- God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age, 1890-1940 by William Gerhardie, Michael Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky
Hodder, 360 pp, £11.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 340 26340 7
- Futility by William Gerhardie
Penguin, 184 pp, £1.75, February 1981, ISBN 0 14 000391 6
Gerhardie is one of those writers who are periodically rescued from near-oblivion. In 1947, a temporary revival of interest was brought about by the publication of a ‘Uniform Edition’ of his novels, and there was another in 1970, when the same edition was republished with prefaces by Michael Holroyd. Gerhardie himself prefixed to the reissue of his first book, Futility, an important essay called ‘My Literary Credo’, which is unfortunately omitted from the new Penguin Modern Classics reprint. (Futility is the only novel in paperback, another omission that Penguin ought to rectify.) The most recent upsurge of interest has been caused by the posthumous publication of God’s Fifth Column, in the preparation of which Mr Holroyd, sticking to his noble task, has sensibly enlisted the help of a historian expert in the period reviewed by the book.
Gerhardie died in 1977 in his 82nd year – 55 years after the publication of Futility and nearly forty years after his last novel. As the editors point out, he early acquired a reputation for failure, and there was little in the second half of his life to suggest that this judgment was seriously wrong. He was a shadowy survivor, living round the corner from Broadcasting House but known to few. The press noticed that he added a final ‘e’ to Gerhardi, and that the Arts Council gave him a writer’s grant, tacitly waiving the rule that such grants are made in the expectation of a return in the form of new publication, and not in recognition of services rendered or for considerations of need. Of course there were said to be works in progress: but few supposed that they would come to much. Gerhardi(e) belonged to the Twenties and Thirties.
He himself has a good deal to say, in the ‘Credo’, about the fickleness of reviewers and the transience of praise. If one book does well, the second is disparaged; or, if it is not, the first is forgotten. He compares novel-reviews to strings of sausages, churned out by writers impatient to get on with their own work. This doesn’t prevent him from quoting the best reviews given him by illustrious critics: but in the end, he says, ‘something incomplete and alien wafts upon us even from the friendliest notice.’ Nobody ever seemed to have time to achieve an understanding of what he was really up to.
In some ways he resembles Ford Madox Ford, though Ford was much more prolific, indeed embarrassingly so. Both were dedicated to the art of fiction; and Ford also died a failure and three parts forgotten. Repeated attempts to establish at least The Good Soldier and Parade’s End as canonical masterpieces have never quite succeeded, despite very distinguished sponsorship. But The Good Soldier doesn’t disappear completely, and perhaps an increasing number of people take it for granted as one of the great novels of the century: so it hovers on the margin of the canon. No book of Gerhardie’s has acquired even that status. Neither books nor theses (so far as I know) are written about him. In an age when large numbers of people are maintained by the public to read English literature, and to train even larger numbers of readers to be a proper audience for good writing, Gerhardie finds no place in syllabuses which find room for, say, Vonnegut or Doris Lessing.
Since Henry Green, arguably the best English novelist of his time, is little better off, we need not waste our time being surprised at this neglect. It would be agreeable to believe that the present stir of interest might alter the situation: but the rather freakish God’s Fifth Column, even supported by Futility, does not seem a strong enough base on which to rebuild a reputation. It may even reinforce the old view that Gerhardie was no more than a quite interesting and rather peculiar kind of failure. In fact, everybody interested in good novels should read him. I speak as a new convert, for although I read Futility forty years ago I knew nothing else until this posthumous book induced me to look out some of the other novels. I bought The Polyglots and Of Mortal Love for four dollars in a New York second-hand bookshop, and was quickly persuaded that Gerhardie is a novelist of high order. To explain how such a writer may come to be overlooked would call for a whole book about the way we live now as a literary community. At one level we behave like Time in Troilus and Cressida – that is,
like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretched as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer. The welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.