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.

That was partly the trouble: he was, but he made his reputation as an exotic. Unlike Ronald Firbank, who had his own niche as a homosexual and a rare stylistic innovator, Gerhardie could not in the end claim to be anything specially, not even an eccentric. Although he had a close and life-long relationship with his mother Clara, his own tastes were promiscuous and heterosexual: a great deal of falling in love, and even more brief affairs with shopgirls and waitresses, to whom he was kind but also rather mean, as he never had any money to speak of, in spite of his run of success in the Ottercove world of society and journalism. While Waugh settled into a self-created world of Catholicism as a mock-aristocratic patriarch, Gerhardie remained an indeterminate sort of adventurer to the end, dying in 1977 at the age of 82 in his little flat near the BBC, for whom he had worked in the war years. For a long time he had been toiling in obscurity on what he hoped would be his masterpiece, a mixture of history and memoir, biography and literary criticism, a successor to God’s Fifth Column. It was discovered after his death, in a folder querulously inscribed ‘Do not crush.’

Certainly he remained uncrushable. Like most butterflies, he was far too tough to be broken on the wheel. But his work is very well worth reviving, and not just for its local chronicle interest. It had something which deeply impressed his contemporaries and made the older hands feel ‘not only out of date but dead and buried’. Something in the way the early novels were done made them look like the literary future, not just to Evelyn Waugh but to Rebecca West and Arnold Bennett – the young and the old alike – H.G. Wells, Elizabeth Bowen, Olivia Manning, Anthony Powell. In his time Gerhardie was at least as potent a literary influence in England as Hemingway, and more pervasive, more part of the new metropolitan air that English authors breathed: they absorbed him as Dostoevsky and the Russian writers had breathed the air of Gogol and come out from under his overcoat, and if that seems an excessive claim, read the pages of Futility and The Polyglots and taste a sort of comprehensive ur-flavour of the inter-war novel, from Graham Greene to Henry Green.

And yet his words and sentences, unlike theirs, are never quite in place, never quite add up to a novelist’s ‘world’, the sort that has a good chance of standing outside time. But Gerhardie had an absolutely natural sense of the new incongruity principle, the thing that flickers like immortal sheet lightning in The Waste Land, published in the same year as Futility – those nightingales and dirty ears. This is not, as has sometimes been supposed in the case of Gerhardie, a vulgarisation of Chekhov, to whom he was of course devoted, and whose three sisters he borrows, transmogrifies and gently lampoons in Futility. Gerhardie’s mode of unseriousness has a cutting edge, a new dimension of experience kept immanent – a tremendous potential of threat and promise – behind the dishevelled economy of the manner. True, he can become sentimental (so can Graham Greene), and also vulnerable to his own stereotype. A tender scene in The Polyglots is suffused with a sudden disgusting smell of burning fish-bones from somewhere behind the arbour where it takes place. An old device, but one that is used by Gerhardie, as later by Nabokov, to enhance the experience of both kinds of perception, rather than to diminish them. Futility has a gusto at variance with its title and overt tendency. Nabokov does the same sort of thing in Lolita, where the comically magic night of love with the nymphet is rendered more piquant, more alluring in consciousness, from the fact that the hero finds himself not very well in the morning, and decidedly constipated. Though he had no Russian blood, Gerhardie certainly had the Nabokovian gift of enjoying life’s rich tapestry, as it were, no matter in what form it unfolded.

Another thing that has ensured Gerhardie’s comparative non-survival as a writer seems to be his lack of a decided and involuntary personality. It goes, in some way, with the polyglot background, even with the large numbers of possible titles for his novels; and with the difficulty he had in acquiring by intuitive means the authority of background which a novelist needs for his creations. He lacked much sense of others. Tall and baby-faced, he was attractive to many women and pursued them obsessively, but he had a dandy’s coldness and was too fastidious to be physically in love. He never married, though he once pursued a razor-blade heiress with what seems to have been a fair amount of determination. He and Beaverbrook obviously had much in common, and he seems to have possessed the art of simultaneously teasing and flattering the great man. But Ethel Mannin, a powerful figure in the literary and social world of the time, did not take to him at all, declining to be seduced, and addressing him scornfully, at least in her memoirs, as ‘You, with your pale baby face, and stone-cold blue eyes, you’re a sadist.’ Antipathy was mutual, Gerhardie referring to her as the meanest woman he ever met. Coldness as an aid to stylishness was admired by writers of Waugh’s and Anthony Powell’s generation, and to be fair to Gerhardie, his attitudes never strike one as repulsive, or even unsympathetic. Also, like the father of the three sisters in Futility, he was at the same time a detached and a devoted family man.

