Literary fashions and reputations come and go with great speed, and often well-known writers – famous in their own time – disappear into obscurity. One such writer was William Gerhardie, an Anglo-Russian, and friend of Cyril Connolly and Hugh Kingsmill. This is a piece I wrote, shortly after meeting him him in 1969. I was introduced to him by Michael Ivens .
‘Just behind Broadcasting House, in Hallam Street, lived the ‘English Chekhov’ – William Gerhardie’.
We visited William in the autumn of 1969 in his grand, cold and faded flat, crammed with books and manuscripts piled from floor to ceiling . Over the mantlepiece in his reception room, was a large, gilt mirror, which had probably graced a ballroom in Imperial Russia. William alluded to this fact, and began reminiscing about a beautiful, young dancer who had once lived with him.
Born in St. Petersburg to English parents in 1895, Gerhardie had written several incredible novels in the 1920s. Evelyn Waugh had written with uncharacteristic praise:
‘I have talent, but he has genius’.
In his day, Gerhardie’s work had been massively popular, but he had ceased to write, and now his MSS resided in boxes all around him. From 1940, he had published nothing, and was now a frail, elderly man.
Against the glowing velvet upholstery and threadbare carpet, William stood tall and erect. He had large, wild eyes, taking in everything. He talked animatedly to us both about other writers, and especially Cyril Connolly, whom he seemed to admire yet be irritated by at the same time.
When Gerhardie shook my hand, on arrival, I took notice of his thin, angular body, bony hands, white hair and taut, almost transparent skin. Yet his mind was alert and youthful. His friends, including Michael, and the writers Olivia Manning and Michael Holroyd were all doing their best to get his work re-published, possibly with Macmillan’s. In this they succeeded in doing before his death.
However, Gerhardie remained a recluse until then.
Another visitor to his home, Malcolm Muggeridge, recorded his meeting with Gerhardie in an article entitled ‘ The Genius Syndrome’ ( New York Review of Books – April 1982) as follows:
‘I remember thinking that it was more like a suite in a 2nd 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 down.