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Gerhardie, William

Category: Writer

 

William Alexander Gerhardie (21 November 1895 – 15 July 1977) was a British (Anglo-Russian) novelist and playwright.  Gerhardie (or Gerhardi: he added the 'e' in later years) was one of the most critically acclaimed English novelists of the 1920s. 

His first novel, Futility, was written while he was at Worcester College, Oxford and drew on his experiences in Russia fighting the Bolsheviks, along with his childhood experiences visiting pre-revolutionary Russia. His next novel, The Polyglots, again deals with Russia.  He collaborated with Hugh Kingsmill on the biography The Casanova Fable, his friendship with Kingsmill being both a source of conflict over women and a great intellectual stimulus. 

After World War II Gerhardie's star waned, and he became unfashionable. Although he continued to write, he published no new work after 1939. After a period of “poverty-stricken oblivion”, he lived to see two 'definitive collected works' published by Macdonald in 1947-49.  This is what he said about himself.

William Gerhardie - Resurrection
Have I had a hard life, or an easy one ? How could I have answered this ? A short summary of my career?  I could have given ..two different and contrasting accounts of my life, and they would both have been true.
One account: always struggling, misunderstood from birth. Always a stranger, looked upon as a fool in my own family.  Born of British parents abroad-everywhere a foreigner except where they can rook an Englishman. 
Brought up in the belief that I was provided for for life, the Revolution deprives my parents of their last deposits. Uncongenial life in London, selling my fur coat to pay my board and lodging.
Joining up in the war as a trooper in a line regiment. Hard struggle, even now living from hand to mouth. A newspaper peer who could have given me ten thousand pounds without feeling the pinch, but has chosen otherwise, only dwells on the salutariness of remaining poor. The newspaper proprietor did but whet my appetite; what he did, had not the slightest effect on my career, nor was I the richer for his friendship.
My mother still thinks it odd that I should have known Lord Ottercove [Beaverbrook] for so long without initiating a flow of gold in my direction. (Johnson to Chesterfield : 'I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received.'). 
A modestly priced serial, and acquaintance with a number of people I could not have avoided meeting elsewhere, completed my indebtedness to this moneyed power; and everybody thinks I have gained greatly by his munificence. Helping and being kind are legends which grow swiftly. ' You have been very kind to him ?' we ask a man. And he, who has been nothing of the kind, keeps an embarrassed and ambiguous silence, thereby lending credence to his kindness, of which modesty prevents him speaking. In conclusion, I have a considerable reading public, but still no money laid by.

Gerhardie and Lord Beaverbrook

Another account. Born with a silver spoon in my mouth.  Large house, wealthy parents. School-ploughed in one, rescued by a loving mother and put in another. Ideal conditions at home-no interference whatever. Secretarial college-a good corrective to my initial ignorance of English.
War-even the colonel protecting me. You can read of all this, if you like, in my Memoirs, I can't be bothered to tell you now. As a trooper I prove an outstanding failure ; as a cadet no less so. But my mother gets her good boy out as an officer to the Petrograd Embassy where, on the contrary, he is flattered by shamed civilians as a soldier who has done his bit. Henceforward orgy of patronage.
Nowhere a stranger, everywhere at home, alive to the idiom. Though father loses his money, the War Office itself provides me in a roundabout way with an Oxford education and travel de luxe round the world.
No sooner have I produced a book than the literary world unites to acclaim me. My second novel is no sooner out than a powerful newspaper proprietor, as charming, as intoxicating a man as ever was born, solicits me by letter if he can be of use to me-all out of the blue.
None of the Liberal gang, to whose politics I had nevertheless subscribed in theory, had done anything for me. Neither have I been approached directly by other newspaper proprietors, with the exception of Lord Burnham, who wrote me a letter :
' Dear Sir,-Will you kindly send me a guinea for the above (Ld. Burnham Dental Fund).'
But this man, this Ottercove, of his own accord did his best-little though it turned out to be.
In each case the facts are scrupulously correct; only when I helped myself here and there was the picture distorted.

Why is he on the site?

Because in his novel Resurrection he describes, in minute detail, at least two out of body experiences that he had.  And these were no figment of the imagination.  He made very clear that this happened to him, it had a very large impact on him, and much of Resurrection is about him trying to come to terms with what happened.

