consider it inadvisable to hold the match in the USSR, since this would give a certain advantage to one of the participants, and the match should be held on equal terms …’

“Broadly, ‘objectivism’ meant expressing views not based on a Marxist-Leninist analysis. The official Soviet reference book, The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, defined this sin as ‘A world-view [based on] socio-political “neutrality” and [refraining] from party-based conclusions … In reality it … masks a social and class-based subjectivism … objectivism is orientated towards serving, albeit not openly, the dominant conservative or reactionary force of the social “order of things”.’ In other words, Spassky was demonstrating an incorrect political consciousness.”


from “Bobby Fischer Goes To War”. Edmonds / Eidinow

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyaltov Pass Incident, Donnie Eichar

dyaltov memorial.jpg
Memorial to the Dyaltov Hikers, , Mikhajlov Cemetery, Ekaterinburg


I first came across the Dyaltov Pass incident some time ago on Wikipedia, probably by following a link on the Wiki page “List of unusual deaths” The incident saw the deaths of nine Russian hikers, all students of the Ural Polytechnic Institute and experienced hikers, sometime on the night of 1st February 1959 when, as the Wikipedia page puts it: “during the night something made them tear their way out of their tents from the inside and flee the campsite inadequately dressed in heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. Soviet investigators determined that six victims died from hypothermia but others showed signs of physical trauma. One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue missing. The investigation concluded that an “unknown compelling force” had caused the deaths”

Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain is a compelling account of the incident, and his own investigation over fifty years later. This incident has attracted a lot of attention over the years, much of it conspiracy-theoretical in nature. For me, the most forceful impact of Eichar’s book was restoring the humanity of those who lost their lives; an incident like this tends to attract a lot of speculation and curiosity with the sheer loss suffered overshadowed. Eichar discusses the family’s distress, especially at the difficulties having their children buried back in Ekaterinburg. On Pinterest there is a gallery of photos Eichar collected which further reinforces the humanity behind this unsolved-mystery story.

Eichar weaves three stories together – the hiker’s journey in 1959, the search for them a few weeks later, and his own journey in 2012. He also encounters the “tenth hiker”, Yuri Yudin – who turned back from the trip due to illness. There are moving passages about his understandably mixed emotions, although Eichar is disappointed to find Yudin is in thrall to inchoate conspiracy theories which Eichar rejects (see below) He is also stunned when Yudin expresses unvarnished nostalgia for Stalin’s time (although condemning Lenin) with particular ire for Boris Yeltsin. Eichar’s translator vigorously shakes her head in refutation of Yudin’s view on Stalin, although one wonders how naive Eichar was about Russia it he didn’t realise Yeltin’s massive unpopularity. Yudin says “under Putin, we are plankton” and decries the corroding effect of money on contemporary Russia

The book also gives some revealing glimpses of Soviet society during Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Often, writing not directly trying to understand a society or pontificate about it – a book investigating the myserious deaths of a group of hikers, for instance – can reveal more than a worthy tome of social analysis. Indeed, parts of the book reminded me – vividly  – of the fiction of Andrei Makhine. Two passages in particular struck me with force, both for this insight into Soviet life and their emotional weight.

One describes an incident on January 24th 1959:

On the morning after their departure, three hours before the lazy winter sun had risen, the Dyaltov group disembarked in Serov, an iron and steel manufacturing town 200 miles due north of Sverdlovsk. Blinov and his party joined them on the platform. It wasn’t yet eight o’clock, and after ten and a half hours of gaiety and irregular sleep on the train, both hiking groups were weary. The next train, which was to take them to Ivdel, wasn’t due to depart until evening, leaving the group of friends no choice but to spend the day in this unfamiliar mining town. Perhaps they could visit a local museum or- befitting their academic studies – a metallurgy plant.

Their first instinct was to get some sleep inside the station while it was still dark. They quickly discovered, however, that the doors were locked. The workers inside, speaking brusquely through the station windows, refused to allow any travellers in from the cold.

In classic fashion, Georgy lightened the mood by taking out his mandolin and breaking into song right there on the platform – a conspicious disruption given the early hour and inhospitable surroundings. In comic imitation of a busker, he set out his felt cap for tips, his beanpole frame and protruding ears adding to the comedy of the moment. But his spontaneous merrymaking didn’t last long because a nearby policeman heard the noise and strode over.



After a stern warning from the policeman, the group wander Serov and discover an elementary school “bearing the uninspired name of School #41.” A cleaning lady lets them in, and they meet a schoolmaster who allows them rest in the school if “in return, they would speak to his class later that day about their trip.”

A typical Soviet school day was broken into two periods: a morning session devoted to proper lessons, followed by a less structured afternoon session, during which pupils could pursue their own activities or gather for guest speakers. Schoolchildren could typically expect war veterans, factor workers, museum docents or writers as afternoon guests. But a group of mountaineers who could regale them with their adventures? This was a rare thing.

