Sunday, July 05, 2009

`Style is the Leaves of the Tree'

I don’t know anyone who reads the work of William Gerhardie (1895-1977), an Anglo- Russian writer of the remarkable generation that included Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Edith Wharton was among his champions. Gerhardie was born in St. Petersburg, where he served as a British military attaché during World War I and witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution. His best novels – Futility, The Polyglots – have Russian characters, settings and themes. In 1923 he published Anton Chekhov: A Critical Study, the first book not written in Russian devoted to that writer. I wrote about it here.

Now I’m reading Memoirs of a Polyglot, published in 1931 when the author was 36. Gerhardie has a gift for distilled portraiture, for comedy and for treating his remarkable life as nothing out of the ordinary – not in a spirit of false modesty (the book’s first sentence is “Yesterday, at dinner, it suddenly occurred to me what a fine fellow I was.”), but rather in the manner of his master, Chekhov. Another of his incidental gifts is for off-the cuff literary criticism. In describing the departure of a British general with whom he served in Petrograd, Gerhardie writes:

“I was so attached, so devoted to the man that when I was alone in the street I hurried against the biting blizzard, which blinded me as I tore on, and sobbed. And if you think it `unmanly’ of me, let me tell you that the `larme facile’ is again in the fashion. All true humorists, moreover – Dickens, Gogol, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Proust, [Arkady Timofeevich] Averchenko, to name only a few at random – are lachrymose by the natural balance of things.”

The transition from personal anecdote to critical assessment is seamless and shrewd. For Gerhardie to place Proust among the humorists is inspired, and must have surprised his early readers. In the nineteen-twenties, while at Oxford, Gerhardie wrote most of Futility and the Chekhov study, and resisted pressure from classmates to become a Communist. After describing a Red friend’s proselytizing, and his later reconversion to democratic principles, he writes:

“Just as every political party considers itself a `centre-party’ threatened by revolutionaries on the left and reactionaries on the right, so every young writer tends to think his talent is compounded from the choicest ingredients. One hopes – and on what little ground! – that one incorporate the lucid sanity of a Bertrand Russell, without any of his liberal smugness; the bitter incisiveness of Bernard Shaw, without his sterility; the rich humanity of H.G. Wells, without his splashing-over; the analytical profundity of Proust, without his mawkish snobbism; the elemental sweep of D.H. Lawrence, without his gawky bitterness; the miraculous naturalness of Chekhov, without that sorry echo of the consumptive’s cough; the supreme poetic moments of Goethe unimbedded in the suet-pudding of his common day; the intimations without the imbecility of William Wordsworth; the lyrical imagery of Shakespeare, without his rhetoric; the pathological insight of Dostoevski, without his extravagant suspiciousness; the life-imparting breath of Tolstoy, without his foolishness; Turgenev’s purity in reproducing nature, without his sentimentalism; the lyrical power of Pushkin, without his paganism; the elegiac quality of Lermontov, without his `Byronism’; the humour and epic language of Gogol, without his provincialism; the spirit of Voltaire, without his tininess; the human understanding of Dr. Johnson, without his overbearingness; the dash of Byron, without his vanity; the faithful portraiture of Flaubert, without his tortuous fastidiousness. The list could be prolonged.”

There’s much here to quibble with (I’ll take Shakespeare’s rhetoric any day) but if a young writer or reader were to pursue each of Gerhardie’s observations – read the texts and come to his own conclusions – he would possess the rudiments of a first-rate literary education. That seems even less likely than it was in Gerhardie’s day. And here is what he writes in the middle of an assessment of H.G. Wells:

“…there is but one thing an original artist has in common with another – originality…style is the leaves of the tree. No tree, no leaves. A writer’s style is the measure of his personality, and cannot be acquired consciously. It shows unmistakably what you are: gives you away for what you are.”


Nige said...

I remember reading and enjoying Futility and The Polyglots years ago, having discovered an edition of Gerhardie in the bookshop where I was working. I also have a strange book he cowrote with the Prince of Loewenstein called Meet Yourself As You Really Are. Published in 1936, it's one enormous questionaire, a precursor of the kind of 'personality profiling' so popular today - but done with vastly more style, and supported by references to literature, art and philosophy. He probably made more money from that one than any of his other works.

Frank Key said...

At one point during the Revolution, Gerhardie, as an unmistakably bourgeois Brit, was about to be beaten up by a group of Bolsheviks. But one among them recognised him, and called his fellows off, saying "Keir Hardie! Keir Hardie!" They assumed he was the great Scottish socialist.

The anecdote is told in Dido Davies' biography of Gerhardie, probably in more detail - the above is my (hazy) memory's recollection.