The book is a mixture of novel [fiction] and fact.  He puts into other people's mouths his thoughts about what this experience means, providing characters that suited his obviously ambivalent conclusions about the whole experience.  He uses a Ball as the setting for the series of conversations which ensue - a Ball being both a place where conversation runs freely and a place where he can invent any number of different characters to speak his words.

Olivia Manning

 

 Some of those conversations appear to have been real and were with people he carefully disguises in the book with pseudonyms, but whose identity would have been all too obvious to the reading public of his day [and his friends].  Lord Ottercove, who is Lord Beaverbrook, for example.  Hugh Kingsmill appears to be Max Fisher in the book.  Other friends who appear are Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Olivia Manning.

 

 At other times the names he chooses show that he was shaken enough by the experience to have done a great deal of very obscure reading on the subject.  One character he introduces briefly is called Eudoxia Featherweight.

 Aelia Eudoxia was the wife of the eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius, who assumed (perhaps with justification) that the denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress made by St John Chrysostom were aimed at her.  Eudoxia, Theophilus and a number of other influential people held a synod in 403 (the Synod of the Oak) to charge John. It resulted in his deposition and banishment.

 

I think William did a considerable amount of reading, using the fact he was at Oxford and books were accessible to him, to make sense of his experience.  I also think this one experience may have happened to him whilst at Oxford, not as he says, later in life, and coloured all his later work.  The book is simply his attempt to bring together all these thoughts - thoughts that he admits himself in the book have been jotted down in fragments over many years. "My books , are built up, not like a house, brick by brick, but like a body, cell by cell, simultaneously, in all directions".

Why did he write it?  He says why in the book and it is truly intriguing.  He did not write the book for the general public, whom he believed [given his comments during the Ball] were unlikely to understand and in the vast majority of cases weren't even interested.  He wrote it for some future person who was capable of using what had happened and making it known to others in a meaningful way. 

Resurrection - William Gerhardie
....'I was coming to that,' I cried. 'It is the only book I want to write were I under your quota allowed to write no other ....... let us assume that some Shakespeare-Buddha-Einstein of this world, though having a body as flat as a pancake on which he is compelled to crawl the Earth, observing so much of it as he is enabled to see with his eyes turned to the ground, he has nevertheless arrived by speculation and observation of certain incongruities of the surface over which he has crawled, ..... that - to compress his scientific message -there is more in life than meets the eye. [and that] he has constructed an apparatus which convinces him that the world looks very different from the top of a hill or a tower, and in his research work he is pitted against a school of thought which believes only in what it can see and therefore does not believe that the world is a very different thing from the top of a tower, and does not, moreover, believe in towers. .............
'Pursuing,' I said, 'this line of inquiry, he discovered that this duplicate body of his possessed the additional faculty common to the three dimensional world of standing on end - on its own thick end-by means of which his eyes now obtained a pretty extensive view of the world in its three dimensional aspect.
To me, let us assume, he would come, when so projected into our world, for guidance and enlightenment, so that on his return to his flat world he may write an account of his travels in the three dimensional world.  .......'
' Oh, it's hard , hard ! ' exclaimed Eudoxia Featherweight, ' I wonder if the public know how hard it is to write a great book ! '
' With no greatness to help you, very hard,' I retorted, and walked off very irritable, thoroughly out of sorts.

Well, I am no Einstein, Shakespeare or Buddha, but your wish is my command William.

It is a good book and it is funny.  Possibly his best.  Though as he says, I doubt if many people understood it.

 

The Spectator - October 1934 - Review by Graham Greene
Mr. Gerhardi states that this experience is a true one. The use he makes of it is amusingly characteristic ; Mr. Gerhardi as an evangelist, remains his own gentle indecent crystalline self. Not many writers privileged to have visible proof of life everlasting would have retained their sense of humour unimpaired. Mr. Gerhardi at the ball telling everyone, Mr. Gerhardi receiving the scientific explanation, the modernist explanation, Mr. Gerhardi finding that old Lord Herbert knew all about it already " ' We really must find Uncle Herbert for you,' she said, leading me. ' He knows all about it. Uncle Herbert regularly gets out of his body and floats in and out of windows.' . . . It was a surprise to me, who before today had never heard of any such thing, to find that a good many people not only got out of their bodies but floated in and out of windows—mostly peers."

 

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