Friday, November 09, 2012

In Russia . . .

Wednesday's post drew on an odd little novel that Melville House just republished as part of their Neversink Library, William Gerhardie's Futility (1922). Gerhardie was born of British parents in Russia, and he lived there until enlisting in the British army at the outbreak of World War I, when he was seventeen. Futility a novel of comic despair, is drawn from his experiences as part of the British military's attempts to disrupt the Bolshevik Revolution in the years right after the war. It offers delicately funny portraits of a family of minor aristocrats who blithely continue their feckless ways as the revolution rages around them, and of the young narrator's amusement, irritation, and unrequited love.

Gerhardie has a suitable eye for the absurd, which is of course required for anyone, Russian or not, writing about Russia in that period (or any?), and the book is full of the sort of silliness, self-regard, and charming grandiosity that we are familiar with from Tolstoy's comic characters, or the most dissolute of Dostoevky's passionate lunatics--wrapped round with Gerhardie's wry observations of them. This assessment of the family patriarch is a good example:
Nikolai Vasilievich was very bitter. He had regarded the war almost as a deliberate attempt of providence to complicate his already very complicated domestic situation, and considering that providence had had the satisfaction of achieving its pernicious end, it seemed he could not understand the necessity of a revolution. "Malignity! Malignity!" he muttered, lowering the blinds, as if to show that he, at any rate, would have nothing to do with it.
I enjoyed this bit as well, with its Russian take on English lit:
"You in England are fortunate indeed. You have serious, moral writers who think of the good of the race and really teach you something positive, constructive and worth while. You have Byron and Oscar Wilde . . . "

Like so many other people in Russia, Fanny Ivanovna believed that England has three great outstanding writers: Byron, Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde.
I'll admit to surprise that Dickens isn't of their number, given Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's regard for him.

There are also scenes of straight comedy, like this account of a night in new lodgings alongside the narrator's superior, a British Admiral:
Then in the small hours of the morning [the Admiral]  was wakened by the noise of a dog that ran through the half-open door of his bedroom in pursuit of a cat. I heard the Admiral strike a match, then jump out of bed and fumble with his stick under the bed and cupboards and chest of drawers, evidently looking for the animals. I went in to him and offered my services in the chase.

"Can you see the dog?" came the Admiral's sturdy voice from under a cupboard.

"I'm looking for the cat, sir."

"Cat! Where did that come from?"

"I saw it run into your room after a rat."


"I did, sir, and the dog ran in after the cat."

We fumbled with our sticks.

"I don't believe there was a rat," said the Admiral.

"There was, sir. I saw it myself."

"I don't mind the dog so much. Cats I hate. But I can't stick the rat. Why did you tell me?"

I did not answer this.

"Can't find them, sir," I said, rising.

"They've gone, I hope," said the Admiral.

"They've hidden themselves somewhere, I think."

"Damn them! I shan't be able to sleep all night."

"Good night, sir," said I.

The Admiral could not sleep. I heard him get out of bed and fumble with his stick beneath the furniture. I think the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the animals disturbed his peace of mind. Then I heard him creep into bed, and all was still. I could just hear the rain drum against the window-pane; and I thought that by now the cat had probably eaten up the rat.
The comedy isn't up to the level of Waugh, or even Anthony Powell--of whose scenes of army life that vignette recalls--but it's satisfying nonetheless, and the "only in Russia" aspect of it makes it all the more fun. (If only the dog had been followed by a bear!)

Thinking of Russian bears makes me realize that the book that Futility most reminds me of is Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring. It, too, tells of an Englishman in Russia as the revolution nears, and while that book has an air of mystery and a beautiful spareness of prose that Gerhardie's can't match (and, to be fair, doesn't attempt), in their pictures of a culture half-grasped, yet forever elusive, they feel like kin. And given how highly I think of Fitzgerald's achievement in that novel, that's high praise.

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