- 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.
In other words, there are fashions in reputations. At another level, where there is a responsibility to provide good writers with appropriate readers, we are enslaved to habit or inertia. Under such conditions it is all too easy for valuable work to disappear.
Gerhardie’s ‘Credo’ takes account of these facts and their consequences. He had developed a rather Proustian theory of time and habit (the signs are that he knew Beckett’s Proust rather well). His defence of poetry is Romantic, expressly Wordsworthian, for it remembers the definition of poetry as ‘the pleasure which there is in life itself’. Here, and again in God’s Fifth Column, he remembers, without quoting them, Wordsworth’s lines about those ‘higher minds’ which
from their native selves can send abroad
Kindred mutations; for themselves create
A like existence; and, whene’er it dawns
Created for them, catch it, or are caught
By its inevitable mastery.
Like angels stopped upon the wing by sound
Of harmony from Heaven’s remotest spheres –
where the ‘mutations’ and ‘existence’ are kindred to those of nature. The link between this primary Romantic idea and Proust is provided by Blake: ‘eternity is in love with the productions of time’ – having, as Gerhardie adds, nothing else to be in love with outside itself. Poetry is the means by which we sense that love, and so experience ‘the pleasure that there is in life itself’. But by poetry he meant the novel, now our principal means of achieving glimpses of intemporal realities, the ‘unknown laws of the kingdom of heaven’. It follows that good novels must be serious, which entails a distinction between seriousness and earnestness, and a claim that the serious is also humorous. The genre of his own novels he defines as ‘humorous tragedy’, adding that they have their origins in emotion recollected in tranquillity, ‘Wahrheit made fragrant by Dichtung.’
Not surprisingly, the man who holds such views believes also that good novels are neither obvious nor transparent: to read them is a task calling for slow research, and few will undertake such work. Reviewers prefer what is familiar and easily dealt with, and may therefore destroy a book whose whole object is to remove what Wordsworth and Coleridge called ‘the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude’ which prevents our seeing and understanding. So Gerhardie’s aesthetic merges into his complaint about his reception. Not that he hopes for many ‘ideal readers’: given an audience of genius, he whimsically remarks, the writer of genius would lose his distinction. But there should be some, capable of reading ‘stereoscopically’, serious but not earnest, participators in the work of ‘humorous tragedy’.
The ‘Credo’ is an odd document, mingling grand claims with a muted disappointment and in the end leaving the whole matter to posterity – a weak conclusion, since posterity is only more bad readers, with perhaps a few good ones who could easily miss him. But it does convey his sense of the justice of his claims without sounding merely vain. Not that he was without a saving vanity. He was always surprised by the slowness with which he made his way. Futility was turned down by 13 publishers before he sent it to the dying Katherine Mansfield, who got it published at once; it was a success, but not the wild one he seemed to expect. His choice of reader was shrewd: for all that he has to say about the English Romantics and Goethe and Proust, his true Penelope was Chekhov, a humorous tragedian whose ‘insight ... penetrates to a level immeasurably deeper than the superficial differences of men and race, to a bed-rock of common humanity where all human beings, as human beings, are frail, irresponsible, weak. Against this, their success or failure is shown to be irrelevant.’
Futility is a Russian novel, Chekhov naturalised. It is even about three Russian sisters. It is set in the period of the Revolution and immediately after, a period on which Gerhardie’s imagination would continue to dwell, but it is mostly concerned with Chekhovian irresponsibility and charming weakness. One sees why Shaw said to him: ‘If you’re English you’re a genius, but if you’re Russian ...’ What would he have said had he been allowed to finish? Epigone, or thief? Gerhardie’s people are always saying such things as: ‘How tiring this is, Andrei Andreiech ... to be always waiting to begin our lives.’ Or: ‘The three sisters always sat in some extraordinary positions, on the backs of sofas and easychairs, and Fanny lvanovna and Kniaz sat in very ordinary positions ...’ The manner is playfully high-handed, the narrator running the show to suit himself, introducing whenever he feels like it observations on life and on the relation between life and his novel. The book ends with a tiny Liebestod. Back in London, the ‘I’ of the book again thinks he loves Nina (staying in love is always a major problem in Gerhardie) and slogs back to Vladivostock, via Port Said, Colombo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Peking, to find that Nina has christened her parrot Andrei Andreiech. She no longer loves him, nor, he finds, does he love her. She leaves for Europe; her boat is subjected to a ‘heart-rending delay’, and Andrei ends the book in an alternation of relief and overwhelming sadness, a mood which has no visible excuse except perhaps ‘common humanity’.
