Humoristic sketches philosophical musings and political condemnations Gerhardie was adamently anti military It is an enormously playful book And it is in this work that Gerhardie reveals most readily that the notion of ardent play is at the heart of his artistic vision Futility is the story of Andrei Andreiech a Russian born Englishman who grows up in St Petersburg goes to Oxford and is recruited by the British Army s special services when the war breaks out because of his fluency in several languages especially Russian essentially Gerhardie s biography He is sent to St Petersburg and while stationed there becomes involved with the Bursanov sisters and their rather bizarre family The narrator s focus is apparently on Nina the second sister as it is on Sylvia in The Polyglots but these love affairs are the means through which our hero can closely scrutinize that which holds so much fascination for him and for us the cast of characters who comprise her family Almost immediately we are led from what appears to be something akin to a drawing room comedy into what is actually a literary carnival Nina s family is thoroughly Bourgeois by any Bolshevik s definition and the wealthy family gradually loses all financial security Of course as the story unfolds we see that they really had none in the first place It is merely a uestion of semantics credit during the war takes on new definitions And so does the word family Nina s father Nikolai Vasielevich becomes the ring master as lovers and lover s entire families distant cousins friends ex wives and their new husbands all join the troupe Toward the end of the novel when Andrei Andreiech arranges through the British foreign office for Nikolai Vasielevich and himself to go to Siberia to discover the fate of some mines he owns but has never earned a penny off of the entire lot no one can bear to be left behind goes with them On the train ride Uncle Kostia Nina s father s sixteen year old lover s uncle a writer who has never written a word and one great character has an exchange with Andrei Andreiech which expresses the magnificent tension that pervades Gerhardie s work When I am at home I mean anywhere at a standstill I am wretched intolerably I write and I think He stopped What What am I writing for what on earth am I thinking for So you have doubts Yes at moments I am seized by misgivings what is it all for I ask I see Now it is different We are moving apparently doing something going somewhere One has a sense of accomplishing something I lie here in my coupe and I think It is good At last I am doing somehting Living not recording Living Living I look out of the window and my heart cries out Life Life and so living living vividly I lapse into my accustomed sphere of meditation and then before I now exactly where I am I begin to meditate Where are we all going to Isn t our journey the ernel of absurdity And so by contrast as it were I gain a sense of the importance of meditation That is how we decieve ourselves Andrei Andreiech The Polyglots is again the portrait of a young polyglot Georges Diabologh who is an Englishman born on Japanese soil but who grew up in Russia before going to school in England He is stationed in Japan during the war and makes forays into Russia His Aunt Teresa who left Belgium with her husband and daughter at the war s outbreak also live in Japan Aunt Teresa in a different manner but not unlike Nina s father collects people and it is they that form the pigment that Gerhardie spreads across his canvass His love affair with his cousin Sylvia whom he adores for her simple beauty and for being beautifully simple is the centerpiece around which the rest of the novel beauty and for being beautifully simple is the centerpiece around which the rest of the novel layed And it is Sylvia s or less deaf ear and meaningfully meaningless patter that gives rise to the narrators various and sundry pontifications The juxtapositions are meaningfully meaningless patter that gives rise to the narrators various and sundry pontifications The juxtapositions are glorious Gerhardie never lets himself nor his reader assume or trust anything You want to laugh at me then No that is not humour Humour is when I laugh at you and laugh at myself in the doing for laughing at you and laugh at myself
for laughing at myself and thus to the tenth degree It s laughing at myself and thus to the tenth degree It s free like a bird The inestimable advantage of comedy over any other literary method of depicting life is that here you rise superior unobtrusively to every notion attitude and situation so depicted We laugh we laugh because we cannot be destroyed because we do not recognize our destiny in any one achievemnt because we are immortal because there is not this or that world but endless worlds eternally we pass from one into another In this lies the hilarity futility the insurmountalby greatness of all life I felt jolly having gained my balance with one coup The Polyglots says Julian Symons is certainly Gerhardie s finest book richer and humane than anything else he wrote and deeply serious in its comedy It is one of the classic novels of the twentieth century I can think of no better way to describe Gerhardie s work than as deeply serious comedy I found myself laughing out loud often while reading these novels but it was a laughter that often than not reverberated in the soul With each of them I developed a bizarre relationship which I can only describe as pleasurably disturbing I couldn t wait to finish so that I could have a sense of the whole picture and yet I was reluctant to read on nowing that