William Gerhardie: The Beauty of Futility

Certain novels and novelists remain unknown for a reason. They lack the basic skills required to hold the attention of readers; they are too pedestrian ever to say anything of value; they lack originality, verve and everything else which can make the written word transcend the ordinary. In rare instances, however, obscurity is simply undeserved, but it has still come to pass. In one particular case, that of William Gerhardie, this fate is – at least initially – somewhat surprising. He had a fortuitous start: his work was acclaimed by critics and esteemed by fellow writers (he was famously praised by Evelyn Waugh); and his work, perhaps more importantly of all, had real vitality, genuine energy and poise. Michael Holroyd highlights the following endorsement: ‘“For those of my generation,” wrote Graham Greene, “Gerhardie was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life.”’

Why, then, is he so unknown, especially in contrast to Waugh, whose work remains in print and a part of the ever-changing 20th century English literary canon. Until fairly recently – and years after they were originally printed – Gerhardie’s work had never been published in paperback.

Obscurity can help a writer’s reputation: he can be an undiscovered gem, a talent unknown to the masses, and therefore attain something of an underground reputation. I think this is what has occurred in this instance, and it seems all of this helps Gerhardie, who was born in 1895, died in 1977 and never produced another novel after 1939. It gives his work an exciting edge, while not separating those books entirely from the lustre afforded to Waugh’s contemporaneous writings. I will do my best to avoid over-praising his writing on the basis of its seeming novelty alone; and I hope that the rightful praise Gerhardie deserves is understood to be genuine.

Futility, his first novel – one ‘on Russian Themes’ – is excellent. It is in many ways superior to much of the work of Evelyn Waugh – and certainly the products of Waugh’s early period which I have read in most detail – because it is remarkably true to life. Its characters are composites, built from real situations and real people, and derived from hard-acquired experience; they are not stereotypes or mere comic props. They matter because their inspiration mattered; and thus the whole thing means something – and not just to the writer, whose youthful activities provided the raw material for this work.

One is simply caught up in this story of abjectness and failure amid political tumult. It is entrancing, as enticing as the three beautiful and somehow sad sisters to whom the protagonist finds himself bound. He is a tragic figure in his own right, Andrei Andreiech, a Russian-born Briton closely mimicking the author’s own circumstances (Gerhardie writes at the beginning of the novel that ‘[t]he “I” of this book is not me’), who grows up amid the depressingly stationary surroundings of this particular family, the Bursanov clan, which is mired in a kind of financial turmoil and an emotional, not to mention moral, inertia. (‘I think I’ll wait. It can’t be long now’, comments the patriarch, Nikolai Vasilievich).

They are chronically short of money, and yet the family is still surrounded by grasping dependants: from Nikolai Vasilievich’s unsuccessful marriage; from the family of Fanny Ivanova, a German with whom he is ‘living in sin’; and from Zina, a seventeen year old girl – a schoolyard contemporary of his own children, no less – whom he wishes to marry. As the promise of money – invoked perversely, as for adventurers and explorers the world over, in the oasis-like promise of gold mines far away – becomes more and more remote, there is great bathos and pathos to be found in the terrible lack of action. It is paralysing, and nothing seems to change – at least for the better. The family leaves their elegant quarters in St Petersburg to travel to Vladivostok, largely for reasons connected to the illusory security promised by those gold mines.

All the while they wait. They sit and lie around rooms and wait, talking occasionally and languidly or ferociously and with fierce passion. This notion of waiting, wasting life away, is a powerful one; and the novel is both acute and also affecting, grand and petty, noble and squalid, at times funny and quite bitterly ironic. Nikolai Vasilievich vacillates, ‘always one of two things: either extremely optimistic, when he said that the most violent pain was nothing; or very pessimistic, when he said that nothing could be done to alleviate the pain’. The description of this pain and this condition is tremendous. It is really rather fine.

It is a work of maturity and the nature both of its themes and its characterisation serve to separate Futility from other examples of fiction from that time. Waugh in many ways is simply nasty; his characters are laughed at, not with, and they are made to suffer quite terrible things – in Vile Bodies, after all, everyone is the victim of savage mockery from the author and all – more or less – end up unhappy and, in some cases, dead by the end of proceedings. There is a certain cruelty to all of this; it eclipses narrative playfulness and simple acuity. Though Gerhardie’s work contains, I would say, a great deal more raw unpleasantness – and his characters do suffer and are held up for no small amount of ridicule, or rather humorous critical examination – everything he writes has a kind of decent truth. It is not brusque; it is not bitter and disdainful; and it simply cannot be considered cruel.

Added to this is the matter of dialogue. Waugh’s is certainly funny – very funny indeed, at times – but it is also rather artificial and deliberately constructed not to reflect reality but to get laughs. Witness the conversations in Vile Bodies which take place over the telephone: Adam Fenwick-Symes, the protagonist, and Nina Blount talk about their perpetually fluctuating engagement in formulaic and almost unfeeling terms. (‘”Now we can’t be married,” said Nina.’ Cue hilarity.) It is all rather amusing, but it is never wholly believable – never quite real. Gerhardie’s novel is rawer, more honest; and the easy laugh is never his metier of choice. (Though it must be said that he can provide humorous vignettes if the mood takes him, the following being a description of post-war Russian squalor: ‘“Is this sheet clean?” I asked.’ ‘“Yes,” said the boy attendant.’ ‘“Quite clean?”’ ‘“Quite.”’ ‘“Sure nobody slept on it?”’ ‘“Nobody. Only the boss.”’)

