William Gerhardie’s Russian Problem
- April 19, 2023
- James Snell
The novelist William Gerhardie won early acclaim for his portraits of Russia and its people. But both the critics and his ever-diminishing public failed to appreciate his wider vision.
William Gerhardie was born in St Petersburg in 1895, and largely grew up there. He served in the British missions to Petersburg and Vladivostok after the beginning of the Bolshevik rise to power, soon after which his first novel, Futility, was praised hysterically for its adherence to what the subtitle called ‘Russian Themes’. Gerhardie’s book on Anton Chekhov was the first study of the writer published outside Russia in any language. And yet he spent much of his life denying any suggestion that he was a Russian.
When Futility, a tragicomic novel of the Russian civil war, was published in 1922, it drove the literary world into a fervour. Happily sidestepping Gerhardie’s disclaimer that ‘The I in this book is not me’, critics of the calibre of Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, Arnold Bennett and others made Gerhardie – a callow man in his mid-20s just finishing an education at Oxford delayed by the war – an almost overnight sensation.
Critics identified Gerhardie’s experiences with those of Andrei Andreiech, the novel’s hero. They proclaimed that Gerhardie had in fact written, not a comic novel, but a revelatory portrait of Russia. The Daily Telegraph said the book was ‘more valuable still for its revelation of the spirit to which must be attributed Russia’s present position of national hopelessness’. John Middleton Murry, husband of Katherine Mansfield, claimed it a ‘little microcosm’ of the ‘Russian spirit’.
Gerhardie’s works are novels of tragic irony, as Michael Holroyd put it. They are not really about Russia at all. Long before Beckett and Godot, Gerhardie’s characters proclaim that they must get moving or working, and yet remain stuck or trapped – confined within a family home; aboard a slow-moving ocean liner; in an alpine pension. They die pointlessly and often painfully. Their love affairs tend not to work out. But they fail amid farcical humour.
We must not forget the irony, the key ingredient of Gerhardie’s work. His novels are often very funny in absurdist ways. Characters have tags that they repeat often. For example, the White Russian general in Futility incessantly refers to Nina – the love interest – with ‘What eyes! What calves! What ankles! … Look here, why in heaven don’t you marry her?’
Uncle Emmanuel, an old lech in The Polyglots, has a repeated refrain of ‘Courage! Courage!’ before he disgraces himself or sells out his family. His lewdness, theoretically left undiscussed by the protagonist, is replaced by hardly discreet cries of ‘A veil over my uncle’s private life. A veil! A veil!’
Or Gerhardie’s description can be laden with English deadpan. From Futility:
‘Is this sheet clean?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said the boy attendant.
‘Sure nobody slept on it?’
‘Nobody. Only the boss.’
If Gerhardie is known for anything, these days he is known as a ‘splendid failure’. Once the toast of literary London, fawned over by Lord Beaverbrook and his newspapers, Gerhardie published nothing after 1940, when his lavish and expensive history of the Romanov dynasty failed to sell.
Gerhardie grew closer to, and dependent on, the good favours of a small circle of literary London, including Hugh Kingsmill and Brian Lunn. Other writers, such as Rebecca West and Ethel Mannin, found him arrogant or strange. Gerhardie was an odd man who these days would have a brace of diagnoses and prescriptions.
His university friend William Rothenstein recalls ‘The recurrent fits of agitation, near madness almost, of Gerhardi, due to suspicion that his scout [a college servant] day by day was stealing his marmalade spoonful by spoonful.’ During the war Gerhardie heard an air raid siren and ran about his kitchen to find a saucepan to shelter under, only to realise after a time that it was already on his head.
A public continued to elude him. Lord Beaverbrook had promoted Gerhardie in his newspapers with attention-getting stories of the author’s poverty: in one, under the headline ‘Novelist Lives on 2/6 a Day’, Gerhardie says his ambition is ‘to live on 5/- a day’. Beaverbrook had published Gerhardie’s attempts at scandalous essays, including one on ‘Why women should rule the world’. But eventually, like Waugh’s Lord Copper in Scoop, Beaverbrook showed his callous side and wrote his former protégé off.
Gerhardie was left to write essays with titles like ‘Why I Am Not a Best-Seller’, in which he said it was ‘For no reason at all. But the question is posed and I must answer it. I blame neither the Church, nor the State, nor the Law.’
During the war, Gerhardie went quiet. He spent the next quarter of a century inside his London flat and his own head, slowly drifting out of life and into obscurity.
Re-issues of Gerhardie’s works, in 1947-9 and 1970-4, failed to do more than cultivate a niche but appreciative audience. Only one biography of Gerhardie has been published, written by the late Dido Davies, in 1990. His papers lie in the Cambridge University Library where, I inferred when I consulted them, they are rarely visited.
Such is the depth of this obscurity that Gerhardie is almost a byword for a literary failure. He evidently haunts the novelist William Boyd, who based a fictional failed writer, Logan Mountstuart, the protagonist of Any Human Heart, on Gerhardie. ‘He’s a terrible warning to all novelists, in the sense that the well can run dry’, Boyd told the Financial Times in 2018.
The implication of much recent commentary on Gerhardie is that his genius simply failed. What critics praised in Futility and a second novel, The Polyglots, had run out by the time Gerhardie wrote on non-Russian and more spiritual subjects.
I disagree. I believe what Gerhardie had he never fully lost; but that his critics – many of them drunk on an exotic picture of Russia, and addicted to the translators and authors who brought their fantasies to life – grew tired of someone who had a broader and more encompassing vision.
Gerhardie was once barracked by Bernard Shaw, who demanded to know if Gerhardie was Russian or English. Shaw told Gerhardie that if he was English, he was a genius, whereas if he was a Russian – that part was left implied. Gerhardie interrupted to say that he was English. What stern critics interpreted as vanity – the man greedily grasping for the laurels of genius – he intended as the truth.
William Holroyd, the literary biographer, friend and long-time champion of Gerhardie’s, wrote in his introduction to Gerhardie’s novel of 1930, Pending Heaven, that what his critics happily appreciated in novels about Russia, they simply would not believe also happened in Kennington – or the south of France – or Algeria.
The critics, like Shaw, made a fetish of Russia and Russianism. And Gerhardie’s view of the tragic irony of life was broader and more universal than some could stand.
Dorothy Brewster, a near-contemporary critic, noted that Gerhardie ‘never had … [the] Russian Soul fever’ of other writers, even though he displayed ‘more expert knowledge than most of the soul-worshippers … of certain aspects of the Russian temperament’.
This is something, it’s possible to speculate, that readers and critics either never appreciated or grew to resent: that Gerhardie no longer played along with the Russian fantasia of their own imaginations.