all these marvelous parts could never add up to any one whole Olivia Manning in an article in The Times wrote The humour of life the poetry of death and the release of the spirit these things William Gerhardie describes as no prose writer has done before himHow did he become lost to view How can we resurrect him Anthony Powell Evelyn Waugh C P Snow Kingsley Amis William Cooper all acknowledge his influence He is one of the immortals He is our Gogol s Overcoat We all come out of him Twenty years later I couldn t agree FAX 44 71 872 0332DATE May 16 1990Michael ShawThe Curtis Brown Agency162 168 Regent StreetLondon W1GREAT BRITIANDear Mr Shaw We would like to consider for publication the books Futility and Memoirs of a Polyglot by William Gerhardie and would appreciate a review copy of each I gather you control the US rights I would also appreciate your letting me now what the current situation is concerning the rights Our fax is 212 572 2593 Thank you for your attention Regards Jenny McPhee Assistant Editor I picked up Futility at a library sale a book by an unknown to me author with a glowing preface by Edith Wharton What tremendous luck I m utterly in love This wonderful warm dazzling book reminds me so much of another little gem that takes place in revolutionary Russia Penelope Fitzgerald s The Beginning of Spring Unlike Fitzgerald who somehow managed to get Russia without having been there Gerhardie is an Englishman who grew up there one of those we It is a consolation to think there are other useless people in the world besides ourselvesBah Found no interest in any of the characters And as for this being funny in any way ugh That Ected masterpieces It tells the story of someone very similar to Gerhardie himself a young Englishman raised in Russia who returns to St Petersburg and falls in love with the daughter of a hilariously dysfunctional family all played out with the armies of the Russian Re.
review FutilityLife in Russia before during and after the Revolution seen through the eyes of a rather self absorbed young Anglo gent The chaotic nature of the White cause in the Civil War endless splits and coups and a plethora of All Russia governments competing is portrayed and the general uselessness of the forces available to it What is striking for a modern reader is to realise that the half hearted complacent and incompetent Allied Intervention is the model for the lat There are honest men in Russia and there are clever men in Russia but there are no honest clever men in Russia And if there are they re probably heavy drinkers One of the many things that I found interesting is the attitude of several of the military figures They seem to believe that war is natural to be expected the ordinary way of things And completely necessary to prevent bloodshed although they appear to miss the irony of this statement I loved Gerhardie s humor and spot on social commentary This is an old reader s report on Gerhardie from my long ago publishing daysI m sure Sonny never got past the first paragraph So glad to see Melville House has pursued July 19 1990Sonny I have now read three William Gerhardie books Futility The Polyglots and Memoirs of A Polyglot On the assumption that you have no idea why I am telling you this I will remind you that over a month ago I showed you a review in the TLS by Julian Symons of a biography of Gerhardie written by Dido Davies Oxford University Press which incorporated a critical essay of the author s oeuvre I have attached the article I said something about Vintage or even Pantheon and you said pursue it remember Two novels and a memoir by a thirty five year old polyglot later I am utterly convinced that these novels deserve to be in print in the USA Of course deserve is a tricky word Gerhardie s voice is uniue because it is wholly his own while not at all his own in the sense that he is a mimic of every author that ever impressed him He is a literary polyglot Feeling the necessity to be succinct in my description however I will say that Gerhardie s prose did at times bring to mind a mingling of two distinct styles on the one hand a Chechovian dedication to detail to the particular and the intimate to that which appears to have no bearing on things significant yet when all taken together reveal entire worlds And on the other hand Gerhardie s tone is infused with the romantic irony the barely concealed contempt for the establishment for politics philosophy religion and the deceiving self nowledgable voice of an F Scott Fitzgerald who was writing at the exact same time as Gerhardie This Side of Paradise was published two years before Futility But Gerhardie also has the absurd slapstick humor of Gogol at the same time as the highly sophisticated wit of Evelyn Waugh who says Symons was most assuredly influenced by Gerhardie All three of these books are laugh out loud funny In one of the fine moments and the book is a string of fine moments in the middle of Memoirs of a Polyglot Gerhardie describes in his wonderfully suspect and egocentric voice something of what I m trying to describe Just as every political party considers itself a centre party threatened by revolutionaries on the left and reactionaries on the right so every young writer tends to think his talent is compounded from the choicest ingredients One hopes and on what little ground that one incorporates the lucid sanity of a Bertrand Russell without any of his liberal smugness the bitter incisiveness of Bernard Shaw without his sterility the rich humanity of H G Wells without his splashing
