Forget Waugh, Powell, Greene and Co. When it comes to the twentieth century English comic novel, William Gerhardie is the main man. The aforementioned Waugh said of him I have talent, but he has genius. Waugh’s talent is debatable. Gerhardie’s talent and genius are not. Yet, despite the fact that many critics have supported his claims, that his publishers have republished his works on several occasions and that many writers have recognised him as an influence, his works go in and out of print, the only biography of him sold badly and is also out of print and he is not generally recognised as one of the English lit greats. Standard literary histories give him short shrift. Malcolm Bradbury‘s The Modern British Novel mentions him only in passing, as does the Pelican Guide to English Literature, calling his novels exquisitely poised and amusing, if slightly inane (this is written by a man whose main writing is about Shakespeare, Blake and the Victorians and therefore would not know a comic novel if it hit him in the face).
So what is the problem with William Gerhardie? Part of the problem was Gerhardie himself. He was very much an elegant man about town, talked about, having numerous love affairs and was friend to the famous. Lord Beaverbrook was his patron (and appears in several of the novels as the thinly disguised Lord Ottercove). He knew most of the major British writers of his day. Though the writers valued him as a writer, for many others he was mere gossip column fodder. It didn’t help that, in 1940, he suddenly disappeared from society and publishing, apparently writing his great novel. But the great novel never appeared and, when he died in 1977, a mishmash of notes was found which, though edited into a book published as God’s Fifth Column, was really no more than a collection of ideas. Another part of the problem is that his books do seem, if not inane, at least light-hearted and frivolous – at least on casual reading. They are often plotless – the critic Gorley Putt said of his work You can just as easily read a Gerhardie novel backwards as forwards. Gerhardie himself said Critics feel uneasy when a writer is not solemn. Who is he laughing at? Who with?
And he has written some odd things. Meet Yourself As You Really Are, written with Prince Leopold Loewenstein, is a sort of pop psychology book with a sort of mirror on the spine so that you can meet yourself as you really are. The Memoirs of Satan is just that. Fun but… However, his best work is something else. The Polyglots is the best comic novel in English, bar none, and most of his other comic novels are well worth reading. Finally, Gerhardie is an English writer but is often said to be a Russian writer – the English Chekhov – so that his novels somehow seem irrelevant to the great realist mainstream of English literature.
William Gerhardie (he was actually born Gerhardi but added the e later) was born in St. Petersburg in 1895, the fifth of a family of six. His father owned a factory there. Gerhardie was brought up like his almost contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov, speaking four languages – English, French, German and Russian, of which English was probably the least used. Gerhardie and his siblings were brought up in the elitist atmosphere of the rich. When he was eighteen, he was sent to England for commercial training. His English did not improve much but then he discovered Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and was hooked. He took up writing, determined to write in both English and Russian. When war broke out, he joined up and was eventually recruited to learn Bulgarian. But he was eventually transferred to the British Embassy in what was then Petrograd, for the Russian Revolution had broken out. Gerhardie’s father’s factory was having problems before the Revolution but, once revolution broke out, there was little hope of getting any money out. The British Embassy was evacuated and the Gerhardie family left Russia. His family’s adventures – considerably embellished – are described in The Polyglots.
In London, Gerhardie briefly met V D Nabokov, father of Vladimir Nabokov – he looks such a rascal – but he was to be sent on a secret mission to Vladivostok with General Sir Alfred Knox. They travelled across the USA and set up a mission in Vladivostok but by early 1920 it was apparent that they were doing no good and returned to England. With his savings, Gerhardie decided to get an education and applied to and was accepted at Oxford University, where he studied English literature. While at Oxford, he wrote and had published his first novel – Futility – which had considerable critical success. This was followed almost immediately by his work on Chekhov, the first book on Chekhov not written in Russian. At this time he was concerned about finding somewhere for his parents to live and, on the suggestion from friends, moved them to Austria, where he himself stayed some time and wrote, among other things, The Polyglots. While successful, it did not have the same success as its predecessor.
It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Lord Beaverbrook, who was to become Gerhardie’s patron. Gerhardie would write for The Daily Express, Beaverbrook’s newspaper, would be helped by Beaverbrook and would satirize their relationship in Jazz and Jasper. Gerhardie continued to produce a series of interesting books – novels, short stories, plays, biography – but none seemed to have the brilliance of his first two. Despite a succession of love affairs, he never married though he seriously contemplated marriage to Josephine Kaufman, widow of the Ever-Ready Razor King. It never happened. One of his reasons for marrying her were his perpetual financial problems, which were not helped by his extensive and generally impecunious family. He continued to write and publish – he considered Of Mortal Love his best work. He hoped to break into film but was unable to do so but did manage to make a meagre living from journalism. The last work he published during his lifetime was his historical work The Romanovs, published nearly forty years before his death. It was not a success but is well worth reading.
During the war, he worked for the BBC but also started work on what was to be a series of novels called Present Breath. At this time he was to become a recluse, limiting his contacts to the telephone. The death of his mother was just one of the many reasons he shunned society. He lived in his solitude till 1977 – Most people imagine I have died long ago, he said. He was not completely forgotten as his works were republished but Present Breath never happened, appearing only as God’s Fifth Column.
Books about William Gerhardie
Davies, Dido: William Gerhardie: a Biography
1923 Anton Chehov: a Critical Study
1925 The Polyglots
1926 A Bad End
1927 The Vanity-Bag
1927 Pretty Creatures
1927 Perfectly Scandalous or”The Immorality Lady” (republished as Donna Quixote)
1928 Jazz and Jasper, the Story of Adams and Eva (US: Eva’s Apples, a Story of Jazz and Jasper; republished as My Sinful Earth and then as Doom)
1930 Pending Heaven
1931 Memoirs of a Polyglot
1932 The Memoirs of Satan (with Brian Lunn)
1934 The Casanova Fable (with Hugh Kingsmill)
1936 Meet Yourself As You Really Are (with Prince Leopold Loewenstein)
1936 Of Mortal Love
1938 My Wife’s the Least of it
1939 The Romanovs
1981 God’s Fifth Column: a Biography of the Age, 1890-1940