The futility lies in being unable to make purposeful moves, even in courtship, even when the girl is so charming that her lack of real substance merely enhances her charm. The lover, like his elders, is incapable of acting except foolishly, except when the occasion doesn’t require it, because he is self-bewilderingly odd. There is a character who claims to have no father, only a grandfather, and when that is called an odd omission, cannot see why: he is a type of all Gerhardie’s sympathetic characters, and nearly all of them are sympathetic. The Polyglots, published three years after Futility, has much the same ambience, including the setting in time and place, but is a more definite and more powerful book. Now the girl is Sylvia; the narrator’s marriage to her is continually postponed and they grow tired of each other. Eventually she marries a bore, but her farcical mother, having arranged the match, prevents its consummation, and the hero, the young writer, sleeps with her on the wedding night. Then they go off to Europe, leaving the husband behind. The love-relationship is serious and silly, passionate and tedious. The writer remembers from Chekhov’s notebook the saying that love is ‘either a remnant of something degenerating, something which once has been immense, or ... a particle of what will in the future develop into something immense; but in the present it is unsatisfying, it gives much less than one expects ...’ The Polyglots is a study of love in the light of that remark, but also in the light of other facts of life, such as war and death. The events of the Great War and what followed it left Gerhardie with a hatred and contempt for war, and the people who made war, sentiments which grew stronger with time; and on this subject there are notable pages in The Polyglots. The Chekhovian eccentrics are still there. One uncle claims that he can construct an electrical machine in such a way that the hero can press the keys in his attic while the typewriter types in the basement. But he agrees that the arrangement offers no discernible advantage, and goes away ‘swinging his hammer, and wondering if there was anything by way of a nail anywhere that wanted driving in’. Now, however, these pleasant idlers are marked for death. Throughout the book one is charmed by the accurate rendering of the funniness of children’s talk, Chekhovians in miniature as they all are; later one understands that these pleasures have softened one up for the tragic climax, which is beautifully and very painfully written.
In Of Mortal Love, which gets Gerhardie’s main preoccupation into its title, the manner changes a little; it appeared, though its writing may have begun very much earlier, in 1936. It is again a story of an irresponsible and delightful girl, of an off-and-on love affair, which ends not in parting but in death. The final section, written with great delicacy and candour, takes all the risks and succeeds. Why it is not sentimental is a good question. There is a sort of epiphany near the end, the dead young woman seen as a being perpetually alive, as a defeat of time, as a truth from which the ‘film of familiarity’ has been wiped away. Then time and habit resume their rule.
If books such as these can remain out of circulation for decades, it is not easy to believe that God’s Fifth Column will do well with posterity, though it is an interesting experiment, a biography of the age that is as much from the hand that wrote The Romanovs, a study of the Russian dynasty, as from the imagination of the novelist. It is divided into five books, one for each decade, and the story is told by means of casually apposed and anecdotal biographies, with the author’s reflections on politics, metaphysics and anything else he chooses thrown in. The editors explain that the work engaged Gerhardie for a great many years; ‘finished’ early in the second war, it was retrieved from the publisher for improvements and additions.