over the analytical profundity of Proust whithout his mawkish snobbism the elemental sweep of D H Lawrencethe analytical profundity of Proust whithout his mawkish snobbism the elemental sweep of D H Lawrence his gawky bitterness the miraculous naturalness of Tchehov without that sorry echo of the consumptive s cough the supreme poetic moments of Goethe unimbedded in the suet pudding of his common day the intimations without the imbecility of William Wordsworth the lyrical imagery of Shakespeare without his rhetoric the pathological insight of Dostoevski without his extravagent suspiciousness the life imparting breath of Tolstoy without his foolishness Turgenev s purity in reproducing nature without his sentimentalism the lyrical power of Pushkin without his paganism the elegiac ualtiy of Lermontov with out his Byronism the humour and epic language of Gogol without his provincialism the spirit of Voltaire without his tinniness the human understanding of Dr Johnson without his overbearingness the dash of Byron with out vanity the faithful portraiture of Flaubert without his tortuous fastidiousness The list could be prolonged He pronounces upon makes fun of and is humbled by his literary forbears all in one breath But then again Gerhardie pronounces on everyone and everything He makes an art of being offensive slurring race class nationality and the female sex as if such naive and egotistical proclamations were a necessary stage in the development of the artist The first person narrator of both Futility and The Polyglots is the same as that of Memoirs of a Polyglot a purported autobiography which could lead one to deduce that all of these works are autobiographical Yes and no The material characters and circumstances may well be but the writing the stuff is pure artifice Our narrator is one of the most elusive untrustworthy manipulative and repulsively endearing fictional charaters I have ever come across Futility Gerhardie s first novel begins The I of this book is not me The author and his narrator persistantly design to draw the reader into a fiction only to shove him violently out again by means of an aside or an observation or humor or satire and catapult him into a whole other reality which in turn is another fiction and so on Reading these novels for I would say Memoirs of a Polyglot classifies as such as much as the others do is like being in a house of mirrors your pleasure deriving from a constant and rather discomforting blurring of the conventions of the real and the a constant and rather discomforting blurring of the conventions of the real and the of life and art I as a reader am a great believer in plot and yet while reading these novels I never reflected on the virtual absence of plot until now Things happen characters cross continents people die there are wars marriages governments fall fortunes are lost and yet all of this is too real to be considered part of a plot but nevertheless too artfully rendered to ever be considered a straight reflection of the real All three of these early novels are set against a fascinating political and cultural backdrop Russia and England during and immediately after World War I And all three have for a protagonist a young man whose history and education match that of Gerhardie uite remarkably In Memoirs of a Polyglot Gerhardie gives us the real story which Symons outlines in his review Though Gerhardie s life story is rich and fascinating he particapated in one of the most intriguing literary and political periods of our century Memoirs is really a series of impressions digressions. Hailed by his famous contemporaries including Edith Wharton HG Wells Katherine Mansfield Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh who called him a genius William Gerhardie is one of the twentieth century's forgotten masters and his lovely comedy Futility one of the century's negl. Ppears to get repeated in reviews but I just don t see it How long ago it seems she said at last To think how long agoand we are still the same Nothing has changednothingLife drags on a series of compromises And we drag along and try to patch it upbut it won t And it won t break And nothing happens Nothing ever happens Nothing happens Yes she said pursuing her own thought Nothing happens Nothing Poor Fanny She takes some small comfort from living her life as a life not like a character in a novel but wicked old William Gerhardi has denied her even that Oh the futility of it all Largely autobiographical the novel is set against the background of the Russian revolution and its long drawn out aftermath which Gerhardi brought up in St Petersburg experienced at first hand Indeed the aftermath was still ongoing when the book was first published in 1922 The narrator is a young Englishman brought up in Russia who attaches himself to the indefinitely extendable family of Nikolai Vasilievich and Fanny Ivanovna their various husbands wives lovers children uncles in laws grandparents possibly aristocratic houseguests and assorted hangers on all of whom are dependent on Nikolai s semi mythical goldmining investments the pursuit of which forms the basis for what little movement takes place in this essentially static circular novelIt doesn t uite work at least for me The many characters are thinly sketched and never sufficiently amiable or eccentric enough to be interesting even when you can remember who s who Occasional lines raise a smile I was sorry to part with the old man There was a uality about him that made him almost human but the wit is spread thinly and the satire on the futility of bourgeois life misplaced romantic yearnings and incompetent military interventionism is all a bit