Baby Face

John Bayley

  • William Gerhardie: A Biography by Dido Davies
    Oxford, 411 pp, £25.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 19 211794 7
  • Memoirs of a Polyglot by William Gerhardie
    Robin Clark, 381 pp, £5.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 86072 111 6
  • Futility by William Gerhardie
    Robin Clark, 198 pp, £4.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 86072 112 4
  • God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 by William Gerhardie, edited by Michael Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky
    Hogarth, 360 pp, £8.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0887 2

Who said of whom: ‘I have talent but he has genius’? Evelyn Waugh had been reading Futility, which first came out in 1922, but his favourite Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper. This almost forgotten work appeared in 1927, two years earlier than Vile Bodies. Its author wanted to call it Doom, a title not adopted until the 1974 edition. In 1947 it made a brief appearance as My Sinful Earth, and the 1928 American edition was called Eve’s Apples, the American publisher having decided, no doubt wisely, that the word ‘jazz’ had been ‘worn threadbare’ in crossing the Atlantic.

This mirage of various titles, all perfectly suitable, seems proper for a writer more famous in his day for being a genius than for any specific work of art. Even his own name had variations: the family name was Gerhardi, to which he sometimes but not always preferred to add an ‘e’, and which he pronounced soft, as in George. Its distant origins, not unlike those of the Beerbohms, were sober Protestant German, with a talent for sticking to business. On a commercial foray in the cosmopolitan capitalist world of the 1850s the author’s grandfather married a Flemish girl, came back to England, and then tried Russia, where the cotton business was booming. Industrious colonies from Yorkshire and Lancashire were settling in beside the Neva and Moskva rivers, and Gerhardi’s mother was named Clara Wadsworth. His father prospered and owned a large mansion and warehouse in St Petersburg. A solid family, despite their later forced exiles and polyglot adventures, and William’s brother Victor, who was to settle down in business in Finland, sounds rather boringly British. William, too, was English in his own way, which may have been one of the things about him that Evelyn Waugh admired.

He borrowed from him too. In this highly fascinating and erudite biography Dido Davies notes some of the echoes of Jazz and Jasper in Vile Bodies. Gerhardie’s Lord Ottercove, based on the ubiquitous literary model of Beaverbrook, shouts ‘Faster! Faster!’ like Agatha Runcible. Beaverbrook seems to have genuinely and deeply admired Gerhardie and made a kind of mascot of him, dragging him off to night-clubs and grooming him in every possible way for publicity. Waugh was never so much petted and encouraged by the news tycoon: he had the good sense to keep his distance, and the kind of secret dedicated independence Gerhardie lacked. Gerhardie’s lack of balance and centre was part linguistic, part social: Russian came easier to him than English, in the use of which he never seems to have obtained an instinctive confidence. All things Russian were madly fashionable in the early Twenties, and Gerhardie found himself lionised and invited everywhere, but on a basis of mild but permanent misunderstanding. Bernard Shaw, he noticed, had a red nose and he wondered whether the famous abstinence was really as severe as claimed. Shaw said to him: ‘If you’re English you’re a genius, but if you’re Russian ... well then ... of course ...’ ‘I am English,’ cut in Gerhardie.

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