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.

 

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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.

 

“Somewhere Near Venice”, from Shelf Life Magazine Issue #14 – I wrote this in early 2011 and it was published online in early 2012

Shelf Life Magazine is now defunct. When I look back at my early student writing, this is the kind of thing I was doing – I believe described by Michael Mac Nicholas as “nauseatingly trite and contrived.” Fifteen years later, I was somewhat at peace with that. The method of composition is as described at the bottom of the piece. Ultimately, I find this kind of thing, like surrealist writing games, is fun once and then becomes tediously rather rapidly. However, this specific method can throw up some interesting juxtapositions, and as it is based on a particular shelf in a particular place, a specific sensibility can be evident.

Somewhere near Venice, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste. The gentleman in the carriage was not handsome, but neither was he particularly bad-looking; he was neither too fat, nor too thin; he could not be said to be old, but he was not too young, either. The land itself was beautiful, with hills that ran down to the sea, and there were cold green waves that broke on the rocks that marked the edge of the land. No sound can be heard from the fields. But I don’t understand the least thing about my illness, and I don’t know for certain what part of me is affected.

The supine figure could almost have been sleeping were it not for the eyes. When the Simibirsk, of the Russian Volunteer Fleet, had at last completely vanished, carrying away the three sisters to Shanghai, I came back to my room at the hotel. She sighed, and sipped, and then to my dismay trotted them out. Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter ‘Weep’. Then Roscommon stumbled out and tore down our badminton net. From the open windows of her sickroom, a warm draught stirs the loose white hair at her neck, bringing scents of coal smoke, jasmine, opium.

You was in India, and that’s not the East any more than this is. Liebermann edged forward. Janet must have opened the window before she left. Was he born in Paris? “Drink – Rum”.

A dazzling ray of light slanted in through the trees. I was eating chocolate cake and drinking fragolino, a sweet swarthy wine distilled from the strawberry grape, in my bath. A woman in a black dress with a lace collar had led them to the table.

Note on the composition of “Somewhere Near Venice”

Take a bookshelf (perhaps you can do this with a Kindle or the like as well, but an old fashioned shelf of old fashioned books has a certain physical reality to it). Take the first book on the left. Copy the first sentence. Then, copy the second sentence from the second book. Then, the third sentence from the third book. Then, the fourth sentence from the fourth book. I’m sure you are getting the picture. You can either confine yourself to fiction (I did) or not. On our shelves, as well as the volumes already there, there are infinitely many other possible narratives waiting to be combined. I imagine a perfect library in which this method can be used to compose an entirely fresh and coherent new story.

Books used:
The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning
Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
Dream Angus – Alexander McCall Smith
Sorochintsy Fair – Nikolai Gogol (from “Village Evenings Near Dikanka”)
Notes from underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Witchdoctor of Chisale – Stephen McWilliams
Futility – William Gerhardie
Flashman and the mountain of light – George macdonald Fraser
Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake
Zodiac – the Eco thriller – Neal Stephenson
The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Time For A Tiger – Anthony Burgess
Vienna Blood – Frank Tallis
The Fit – Philip Hensher
What a strange creature is man – Johann Peter Hebel (from The Treasure Chest)
“The Balance” – Evelyn Waugh (from Collected Short Stories)
He who fears the wolf – Karin Fossum
Quentins – Maeve Binchy