Futility by William Gerhardie. Melville House. 208pp, $15.00.
The British-Russian writer William Gerhardie, a glittering literary presence in pre-war England, is not exactly forgotten. But he has the biography and checkered publishing history of someone who gets “rediscovered” once a decade or so. This may be Gerhardie’s latest turn, as Melville House is bringing back into print the novels Futility and The Polyglots. Whatever the narrative you might adopt, Gerhardie deserves attention and is a worthy addition to Melville’s Neversink Library of out-of-print classics.
In 1895, he was born William Gerhardi (he added the e later in life) to an Anglo-Russian family in St. Petersburg. He later studied at Oxford, where he wrote Futility, an account of the aristocratic Bursanov family in the years before and after the Russian Revolution, as told by a young family friend named Andrei Andreiech.
A celebrity in his time, Gerhardie received praised from many of the major writers of his age, including Evelyn Waugh (“I have talent, but he has genius”) and Grahame Greene (“the most important new novelist to appear in our young life”). The press baron Lord Beaverbrook doted on him and took him to events around London. (A fictionalized Beaverbrook would later appear in Gerhardie’s novel, Doom, which over the years was published under four different titles.) After 1939, having produced novels, stories, plays, and an autobiography, Gerhardie didn’t publish another word. He died in 1977. Some of his work remains in print in the U.K., where Dido Davies published a biography of him in 1990.
Subtitled “A Novel on Russian Themes,” Futility is based on some of the author’s own experiences.
During World War I, he was posted as a British military attache to Petrograd, where he witnessed the 1917 Revolution. Later, he was sent to Siberia, where Western allies were conspiring to intervene against the nascent Bolshevik government. Of course, their efforts failed, and it is that failure that represents one of that instances of futility named in the book’s title. The word, in fact, crops up several times in the novel, in relation to anything from the characters’ selfish passivity in a changing world to the uselessness of pursuing an unreciprocated love affair.
The Bursanovs are a mess of a family, clearly on the downslide. Three daughters—Sonia, Nina, and Vera—are 16, 15, and 14 when the book opens. They have few cares and are blind to the problems of their father, Nikolai Vasilievich, an aristocrat who lives with his mistress, Fanny Ivanovna, whom he won’t marry because (if one line of reasoning is to be believed) if he divorces his wife, he may lose custody of his children. His wife, in turn, has taken up with Eisenstein, a Jewish dentist, but later she leaves him. Nikolai also tries to throw off Fanny—but not entirely—for 17-year-old Zina, whom he says is his one true love. They’re surrounded by a hopeless cast of family and friends, all of whom depend on Nikolai for support, even though his accounts are drying up.
The family’s lone hope lies in a set of gold mines in Siberia. The mines don’t produce anything of value, but that doesn’t stop the family, particularly Nikolai, from thinking that they will. The novel’s third section finds the family in Siberia, in Vladivostok, where Nikolai hopes to revive the mines, despite the fact that the Bolsheviks have seized control of them. Andrei Andreiech has arrived there too, as part of a Western military delegation that plans to throw off the Bolsheviks. But they too are feckless—doing more drinking and gossiping than planning or fighting, as coups and counter-coups and small gun battles testify that is history is unfolding around but without them.
We don’t learn much about Andrei Andreiech, the book’s narrator. He’s anti-Semitic, in the casual way common for aristocracy of the time. (He describes Eisenstein as having “prominently Jewish features, and probably good-looking as Jews of that type go.”) We don’t know about his family or even his age, though he’s probably in his late teens at the beginning of the novel, when Nina, his love interest, is 15. In fact, for the first hundred pages of this 210-page novel, Andrei has almost no interiority. He hardly comments on the action unfolding before him, but occasionally he slips in an elegant, arch observation. After a turbid scene of music and hysterics, Andrei concludes: “it was to be a night of bells and sobs.” That changes in the second half of the novel, when Andrei’s role as an assistant to an admiral, and his longing for Nina, receive more prominence.
