In the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a fairly momentous event in the history of the United Kingdom, it seems important – or at least valuable – to look at some reasonably basic things about our country. Many of the assumptions and fundamental preconceptions which we in Britain exhibit can be traced to two things: how we see ourselves, and how we view the rest of the world. In reality, those two issues are really one – the global and the national inseparable in an age of increasing and inescapable interdependence, in economic terms, with regard to political realities, and even in matters cultural.
To make a point which may seem initially tangential, the basis for a lot of these questions are themselves matters of cultural identity; and it seems therefore reasonable to look at them in terms of culture. Much as British national identity itself can be said to be both a product of and encapsulated by our culture, so too can the examination of these things tell us about our country and how we see the world.
All of this is a good excuse to read more novels. One example is the work of William Gerhardie, a once famous and well regarded novelist whose work in the 1920s and 30s was admired by Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, C. P. Snow and many others. His novels Futility and Doom have been esteemed for years as brilliant evocations of both the comic and the tragic; they are both sensitive and serious. But of his works, I wish in particular to look at another of his books, The Polyglots, which is in a way rather emblematic.
Gerhardie was something of a polyglot himself; he was a multilingual writer whose cultural identity was itself a matter of complexity. His family background was Russian, and the man himself spent a lot of time in the country, including service in the post-war anti-Bolshevik intervention by outside powers; the revolution itself in turn served as the backdrop for both Futility and The Polyglots.
The Russian aspect of Gerhardie’s writing is palpable, and not just seen in the setting of his work. The concerns of Russian literature, whose luminaries are frequently referenced, including the stereotypical Russian propensity for pessimism, are abundant. In Futility, for example (subtitled ‘A Novel on Russian Themes’), the protagonist comments negatively on what he perceives to be the unreal nature of a Chekhov play, Three Sisters (‘Why can’t people know what they want in life and get it, Nikolai Vasilievich?’), but by the end of the narrative his own life has fallen into the same state of unhappy inertia.
That idea of waiting, of being unable or unwilling to advance, is also true of The Polyglots, as the diverse family and its hangers on move from nation to nation but fails to achieve anything of note. All eventually end up on a torturously long sea voyage and things fall apart.
These Russian themes and Russian subjects are aided greatly by Gerhardie’s facility for and knowledge of the Russian language; and this is where The Polygots holds some lessons about the modern phenomenon of lives being conducted, loves pursued, and problems encountered across borders.
The book’s narrator, Georges Hamlet Alexander Diobologh, born of an international family, his name a perfect coming together of varying national influences, considers himself British – that is to say, English. He went to Oxford; he serves as a British military envoy in the Russian civil war; and it seems he embodies many stereotypical English flaws: intellectual arrogance, a propensity to exhibit prudish and prurient attitudes, and a dislike of ‘foreign’ practices.
This despite his family being Russian (and owing its chequered financial security to that country); constituting a mixture of Belgian, Russian and British influences; and the character himself having been born in Japan – where his aunt and uncle, and his cousin Sylvia (who he finds ‘kissable to the point of delectation’), are found to be living at the novel’s beginning.
This good humour – and a hilarious trip to an expensive restaurant, not dissimilar to a comparable episode in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, provides an early burst of real humour to give colour to the book.
This cocktail of international influences is only exacerbated when the family moves from Japan to Russia en masse, and in so doing meets the foul British soldier Major Beastly, the enthusiastically verbose American Lieutenant Philip Brown, and the perpetually jumpy (and ultimately tragic) figure of Captain Negodyaev. This potent mix of comedy and tragedy is what gives the novel its bite and its charm.
The sympathetic, empathetic portrayal of foreigners in The Polygots – which comes, no doubt, from the author’s own dual nationality and capacity for foreign languages – adds a great deal of sincerity to the book. (Compare Gerhardie’s portrayal of these figures with the comically calculating French ambassador, M. Ballon, in Evelyn Waugh’s contemporaneous Black Mischief. The ambassador believes erroneously that his bumbling British opposite number, Sir Samson Courteney, Envoy Extraordinary, is a canny operator, and reacts accordingly in every circumstance, regardless of how inane the matter at hand: ‘“It is impossible to understand. Sir Samson speaks all the time of the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.” “A trap, doubtless.”’)
When Gerhardie’s characters suffer and die, we care; when Waugh’s characters do the same – even the Europeans he could have considered empathetically – we laugh. There is more than a difference in tone here. There is the matter of emphasis, and how Gerhardie eventually proves that his polyglot Englishman’s prejudices and intellectual pretentions fades into nothing when compared to the lives and sufferings of the foreigners he encounters.
When Diabologh reaches England, the apparent conclusion of an extended journey, he experiences no gladness: ‘It was doleful in the gathering twilight, and the lights of England blinked at us ruefully, sadly. The gong echoed to the sound of the sea, and the gulls, the wind, and the drizzling rain.’ This attitude seems strangely resonant given our current situation in Britain today.