With Igor and his friends well rested, they piled into a classroom of roughly thirty-five young face, ranging in age from seven to nine. The little ones were eager to learn, and when the hikers revealed the contents of their backpacks, the children were held in captive fascinations. There were ice crackers, maps, Zorki cameras and flashlights – known as “Chinese torches” – passed around the room. The guests even treated the  class a tent-pitching demonstration, and by the end, the children were begging to be taken along on further expeditions. With the educational portion of the visit concluded, the classroom erupted in song

While Sasha was certainly the star of the sing-along, the children fell hardest for Zina, and became emotional at the idea of her leaving them. They asked her to be the leader of the “Pioneers” – a youth group similar to the Scouts in the United States – not understanding that Zina couldn’t stay. As evening drew near, the hikers wrapped up their visit with one last song, but the happy conclusion didn’t prevent the children from becoming tearful when the hikers moved to leave. With their teacher’s permission, the entire class poured out of the school and followed the ten adventurers down the road all the way to the train station. The kids pleaded with Zina again, begging her to stay and promising to be well behaved if she would only agree to remain behind and lead their children’s group.


This incident has a heartbreaking sequel:


Weeks later, once School #41 had gotten word that the Dyaltov group was missing, the children all wrote letters to UPI, expressing their concern and asking the frank questions that children ask. What happened to their new friends? Where was Zina? But their mail went unanswered, even after the group’s fate was known. Yuri Yudin received one such letter from a child they had met that day, but he didn’t have the heart to write back. What could he say?

On January 26th 1959 the hikers arrive at Sector 41, a temporary woodcutting camp (I am sure someone has tried to make something of the recurrence of the number 41) There follows a less emotionally stirring but perhaps even more revealing insight into Soviet society (note Yudin’s comment about the woodcutters being “not just working class”) It is too long to quote in full but I have tried  :

The men had young, unlined faces, the hikers recognised that they were not much older than themselves. Among those who greeted them there was one proud man, who stood out from the test. He had dark disheveled hair and a full red beard. … Boroda (the Russian word for “beard”) considered himself the spokesman of the group, and he took immediate charge in finding rooms for their guests. Aside from a series of pine log cabins that served as dorms for the workers, there was little to see at Sector 41 .. Perhaps it was at moments such as these that the ten hikers felt lucky to have been awarded a place at the university; even under Khrushchev, there were many many young people whose opportunities were startlingly limited.

The woodcutters made bread for their visitors, and after dinner, everyone gathered around the wood burning stove for warmth. The cabin offered none of the comforts of the Vizhay guesthouse. The furniture was Spartan, and patches of swamp moss wedged between the logs were the only thing keeping out the bitter draft. But the cabin was luxurious compared with the accomodations that lay ahead for the hikers, and they were surely grateful for the warm reception and company.

In fact, the students from the city found that they had more in common with these rural labourers than they might have guessed. It was true that the woodcutters had the wiry bodies of men who made their living from the land, but they also had the minds of self-taught intellectuals and the hearts of poets. Of all the men, the hikers found Boroda the most like-minded. Not only could he recite poetry as if he were reading it from the pages of a book, but he also held an easy sway over the entire group … His reluctance to shave may have arisen from convenience, but when paired with his smart blazer and Cossack-style breeches, Boroda’s generous facial hair lent him a surprising air of sophistication. It was as if he were making a conscious fashion statement, even if out here in the Russian wood there were few to admit it.

Over multiple cups of  black tea, which was in plentiful supply from China during that time, Boroda and his crew recited their favourite poems for their guest. “Even though they worked as forest cutters, they knew Yesenin and his poems,” Yudin remembers. “So that shows that they were smart, not just working class.” Sergei Yesenin was a lyrical poet of the early twentieth century, one of the most celebrated in Russia. He had been an early supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, but his later criticism of the government compelled Stalin to ban his work – a ban that remained in placed through Khrushchev’s regime.

The Dyaltov Group with the Section 41 Woodcutters – source

At times in the book, Eichar is asked why he, an American with no Russian connections, is interested in this story. “Are there not mysteries in America also?” he is repeatedly asked. He asks himself the same questions. When he first goes to Russia his girlfriend is heavily pregnant, and on his return she has had a daughter . One can imagine adventure writers of even ten years ago not mentioning this fact, or glossing over it, whereas Eichar wonders at his motivation (he doesn’t mention that his girlfriend is model Julia Ortiz either). However this is never really resolved or explained.

Eichar’s hypothesis is that infrasound caused the hikers deaths. He outlines the reasons why the other theories advanced are less than probable. In particular avalanches, a beloved hypothesis of skeptical debunkers, simply don’t occur on the kind of terrain the tent was placed. Eichar convincingly demonstrates that the physical injuries the hikers suffered are relatively easily explicable; the mystery lies in why they left the tent, barefoot. This review sets out, concisely, the threads of his argument (and I like the line “while conspiracy theorists might have a worldview shaped by Hollywood teen-slasher movies, the Dyatlov group acted as a conscientious team in a hostile environment.”)

Eichar describes researching this theory in the US, and rather entertainingly finding that one of his Russian counterparts has exactly the same theory. For me, the weakest sections of the book were those following Eichar’s attempts to follow in the hiker’s footsteps. In the end, Eichar does not spend the night camped where the hikers did (which is perhaps just as well given his conclusion) and there is an anticlimactic element to this attempt retracing. While there are plenty of illuminating lost-in-translation moments, Eichar is blessedly free of the condescending scorn many Americans seem to indulge in about all things Russian.

Infrasound has the explanatory advantage of being little known now but not even coming on the radar of investigators in 1959. Hence the “unknown compelling force” which, given the perspective of 1959 , was entirely correct if it was infrasound that did them. Personally, Eichar’s account is convincing, but – like MH370, I would imagine – there is likely to be something perpetually insoluble about the mystery that will always leave room for doubts.