It seems obvious that on the method employed a book becomes indefinitely expansible: you need never run out of lives, or even out of Plutarchan parallel lives, which, as in the case of Hitler and D.H. Lawrence, Gerhardie rather enjoys. There are interwoven chapters on Margot Tennant, the Kaiser (‘the greatest ass of the last half-century to wear a crown’), Lenin and Chekhov, Bismarck, Curzon, Balfour, Tolstoy, Wilde, Proust, a couple of Czars, and so on. All are written with care and informed by strong opinions. Lenin, who ‘gave no more thought to the unbearable burdens of the Russian peasant’ than the Czar Alexander, is, like most statesmen, treated with contempt, unlike Chekhov, who remarked that if the upper classes could depute their bowel movements to the working classes they would do so, explaining that the best people should not waste on these merely eliminatory functions the time indispensable to the task of ensuring cultural progress.
Gerhardie had a profound hatred of class, especially in England, and in general he thought his own country mediocre, dirty and hypocritical, with its grotesque educational system, its affairs placed in the hands of ‘feeble-minded wives and their not much wiser husbands’. The Boer War is treated as a turning-point in our moral history and a useful example for Hitler. The system of international finance is responsible for 20th-century wars in which the people kill one another ruthlessly, having been encouraged to treat the opposition as the embodiment of evil until the rulers make up the quarrel, reassign the frontiers, and carry on.
The tone varies from the mildly Swiftian to the ecstatic. On Hitler:
He had no culture; so he invented his own brand. He had no mind, no intellect; he was practically illiterate; so with his secretary’s assistance he wrote a book to say that he despised education, and forced everybody to buy and read it ... He had no sense of accuracy or of history; so he decreed that his own accession to power was henceforward to be the chief study of the school curriculum. He had no well-founded right even to his name ... so he decreed that his name should be on every lip as a greeting.
He had relived an isolated moment in its crystal purity, free from the strain of anxiety and the blight of habit which had dulled the actual moment and made it nebulously unreal. He had relived it, this time, with insouciance because his being recognised it as real and ideal. Utterly real, with nothing in it to abstract from simultaneous realisation, the moment was also the ideal of contemplation. Man no longer stood in his own shadow. The duality had been bridged.
As these quotations suggest, the artists come off better than the politicians: in fact, the characters are divided into those who, like kings and politicians, are the slaves of time and chance, and on the other hand artists, who deal in eternal reality. There is a further distinction between poets and prophets: the poets include Wilde, Chekhov and Proust, the prophets Tolstoy, Shaw and Gorky. Artists, who introduce eternity to the productions of time, do not preach or teach. They may not be virtuous: Proust remarked that ‘great artists often, while being thoroughly wicked, make use of their vices in order to arrive at a conception of the moral law that is binding upon us all.’ Gerhardie’s Twenties section ends strongly with a comparison between Proust and Lenin, the analyst of vanity and the ‘man of narrowly premeditated action’ who declared that he was prepared to exterminate three quarters of the human race if only the remaining quarter survived to be communists. The Thirties were perhaps too close, and the writing loses force, though God’s fifth column – the power which, working for God, sabotages human complacency and human ambitions – was certainly hard at work in those years.
The book is full of deft juxtapositions and fine, self-indulgent moralising, but it is a failure all the same and somehow seems to know it. It has a sort of loneliness, as of a work that knows it has no real audience. Nor is it impeccably served by its editors. Gerhardie regarded printers as the enemy of authors, especially authors who quote foreign languages; and perhaps, as he complains, they ignore or garble proof corrections also. The text of this last book has a good many errors including some in foreign languages. The editors sometimes translate (or mistranslate – see the first Proust quotation on page 98) passages of French and German, and sometimes don’t. There are obvious mistranscriptions, as on page 165, where ‘stillness’ should be ‘silliness’, and Gerhardie is permitted to attribute a remark about ‘bloody instructions which but return to plague the inventor’ (sic) to Kipling. There is a scatter of simple misprints, which Gerhardie would have hated. Perhaps Mr Holroyd, when he supervises the next Uniform Edition at the next Gerhardie revival a dozen years hence, will put them right.