commonplace There is probably a subtext playing on classic Russian literature which I have either not read or read so long ago that it comes to the same thing so perhaps there is is to be gleaned by those who are better informed Otherwise Futility ended up being rather repetitive and a little dullI have a copy of Gerhardi s Doom on my shelves That sounds jollier Nothing worthwhile seems to have been written about the Russian character that was not funny One of the interesting things about this novel is how well the comic vignettes and the lyrical passages fit together perhaps because there is no real flow to the narrative and no sense of composition In some ways Futility reads like an amateurish work I have always suspected that Waugh s ubiuitous uote about Gerhardie was spurious for one thing one can t imagine Waugh being so pompous On the strength of this first novel Waugh is much the greater artist but Gerhardie is refreshing to read for breaking so much old ground in a completely new way Another interesting thing is the striking difference in the characterisation of male and female characters The former are in a word ineffectual including the British narrator the latter alluring and ineffectual The characters have no inner dimension all that we The Mystery Science Theater 3000 know of them is revealed through dialogue Not a paperback of this novel exists that does not feature prominently on its front cover Evelyn Waugh s encomium I have talent but he Gerhardie has genius Posterity unfortunately has not concurred with Waugh The author s name isnown the spelling uncertain there are two official versions and pronounciation even uncertain but his novels alas are unread They deserve to be read Futility particularly Its presuppositions about the human condition anticipate DOCTOR ZHIVAGO not entirely to Pasternak s advantage The principal theme in both novels is identical most human beings live their lives underneath or alongside history not in history There are few good Russian novels by British writers Futility is by far the best There was a reason for this Gerhardie had the unusual background of being born British but brought up as a child in Russia He returned in a military and diplomatic role to that country as it was undergoing the cataclysm of the First World War and the Russian Revolution Futility has the terse epigraph The I of this book is not me And the moon is green cheese and cows jump over it Hey diddle diddleThe narrative opens cheese and cows jump over it Hey diddle diddleThe narrative opens then it struck me that the only thing to do was to fit all this into a book The aim is to make some sort of sense of what is otherwise overwhelmingly incoherent The Bursanovs are the living incarnation of Russian futility a complex lovable admirable infuriating thing Not least to the Russians themselves In his novel Wild Berries 1984 Yevgeny Yevtushenko lamentsWhy do we still have lines ueues Because we re poor Ludicrous No country is richer than ours But take a look into our railroad stations they re mobbed people sleeping there piled up on one another When will we get organised like normal peopleFutility asks the same uestion The only answer is a forlorn we are a holy people and who expects organisation from a nation of saints The Russians are not what Yevtushenko calls normal people Central to Gerhardie s narrative are the three Bursanov daughters Nina Sonia and Vera The first section of Futility is called with rather too obvious a nod to Chekhov Three Sisters Chekhov s depiction of the paralysis of the Russian soul is endorsed throughout The Bursanov paterfamilias Nikolai has gold mines in Siberia which produce not an ounce of metal but warrant him taking charge of a horde of dependants He has a wife who will not divorce him but who reuires he support her and her Jewish dentist lover who sees gold in his patients mouths than Bursanov will ever see from the steppes Bursanov lives with his German common law wife Fanny Ivanovna a former governess to his daughters who in her turn declines to give him his freedom when his roving eye lands on the sixteen year old Zina Among the hangers on is a faux baron and writer so intensely involved in his creation that he cannot stop to put a word on paper The whole ensemble live on mortgage overdraft debt and hope They are not a family but a protectorate The first section is set in St Petersburg on the eve of war There is an interval in which the story s hero Andrei returns to Oxford The second part The Revolution picks up events in 1917 Now a diplomat Andrei returns on a special mission to St Petersburg not long as he apprehends before it s Leningrad The third section Intervening in Siberia jumps forward to 1921 Andrei has been posted again
TO THE NEW POST REVOLUTIONARY RUSSIAthe new post Revolutionary Russia Bursanov caravanserai has gone on a pilgrimage in search of its mine wealth in the far steppes wealth as illusory as the rainbow s pot of gold On the endless and pointless train journey Kostia the writer who never writes cries out Where are we going Why are we going No answer is forthcoming But wherever the great engine of life is going it is not towards happiness for Andrei Nina rejects him Will you marry me I said No She shook her head I am tired of you So it all ends as it began In futility As the name would suggest. Volution marching back and forth outside the parlor windowPart British romantic comedy part Russian social realism and with a large cast of memorable characters this astoundingly funny and poignant novel is the tale of people persisting in love and hope despite the odds. .