Both books contain tragedy; both are overshadowed, to an extent, by war: Gerhardie’s by the First World War and Waugh’s by the prospect of a second. Waugh’s book takes a dramatically melancholy turn by the end and has Adam reading a letter from his Nina on ‘a splintered tree stump in the biggest battlefield in the history of the world’. After the war and the country’s revolutions have passed, Gerhardie’s hero returns to see a Russia which is shattered and not at peace. He witnesses this as a soldier, a British warrior whose job is to train the Russians to fight Bolshevism themselves. Needless to say this position exposes him to all the brutality and absurdity of war, and of that war in particular. Some of Gerhardie’s description of that conflict is affecting and effective.

The morning unveiled a gruesome picture. The snow that had fallen in the night, and was still falling, now covered the ground and its dead bodies some inches deep. The square, the streets, the yards, the rails, and sundry ditches betrayed them lying in horrid postures, dead or dying. Those that were not dead, when discovered were finished with the bayonet of the ‘loyal’ troops, amid unspeakable yells. Then they lay still and stiff in horrible attitudes. Men and women would stoop over them, gaze and wonder. Perhaps there is nothing that brings home so clearly the conviction of the temporary nature of human things than the sight of a dead body. What a moment since had been a human being with a life and purpose of its own was now an object, like a stone or a stick.

There is something truly salutary about this fairly simple description, and it comes from the writer’s own wartime experiences, which inform the entirety of the book with a sadly wise perspective.

Another theme is that of love, and here the two writers take dramatically divergent stances: in Gerhardie’s book, love is a wrenching matter, something to be thought about and agonised over, and something which eventually crushes his narrator and has him, in this fictionalised telling, begin the book in the first place as an attempt to secure some cathartic release. (The novel begins: ‘And it struck me that the only thing to do was to fit all this into a book. It is the classic way of treating life. For my ineffectual return to Vladivostok is the effectual conclusion of my theme.’)

For Waugh it is a flippant thing, something to be discussed facetiously and laughed at and put off. Nothing is serious for these bright young things (the original title of the book being Bright Young Things), from their wild parties in dirigibles to Agatha Runcible’s constant presence in the gossip pages and unfortunate habit of lighting cigarettes in the pits at a motor race.

There were six open churns behind Miss Runcible, four containing petrol and two water. She threw her cigarette over her shoulder, and by a beneficent attention of Providence which was quite rare in her career it fell into the water. Had it fallen into the petrol it probably would have been all up with Miss Runcible.

The two love interests (both, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, called Nina – which is also the name of a Noël Coward song from the same era) are similar in one respect: they are not fully serious, even childish – although only one of them seems to enjoy actively toying with the feelings of her would-be paramour. There is also an agonising aspect to the whole thing, and not only in the fact that, as Michael Holroyd writes, ‘[i]n Futility, the chronicle of unrequited love, there is not a kiss’. General Bologoevski, a caricatured Russian White, admires Nina from afar: ‘“What eyes! What calves! What ankles!” he was saying. “Look here, why in heaven don’t you marry her?”’ That question is never satisfactorily answered.

This is the essence of Gerhardie’s view of tragic realism. Painful (and pained) as this is, one can imagine every word being spoken – and, because the book itself was based so heavily (and so obviously) on the writer’s own experiences, these words may well have been said at some point to Gerhardie in person. All of this gives the narrative a real sense of immediacy and vitality; and when Nina and her sisters sail away, and when the promise of happiness and pleasure they initially embody leaves with them, the reader is left as desolate and as despondent as Andrei Andreiech and possibly Gerhardie himself.

The space at the quay where the Simbirsk had been showed empty; dull, dirty water heaved at my feet and a cork from a bottle and some bits of wood heaved upon it. I looked out upon the sea for a sign of the steamer. It had completely vanished. I peered at the horizon to see it I could spot the smoke from its two funnels. But there was none.

The book in many ways is summed up by this, its final paragraph. It is poetic and mundane, concerned with the highest impulses of mankind and also our most basic desires, and throughout the novel has a kind of ethereal lightness of touch which serves to give genuinely interesting ideas an effective exposition.

In his heyday, Gerhardie was likened to ‘the English Chehkov’. And that is not only a result of the three sisters in this book resembling the latter’s play of the same name. Futility, like that play, which its characters actually watch, tackles ‘their black melancholy, their incredible inefficiency, their paralysing inertia.’

The protagonist describes this style in critical terms: ‘Think of it! They can’t do what they want. They can’t get where they want. They don’t even know what they want. They talk, talk, talk, and then go off and commit suicide or something’. He then remonstrates with his host: ‘“Why can’t people know what they want in life and get it? Why can’t they, Nikolai Vasilievich?”’ By the end of the novel, I suspect he knows – and so do we.