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William Gerhardie: Futility

This was Gerhardie’s first novel, written and published while he was still at Oxford University. It was published the same year as Ulysses and The Waste Land. Though, initially, it did not sell particularly well, it was praised by many worthy people including, in particular, H G Wells and Edith Wharton. One wonders, Wharton wrote, at the firmness of the hand which has held together all the fun, pathos and irony of the thronged sprawling tale and guided it so resolutely to an inevitable conclusion.

It is the story of Andrei, a young English officer stationed in Russia during and after the Revolution. He has fallen in love with Nina Bursanov (based on a young woman Gerhardie himself met and fell in love with in Siberia). The Bursanovs, like many Russians at that time, are waiting for an improvement in the family fortunes, which is never going to come. They follow the British Mission across Russia hoping things will get better. They don’t. This is an early appearance of the Waiting for Godot theme which will appear again in twentieth century literature. The Bursanovs have a whole range of hangers-on – lovers, ex-lovers, various shades of cousins and other relatives – who all add to the comedy of the novel. Andrei himself calls them laughable, without realising he is also laughable in his pursuit of Nina.

Gerhardie’s great skill is making us sympathise with the unfortunate plight of the Bursanovs while, at the same time, finding them figures of fun. The plight of the various individuals is often at the same time tragic and farcical. Gerhardie’s main influence is, of course, Chekhov – he was writing a book on the great Russian at about the same time he was writing this novel – but while this (and subsequent novels) may be called Chekhovian, they are also very modern. Gerhardie himself said of his book The plot of my book is nothing more or less than a recognition of the fact that there is no plot in real life! Fanny Ivanovna, the German-born long-time mistress of Nikolai Bursanov, father of Nina, says Nothing has happened-nothing….We waited for an explosion but it never came. The crisis still dragged on: it lapsed into a perpetual crisis; but the edges blunted. And nothing happened. Life drags on. For this is one of the key changes of the twentieth century novel from its predecessors – no denouement, no crisis, no happy ending, just life dragging on as it always has.

Publishing history

First published 1922 by Cobden Sanderson