A MEETING WITH WILLIAM GERHARDIE ( Author of ‘Futility’, ‘The Polyglots’, etc.) b.1895 ndsd. 1977

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 him 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.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 bei


Our Man in Golders Green

Even now, when I see the red  No.82 Metroline bus to North Finchley from Victoria station, my heart lurches a little, and I want to jump on to it  once again, and take that magical 10 mile journey to Martin’s home.

I feel a Betjemanesque joy at the marvels to be seen en route : Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Francis Holland school; the tube stations – St.John’s Wood and Finchley Road. And then my destination : the Refectory pub in Golders Green, where white-suited Martin, is normally sitting outside ( weather-permitting), writing in his Moleskine notebook, and drinking a glass of white wine, while waiting for me to arrive.

Martin is always very punctual. I must’nt be late.

Here is a man straight out of ‘Greeneland’; reminiscent of the foreign correspondent, Fowler, in The Quiet American, or Charles Fortnum, in  The Honarary Consul.( In fact, when Martin told me that he never drank water, I recalled Fortnum making the same remark to Plarr, and I wondered if this was a delightful literary ‘in-joke’ on Martin’s part)!

But to label Martin as a Graham Greene-ish ‘anti-hero’ would be so wrong. So one dimensional. These are just playful ‘nuances’.because Martin is a warmer, kinder and more authentic man

He is also immensely attractive and charismatic; and I was utterly beguiled by him from our first meeting.

An enchantment had begun.

Celine pt.5

The meeting eventually took place in Meudon. Bob then wrote a piece about it, which was published in the legendary ‘Evergreen Review’, founded by the late Barnet Lee ‘Barney Fosset ( 1922-2012).

The article can be accessed from the ‘Evergreen Review’ archives – made available on their website in October 2013. I presume that the ;ER’ must have sole copyright of Bob’s work.

However, here are some tantalizing extracts:

C: I am almost 67 – in May I shall be 67…to do this torture.the hardest job in the world’.

Gallimard, his publisher, had just published his latest book, North.

BS: ‘There is a great deal of interest in you In America’

C: ‘What interest? Who is interested? People are interested in Marlene Dietrich and insurance – that’s all’.

N.B.  The US- based ‘Evergreen Review’ existed between 1957-73. In its time it published work by Camus,Ferlinghetti, Beckett, Edward Albee,Brecht, Borges, Bukowski, Nabokov, Burroughs et al,

Celine pt.4

Bob’s sole intention ,while he remained in Paris, however, was to accept Celine’s invitation and  to visit him at his house in Meudon.  But this required courage.

After all, Bob was a Jewish boy from New Jersey; and he was about to interview a virulent and rabid anti-semite.

He was not the only one to be attracted and dazzled by Celine’s remarkable and revolutionary prose style,

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs had made the journey to talk to Celine in his Paris flat before him. He was to be much admired by many American writers in the future.


(Errata: the year Robert Stromberg travelled to Meudon to interview Celine  was early in  1961, not 1962, as written earlier). Celine died later that year), so the interview that he gave to Bob was one of the last ). Also, Bob was born in 1923, so he was 38 when he and Celine met). Apologies for these errors.

Tracking down Louis- Ferdinand  Destouches ( aka ‘Celine’) wasn’t easy, but Bob had been an investigative journalist on WWD, and later for Reuter’s news agency in London; during his peripatetic life ,and  the introductory letter that he sent Celine  must have impressed the writer.

The fact that Bob was American, too, may have been in his favour.

A time and date was arranged, and Bob then travelled to Meudon, ‘on the fringe’ of Paris, as Bob wrote. There, Celine lived with his  wife, Lucette Almanzor, who owned  the house (  three-storey nineteenth century made of wood and mortar),  and about half-a-dozen dogs ‘as near as I could count’.

But before he left for the meeting, Bob read as much by Celine and about the man as he could.  He read ‘Death on the Installment Plan’, which he  admired almost as much as much as ‘Voyage au bout de la Nuit’, and learned as much as he could about the reputation of the man. None of it good.

Meanwhile, he was in Paris for the first time in his life. Walking  the streets taken by Joyce, Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings – and Hemingway, who, conincidentally, was also to die in 1961,  He felt an affinity for the bars and haunts that so many fellow Americans writers had visited before him.  And, of course, he visited Sylvia Beach’s iconic bookshop ‘Shakespeare and Company’ in the rue de l’Odeon.   ‘Mme Shakespeare’, as Hemingway called Sylvia Beach  provided  a haven/salon//mail drop service for a large coterie of writers here at ‘The Quarter’ – a  salon that rivalled, but never surpassed the other great gathering place for writers and painters: Gertude Stein’s magnificent salon-studio in the rue de Fleurus