In that respect, he resembled Chekhov, and Chekhov’s masterpiece ‘The Lady with the Dog’ is in a sense in the background of the novel he hoped would be his own masterpiece. Of Mortal Love was published in 1936, the story of a casual love affair that turns into the real thing. Katherine Mansfield, who had deeply admired Futility, had urged him many years back to attempt ‘one of those stories of a simple heart’, and both her advice and his eager acceptance of it show that both possessed the strong streak of sentimentality coveted by their essentially worldly temperaments. Gerhardie probably did not know enough about that sort of love to write about it very well. But the opposite kind of thing he can do beautifully, and with the kind of light touch – Desmond MacCarthy much admired in his writing ‘the ever-shifting and changing sense of being alive’ – which impressed readers reacting from the heavy-handedness of Galsworthy, and not enamoured of Lawrence’s use of a new sort of heavy-handedness. In Futility, the Russian extended family with one of whose daughters the narrator is in love, has ended up at last in Vladivostok, itself in the final convulsion of civil war.

It had been snowing in the night, prematurely for the season; now the snow was thawing and the ground was muddy. The sun was yellow, honey-coloured, and her sidelong look seemed warmer in the sunshine.

   ‘Will you marry me?’ I said.

   ‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘I am tired of you.’

   ‘I know that,’ I replied, and walked silently beside her.

   ‘If I were really tired of you I wouldn’t tell you.’

   ‘Then why do you tell me?’ I took it up, hungering for something positive, however small.

   ‘I don’t always say what I think,’ was the answer.

We walked on.

   ‘We are leaving in any case,’ she said.

It is deceptively simple, but oddly effective in conveying the fact that consciousness is not really an affair of feeling, emotion, action, but of something more intangible, though no less active. The Russian ‘manner’ is only there in order to bring out a more genuinely novel way of seeing and doing the thing, which we shall recognise a decade or so later in Anthony Powell’s Venusberg. Hugh Walpole, who had himself jumped on the bandwagon during the war by bringing out two novels with Russian settings, spoke of Gerhardie with envy and admiration to Virginia Woolf, who seems herself to have implied an admission that he managed the new consciousness without drawing attention to it in the way she needed to do.

At the same time, he did not sell. After Futility, which was in any case by no means a commercial success, he rarely managed to earn the publisher’s advance. Yet his reputation never really declined. Robert Donat was keen to do The Polyglots as a film, but eventually decided that ‘only Hollywood or Alexander Korda could do justice to the story.’ Basil Dean, who had filmed The Constant Nymph, was enthusiastic as well, but that too came to nothing.

Dr Davies never claims too much for Gerhardie’s achievement and reputation; her scholarship has produced an absorbing account in detail of the London literary life of the time. Vera Boys, the original of Dinah in Of Mortal Love, was said by Beaverbrook when Gerhardie introduced them to be ‘the most beautiful woman in London’, but to her irritation she heard him say the same thing to another young woman the next evening. Gerhardie was named as co-respondent in her divorce case and was cautious with married women thereafter, for his Yorkshire-German antecedents, as well as an affectionate regard for the feelings of his mother and sisters, made him reluctant to play the overt bohemian. But how different the events of life from all the ways there are of making novels about them! While Gerhardie was working as a liaison officer in Vladivostok, and unconsciously gathering material for Futility, he recorded in his diary: ‘Played tennis in the afternoon; then had a woman; then a bath, and afterwards witnessed a revolution.’ That might seem to be what it all boiled down to in the end.