The inspirational William Gerhardie

William Gerhardie

Amid the considerable and deserved publicity for the recent Channel 4 TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Boyd himself took the opportunity to restate the importance to the novel’s inspiration of William Gerhardie, who apparently provided the key model for Boyd’s fictional ‘Logan Mountstuart’. As Boyd told the Guardian, ‘Gerhardie published his last book in 1940 but he died in 1977, so there were 37 years of silence, which is actually what I think is interesting…’
Finds has been pleased to bring back a great swathe of Gerhardie’s titles – Futility, Doom, The Polyglots, Resurrection, Of Mortal Love, Pretty Creatures, My Wife’s the Least of It, Pending Heaven, Memoirs of Satan (written with Brian Lunn), God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940, and Memoirs of a Polyglot (his autobiography). You can find them all listed and available for order here.
Michael Holroyd wrote the following handsome appreciation for the Guardian at the time of Finds’ launch in 2008:

William Gerhardie was a writer of great talent and originality whose books need to be rediscovered by each new generation of readers. “For those of my generation,” wrote Graham Greene, “Gerhardie was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life.” Greene’s contemporaries were reading the brilliant Futility, a novel on Russian themes first published in 1922, which draws on Gerhardie’s own wartime experiences. This, his first novel, was taken up in England by Katherine Mansfield (who found a publisher for Gerhardie) and also by Edith Wharton, who wrote an enthusiastic preface to the American edition. The book was a hugh critical success in both countries and Gerhardie was hailed as “the English Chekhov”.
Many readers, however, were to consider his masterpiece to be his second novel, The Polyglots (1925), which contains a multitude of tragicomic characters who are encountered by a young man while travelling on a military mission in the Far East. “The humour of life, the poetry of death, the release of the spirit – these things Gerhardie describes as no prose writer has done before him,” wrote the novelist Olivia Manning.
Perhaps his oddest, most extraordinary novel was Doom (1928). Part satire, part social comedy, part science fiction, and containing an unforgettable portrait of the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook under the name Lord Ottercove, it is a novel of the 20s that foreshadows the atomic age. It became Evelyn Waugh’s favourite Gerhardie novel. “I had talent,” Waugh wrote, “he had genius”…

I have recently and happily been reading Memoirs of Satan, a work in which any sane man or woman should delight, and I would like to draw your attention to this wonderful little appreciation from the Futurian War Digest, a sci-fi/fantasy fanzine published in Leeds during the Second World War by J. Michael Rosenblum, who evidently kept a certain community of readers going during exceptionally difficult circumstances. All numbers of the ‘zine are available online for perusal, I only draw your attention to this from Issue 13 (Vol. 2, Number 1), dated October 1941:

‘The Memoirs of Satan’ collated by William Gerhardie and Brian Lunn, (Cassell & Co 1932) is a surprising sort of book altogether. According to this, Satan was a collaborator of God, chosen to look after this earth because of his free and independent spirit. Mankind is due to an infatuation of his for a primitive she-ape, and he continually bemoans the fact that he did not choose a more sensible animal, such as the whale, to half endow with his divine nature. Due to his failure with this planet, Satan is finally punished by the All-Highest with the withdrawal of his immortality, and he dies, leaving the notes of his eon-long existence in a Bloomsbury hotel…

Now, don’t tell me you’re not intrigued…

Posted in Appreciations, Reissues | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

3  Comments

  1. Carolyn Small Nordberg
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this information. William Gerharie was my great great uncle. His Sister Dora was my Great Grandma. I only met uncle Willie once and he was pretty scary to a little girl.
    I often visit with Tamara Tipping his niece – now 97 years old. Together we are trying to organize her memories of the Gerhardie family’s time in pre-revolutionary Russia. She has lots of funny stories about Uncle Willie. It has been a wonderful project.
    I would like to order a copy of each of William’s books. I think I have a few first editions but sadly they are water damaged from a flooded basement. I would love a complete collection to read.
    With warm regards,
    Carolyn Small Nordberg
    USA

    • Brent Steele
      Posted May 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Hi,

      William Gerhardie was a distant relative of mine as well. My sister would be able to provide you with more information about him. I have been told several of his books are held in the library at the University of British Columbia. I have a tape recording of an interview with my grandmother talking about her life growing up in pre-revolutionary Russia and their eventual escape back to England and then on to Canada. (You can find me on Facebook or email 2budz@telus.net )

      Brent Steele
      Surrey, British Columbia
      Canada

  2. Posted May 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Carolyn,

    I am also a distant relative of William Gerhardie. He was my maternal grandmother’s cousin. (She was a Gerhardie). I grew up fascinated by the few mentions of him. A novelist myself, I have cherished his writing and collect his works.

    We have a tape recording made with his cousin Lady Cambell and another one made with my grandmother detailing some of their life in Russia before the revolution and also some details of their escape from it.

    If you would like to be in touch, I’d be very interested in trying to add what I could to your project.

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