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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 asylums bursting at the seams. It also makes havoc by inducing, for instance, a superb artist like Picasso to display genius in the contemporary mode by painting grotesques, and a gifted writer like Joyce for the same reason to write gibberish. A similar confusion between eccentricity and inspiration may be seen in religious exaltés who feel bound to manifest their sanctity by speaking with tongues or by extravagant asceticism—like St. Simon Stylites, who, Gibbon tells us, ascended a column sixty feet high, and “in this last and lofty station resisted the heat of thirty summers and the cold of as many winters.”

In fulfilling his role of a genius, Gerhardie took as his models Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, though without falling into their sexual ways; he doggedly remained an inveterate womanizer. His epigrams, such as they were, derived from Wilde; his careful observation of the social scene was Proustian, with Beaverbrook as his Princesse de Guermantes—one of the most dissimilar of similarities ever to be conceived. With every attribute of genius except genius, for the last two decades of his life he stayed largely indoors, the telephone his sole contact with the outside world and acolytes his only visitors. He spent his time feeding an enormous card file with newspaper cuttings and other miscellania, out of which he hoped would burst, like a butterfly out of its cocoon, his masterpiece, his Récherche du temps perdu. When he died in the summer of 1977, in his eighty-second year, his ashes were piously scattered in Regent’s Park as he had wished, but among his voluminous papers the so long and eagerly expected great novel was nowhere to be found except in fragments that could not be put together.

What was found, along with the enormous card file, was a lengthy and disorderly manuscript from which Messrs. Holroyd and Skidelsky have very skillfully and respectfully hewn God’s Fifth Column. Despite all their efforts, however, the resultant book remains unsatisfactory, whether as contemporary history, or as literary and social criticism, or even as the musings of a sharp and perceptive mind aspiring after originality. There are, it is true, interesting scenes, especially deathbeds—for instance, of Gerhardie’s two gurus, Wilde and Proust—and sharp character sketches of eminent contemporaries like Curzon and Margot Asquith and Lord Beaverbrook; the essential theme clearly emerges, which is that it is rather the artist than the man of action who understands what is going on in the world, the imagination rather than the will, or, as Blake puts it, seeing through rather than with the eye, whereby we may grasp the meaning or significance of happenings as distinct from their mere occurrence.

Yet somehow the book fails to come off. The parts are often brilliantly contrived—for instance, the presentation of D.H. Lawrence proclaiming phallic glories out of the depths of his impotence; it is the putting of them together that is gimcrack. The general notion, and doubtless also the title itself, would have come to Gerhardie from Kingsmill, to whom one of the book’s versions is dedicated. I vividly recall hilarious hours passed with Kingsmill in marshaling God’s Fifth Column, otherwise known as God’s Spies after a reference in Lear’s last speech in which he asks Cordelia to come away to prison with him and there “take upon’s the mystery of things as if we were God’s Spies,” and in contrasting them with our contemporary men of power—our Lenins, Stalins, Hitlers, Mussolinis, Roosevelts, Churchills, et al.—a vintage crop matching up even to Gibbon’s array of late Roman emperors. It is a theme that echoes throughout Kingsmill’s writings, most explicitly, perhaps, in The Poisoned Crown:

What is divine in Man is elusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a concrete form—a church, a country, a social system, a leader—so that he may realise it with less effort and serve it with more profit. Yet…the attempt to externalise the kingdom of heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster. It cannot be created by charters and constitutions nor established by arms. Those who set out for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.

God’s Fifth Column, then, is unlikely to resurrect Gerhardie’s lost reputation as a writer. As retrospective reportage it has much to commend it; as commentary on current events it is inadequate and sometimes silly—as when, for instance, Gerhardie remarks that the English blundered into the 1939-1945 war as a result of an anti-Soviet obsession when in fact the war was touched off by Stalin’s perfidious lineup with Hitler. As for the last chapter—Gerhardie’s vision of the future—it was really rather cruel to include it. Any who for their sins have been induced to attend seminars anywhere between the Berlin Wall and the American Pacific coast on such themes as “Wither the West?” will at once with a shudder recognize it as typical pabulum for such occasions. The true drama of the book is the drama of Gerhardie himself—a genius who never was, a gifted man whose gifts were his undoing, a hermit in Hallam Street, an indoor Don Quixote. Perhaps Messrs. Holroyd and Skidelsky, having so conscientiously paid their tribute to friendship by assembling God’s Fifth Column, will now turn their attention to an anatomy of its strange, wayward, self-obsessed, and rather tragic composer.

Letters

Correction April 29, 1982

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