Missing Man: On William Gerhardie

This is a story of one thing leading to another.

My parents set the foundations for everything I have read. From my mother, books about history and poetry; from my father, an introduction to contemporary novels. In the latter category, amid Amis, McEwan and Faulks, one cannot escape William Boyd.

Boyd’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart, with its enveloping cradle-to-grave narrative, was one thing. But my interest was further piqued by ephemeral interviews he gave to promote the book. His hero, Logan Mountstuart, was appealing enough ­– a flawed man and failed writer, whose initially glittering career lapsed into unhappy but eventually comfortable silence. Boyd stated that two men particularly influenced the shape Mountstuart took: Cyril Connolly, author of Enemies of Promise, and an enigmatic figure called William Gerhardie.

Once a widely-read and respected writer, and a newspaper celebrity, Gerhardie’s latter life sustained a period of extended silence. He lived into the 1970s, but published nothing after 1940.

This silence interested me more than his work, at first. Just the idea that one could abdicate the responsibility of putting words in order ­– or the slightly more worrying thought that one could have such a thing thrust upon them.

But this view of Gerhardie is myopic in an obvious way. Without recourse to his work, the silence is stripped of significance.

I knew Gerhardie was feted in youth. From the first, his was hailed as an important voice. I bought Futility, his first book, written while he was at Oxford, with limited expectations. But instead of maudlin, undergraduate prose, I found instead a mature and effective piece of writing, a book deserving all that praise.

It was set in Russia; there were references to Chekhov and unrequited love. But two things made Futility more than a well-executed exercise in sentimentality.

The first was Gerhardie’s own experience. He was of Russian ancestry and had been in the country during the opening stages of the country’s civil conflict. This gave his prose a remarkable immediacy, even when stating something as obvious as the fact that people killed in conflict do, indeed, die.

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.

This is well done and more. It’s demonstrative of Gerhardie’s trained eye, quite uncommon in a man his age. His war service gave him a sense of things beyond his years. He saw both horror and the almost comic chaos war brings:

“Is this sheet clean?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the boy attendant.

“Quite clean?”

“Quite.”

“Sure nobody slept on it?”

“Nobody. Only the boss.”

Gerhardie, because of the interruption his Russian service brought, began at Oxford years later than his contemporaries, giving what could be jejune student fiction a lacquer of hard experience.

Futility is no trite war story. It is a story of inertia and the frustrations we endure in pursuit of love and money.

The protagonist, Andrei Andreiech, a proxy for Gerhardie, is a Briton in Russia. He’s attached to the down-at-heel Bursanov family, entranced by the lovely Nina, daughter of the disreputable Nikolai Vasilievich. This family once had money, but now attracts only dependents, all of whom hang around, simply waiting.

Nobody moves; nobody does anything. They argue, bicker and scheme; they go to the theatre, to dances. But nothing comes to pass.

This paralysis provides scope for comedy. General Bologoevski, a caricature Russian White, admires Nina: ‘“What eyes! What calves! What ankles!” he was saying [to Andrei Andreiech]. “Look here, why in heaven don’t you marry her?”’ The question is never answered.

Here Gerhardie’s prose is not the slightest ­­self-indulgent. It’s taut, tight, well-textured. I read the book extremely quickly and put it down with reverence for an author whose name I had never heard spoken.

Gerhardie seemed more experienced but less bitterly cynical than his contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. Unlike Waugh’s in Vile Bodies, Gerhardie’s characters seemed to talk both to and past each other. By contrast, Waugh’s characters simply hit the right notes so his jokes can land. There’s no shame in that; it certainly achieved the desired effect. Still, Waugh is said to have esteemed Gerhardie as a master practitioner.

Fans and admirers often advance Doom as Gerhardie’s best work. It tells of the destruction of the world by a scientist intent on kicking off the planet’s disintegration. It has many merits – not least in containing an apparently accurate, if slightly fawning, portrayal of Lord Beaverbrook, who courted Gerhardie assiduously. But in its madness, and it is mad, there is indulgence.

Better is The Polyglots. It is an emotional, affecting novel, which contains natural tragedy that feels perfectly, respectfully done. It is, unlike the work of so many, not the slightest overwrought.

Gerhardie’s work was lavishly praised and he was, briefly, a man of society. He had the attention and financial backing of a powerful newspaper owner. The writing he produced was good, solid stuff with surprising depth. Knowing this, it’s difficult to escape the sense that his latter silence is rendered all the less explicable. But while he wrote, he wrote better than well. Gerhardie’s work drips with promise and demands examination, more than seventy years since he prematurely laid down his pen. Seek it out.

This essay was originally published at Jeremy Duns’ Formative Reads website.

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