Home LifestyleGerald Kersh: champion yarn-spinner, superior word-crafter, and scholar of human follies

Gerald Kersh: champion yarn-spinner, superior word-crafter, and scholar of human follies

A fine piece by David Collard in the TLS last month made note of the current revived interest in the writings of the remarkable Gerald Kersh, six of whose titles we now offer in Finds. Forty-five years after he left us Kersh still suffers from little better than the ‘large, vague renown’ Orwell famously ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. But, really, everyone ought to read him – at least one of his works, at least once.

Kersh is remembered chiefly for Night and the City (1938), one of the great novels of London’s Soho, driven by its shabby anti-hero Harry Fabian. Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version starring Richard Widmark has certainly helped that book to endure. But Kersh’s novel lives on by itself because it teems with adroitly observed forms of (low) life, and it still feels like the real thing. Readers who come newly to Kersh usually sense quite soon from his salty, word-rich presence on the page that this was a writer who lived fully, and who never missed a trick. Evidently, all he saw was of interest to him, not to say fair game.

Kersh does have his notable and steadfast champions today: Harlan Ellison has vigorously sought to promote awareness of a man whose talent he considered ‘immense and compelling’; Michael Moorcock is the ‘sometime executor’ of the Kersh estate and has kindly made possible Faber Finds’ reissues; while cinema book specialist Paul Duncan has also been an avid advocate for Kersh, and is understood to have been at work awhile on a biography. What general readers may know of Kersh for the moment is largely down to the information these men have placed in the public domain.

Kersh was born in Teddington on August 26 1911. Writing as a meaningful pastime came quickly to him, such that he soon sniffed a vocation. He quit schooling early, and raced through a succession of jobs as if seeking to go one better on Hemingway’s maxim that a novelist ought to have a friend in every occupation. In 1934 he published a roman a clef, Jews without Jehovah, but it wasn’t on sale for very long, since three uncles and a cousin of Kersh’s made out unflattering renderings of themselves within its pages, and sought legal redress – apparently a lasting source of tension at Kersh family occasions.

Following the outbreak of war Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 and seems to have been rated a decent soldier. His first stint of leave was during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, whereupon he narrowly escaped fatal injury but was thereafter reassigned to desk duties. In 1941 he drew on his Guardsman experience to write They Die with their Boots Clean, a classic fictional account of basic training, and he enjoyed a surprise bestseller with a work that is richly illustrative of his gift for refining into print things you can well imagine he actually heard. (Finds offers the book, bound up with its sequel The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson, under the title given this pairing by their US publisher: Sergeant Nelson of the Guards.)

Thereafter Kersh would be phenomenally productive: a writer not merely of novels and stories but of journalism, sketches and columns, radio and documentary film scripts. After the war he settled in the US and there made himself a fixture in popular magazines that paid well for stories and brought him to huge readerships: The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy. Kersh’s stories are the most accessible demonstration of his protean gifts: the strange and fantastical tales are especially cherished, and may be sampled in Finds’ reissues of The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories as well as a broader selection chosen by Simon Raven entitled The Best of Gerald Kersh.)

Kersh wrote so much, his printed output was so compendious, that one might suppose he never had time to blot a line. And yet his sentence-making is remarkably strong. He was both a singular talent and a hard grafter: a crafter of sentences, spinner of yarns, scholar of human follies. His living by the pen, however, seems to have been rarely better than precarious, for a variety of reasons: he had money troubles, personal troubles, health troubles, and over time these tended to come at him in battalions. Amid this turmoil he could still produce Fowler’s End (1958), judged by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century.’ Burgess was also a champion of The Implacable Hunter (1961, also my favourite of all Kersh’s works); and The Angel and the Cuckoo (1966) earned Kersh more high praise. But by then he was very nearly through: he died in New York on 5th November 1968, aged 57. He remains one of those writers perpetually in need of revival, admired by near enough all who read him, awaiting still his golden hour of evangelism. The reader, if not already a convert, is warmly invited to start here.