The Genius Syndrome

I first met William Gerhardie in the early Thirties, before he had added an “e” to his name. Hugh Kingsmill, a friend of his and mine, took me to see him in his flat in Hallam Street, just behind Broadcasting House. I remember thinking that it was more like a suite in a second-class hotel than a residence, though he was to live there, becoming ever more of a recluse, until his death in 1977. The furniture struck me as being Continental, the lighting was dim, the curtains heavy, and, in the last two decades of his life, kept permanently drawn. One way and another I had heard a lot about him from Kingsmill and his brother Brian Lunn, both of whom were to collaborate in writing books with him—Kingsmill’s being The Casanova Fable and Brian Lunn’s The Memoirs of Satan. As the rebellious sons of a Methodist father, Sir Henry Lunn, they found Gerhardie’s bohemian ways and unashamed hedonism exciting.

The impression he gave was of being a foreigner, though in fact his father was English—a north-countryman who settled in Petersburg as a cotton merchant. Gerhardie was born there, and spoke always with a Russian accent, which somehow added to a certain mysteriousness in his bearing and disposition—deliberately cultivated, I daresay. One of his better jokes was that, when the 1917 revolution broke out, he found himself in the middle of a hostile crowd, and shouted out: “I’m Gerhardie!” whereupon they let him go, thinking he had said he was Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the British Labour Party.

By the time I met him he had already published two successful novels, Futility and The Polyglots, and an autobiography, Memoirs of a Polyglot, and been taken up socially, becoming, as Arnold Bennett put it, “the pet of the intelligentsia and the darling of Mayfair.” Also he had got to know Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian millionaire and newspaper proprietor, and appeared occasionally in his little court of sycophants. As a novelist he may be compared with Michael Arlen, a gifted Armenian whose novels for a while—The Green Hat was the best known—brought him great esteem among smart people. Arlen wisely married an aristocratic Greek lady, and moved to New York where he continued to thrive; Gerhardie unwisely remained a bachelor and lingered on in London where his vogue soon waned, so that quite early in life he became something of a ghost figure whose only asset was that various people—Arnold Bennett and C.P. Snow among others—had said he was a genius.

For anyone wanting to write, paint, compose music, anything like that, “genius” (defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “native intellectual power of an exalted type”) is about the most dangerous word in the language. The notion that certain individuals are uniquely gifted, and that this finds expression in all kinds of eccentricity—of dress, behavior, and, most disastrously of all, in the exercise of whatever talent they may possess—helps to keep psychiatrists in business and insane…

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