There are elements of Chekhov and Austen in Futility—the dual strains of pathos and minor-key comedy; a young person’s repressed love; a network of feckless aristocrats and hangers-on, all oblivious to the changes convulsing the world, instead each wrapped up in his or her own private drama. But there are also bits that support Edith Wharton’s contention, in her preface (which is included in this edition), that the novel is “extremely modern.”
Throughout Futility, Gerhardie includes little metafictional touches, complaints about the insufficiency of fiction at representing life, or jokes that are sly precisely because they are so obvious. Part I one of the book—which is called “The Three Sisters” in one of several direct references to the Chekhov play—has this parenthetical note on its title page: “The ‘I’ of this book is not me.” Arguing with Nina, Andrei cries, “But can’t you see that you have been lifted out of Chekhov? . . . Oh, what would he not have given to see you and use you!” Nina replies, simply, “He’s dead.”
But that doesn’t stop Andrei, who launches into a passionate, and patronizing, speech about how an “unscrupulous scribbler”—maybe even himself, he later adds—could write an unflattering portrait of the Bursanovs, demeaning them for the sake of his art.
“The only handicap that I’m aware of is that you are all of you so preposterously improbable that no one would believe that you were real. This is, in fact, the trouble with most modern literature. No fiction is good fiction unless it is true to life, and yet no life is worth relating unless it be a life out of the ordinary; and then it seems improbable like fiction.”
It’s hard to divine Gerhardie’s game here. Is he really engaging in a fact versus fiction argument, one not too different from that plumbed, say, by David Shields? Is he hedging himself against the future complaints of his friends and family members, some of whom might recognize themselves in these pages? Or is he just having some fun with the reader? We know from the start, after all, that this book is Andrei’s written account; he is that “unscrupulous scribbler.”
It may not matter. Not much happens with the Bursanovs, but I found them a compelling story regardless—and still a story, despite the lack of plot. It is their very inertia that makes them interesting, their inability to escape their own solipsism. The world changes, but they do not. Out of blindness or denial, they can’t see that the country is going to hell around them, and that their decadence has left them unprepared.
Gerhardie’s meditations on whether this can be fictionalized, whether audiences will accept it, doesn’t amount to much in this regard. And perhaps he realizes it. When Fanny Ivanovna asks why authors don’t write about people like them, about “this, this real life… this real drama of life, rather than their neat, reasoned, reasonable and—oh! so unconvincing novels?” she’s shot down by Nikolai. “This philosophizing won’t help us,” he commands her. “We ought to do things. I want to do things.”
But they can’t, and everyone knows it. As the narrative moves on, as Vladivostok falls to the Bolsheviks, still the Bursanovs hold out hope for some kind of salvation from the mines. They take a trip on a luxury train to Lake Baikal, but why? No one is quite sure. As if anticipating Beckett, they can’t go on, they will go on.
“Isn’t our journey the kernel of absurdity?” asks Uncle Kostia, a Bursanov who’s renowned for his intellect but never does a thing, never publishes the literary works he may have written. Instead he stews and occasionally speaks up with this kind of desperate eloquence.
And Kostia is correct. It is the kernel of a larger absurdity, namely the insubstantiality of their lives. Andrei Andreiech cannot help but agree: “the man had been essentially right, that our journeys were in excess of our achievements. Our life was an inept play with some disproportionately good acting in it.”
This, finally, is where Gerhardie’s metatextual remarks resolve into focus. Early on, they may have reflected his own anxieties over writing about his life, but now they serve to highlight his ultimate fear: that life itself can seem metafictional, pre-scripted. It is too big for him to even have a part; it mocks him. By the end of Futility, a reader is likely to agree with Andrei Andreiech that his life is a “farce,” but not a “hilarious” one as he claims; as the Bursanovs’ ship sets sail for foreign waters and the moony young man is left alone, no one is laughing.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and many other publications.
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