William Gerhardie’s “Futility” must stand with Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and Hubert Crackanthorpe’s “Wreckage” high among English fiction’s best single-word book titles. Written while its author was still an undergraduate at Oxford and first published in 1922, “Futility” is precisely what the subtitle announces: “A Novel on Russian Themes.” Its overall tone is distinctly Chekhovian, a mixture of comedy and pathos, suffused with low-key irony. When the American edition appeared, it bore a preface by no less an eminence than Edith Wharton, praising “the laughter, the tears, the strong beat of life in it.”
That description sounds off-puttingly Edwardian and old-fashioned, yet Gerhardie’s novel and its successors — especially “The Polyglots” and “Jazz and Jasper” (called “Eva’s Apples” in the United States before gaining its definitive title, “Doom”) — won a chorus of praise from Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield, Evelyn Waugh (“I have talent, but he has genius”), Graham Greene and many others. In short order, Gerhardie’s oeuvre embraced satirical novels, an important early study of Chekhov, short stories collected as “Pretty Creatures,” a play titled “Donna Quixote” and even an early autobiography. Nonetheless, after much acclaim, he fell silent in 1939, though he was still only in his mid-40s. When Gerhardie died in 1977, he had been largely forgotten by all but a coterie of admirers.
He was lucky, however. In 1972, while the old author was still alive, the biographer Michael Holroyd published a 30-page appreciation of his work (later reprinted in Holroyd’s superb collection “Unreceived Opinions”). I happened upon that essay 25 years ago and immediately began to collect and read Gerhardie’s books. They are a bit more ramshackle than I really like, but they share a subdued, often absurdist humor all their own. I copied one sentence from “Doom” directly into my commonplace book: “We refilled our glasses with cognac, after which all things seemed possible.”
“Futility” itself is obviously highly autobiographical, in that it is narrated by a young Englishman who has been brought up in Russia, which was just Gerhardie’s case. Called Andrei Andreiech in the book, our hero finds himself caught up in the operatic Sturm und Drang of the Bursanov family. Initially attracted to the daughters of the house — “the three sisters,” he calls them (echoing Chekhov’s play) — he soon discovers that the home life of Sonia, Nina and Vera is exceptionally tangled. The woman he takes to be their mother isn’t, Fanny Ivanova being, in fact, a former German actress who has been living in sin with their father, Nikolai Vasilievich, for 11 years. Their actual mother ran away with an incompetent dentist, but has resolutely refused to divorce her husband. Hangers-on in the household include, among others, a rather suspicious Baron Wunderhausen who is pursuing Sonia, and a so-called prince nicknamed Kniaz, who simply sponges on the father’s wealth.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Nikolai Vasilievich has been borrowing heavily for years, constantly expecting a gold mine in Siberia to pay off. Moreover, when the novel opens, this middle-aged man has fallen in love with a 17-year-old girl named Zina, to the disgust of his daughters and the distress of the long-devoted Fanny. Naturally, Zina’s family is penniless, so Nikolai Vasilievich is soon supporting her “aunts and uncles, sisters-in-law, second cousins” and a pair of doddering grandfathers, as well as a rather Oblomov-like writer named Uncle Kostia who talks constantly of his work but never puts pen to paper.
Early in the novel, Andre Andreiech complains, after watching a performance of “The Three Sisters” no less, that the play’s characters are “preposterous,” with “their black melancholy, their incredible inefficiency, their paralyzing inertia.” He adds: “Think of it! They can’t do what they want. They can’t get where they want. They don’t even know what they want. They talk, talk, talk, and then go off and commit suicide or something. . . . Why can’t people know what they want in life and get it? Why can’t they, Nikolai Vasilievich?”
To which the older man answers that reality is often a complicated business. “Chekhov,” he adds, “is a great artist.”
In fact, as “Futility” continues, it becomes obvious that the Bursanovs themselves embody this characteristically Russian inertia. They will always be waiting, passing the time in dances and parties interrupted only by periodic storms of emotion, as when Nikolai Vasilievich’s errant wife reveals that she has dumped her dentist-lover and finally wants a divorce so that she can wed a rich admirer. Which Fanny now cannot allow to happen, since that would permit Nikolai Vasilievich to marry Zina.
At which point World War I breaks out, followed by the Revolution. It goes without saying that Nikolai Vasilievich “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, . . . he could not understand the necessity of a revolution.”
But as the violence and confusion spread, the Bursanovs — and everyone financially dependent on the largess of Nikolai Vasilievich — travel to Siberia to visit the much-fabled gold mine. It so happens that the narrator is also in Vladivostok, as part of a British diplomatic and military mission, one that includes the Admiral, who diverts himself by throwing empty tobacco tins at pigs; Sir Hugo, who has “a grasp of the inessential, a passion for detail and exactitude unexcelled in creation”; and a Russian general who, in his cups, speaks “piteously of his ruined soul, his wasted life, and how he felt, and what he felt, and why he felt it.”
Most of the Russians deeply resent the Westerners for meddling where they don’t belong. But Andrei Andreiech explains, in all-too-familiar phrases, that “the idea is that the Allied troops should help to raise and train Russian cadres and so lay the foundation for a new Russian Army which, in its turn, would make it possible to rebuild the State. It’s not an invasion by foreign troops.” Sigh.
Meanwhile, the dances and garden parties go on, at one of which old Kniaz is introduced to cocktails and consumes them wholesale: “He had never tasted one before, and found that his life had been wasted.” Whatever the circumstances, Nikolai Vasilievich only wonders how they will affect his claims upon his gold mine. He remains “always one of two things: either extremely optimistic, when he said that the most violent pain was nothing; or very pessimistic, when he said that nothing could be done to alleviate the pain.”
From early on, it’s obvious that Andrei Andreiech is in love with Nina. But her feelings for him are less clear, especially when the three sisters start flirting with three naval officers from an American warship. But really, I should say no more about “Futility.” As Gerhardie observes, neatly summing up a rather Slavic view of human existence, “Our life WAS an inept play with some disproportionately good acting in it.”
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
By William Gerhardie
Melville House. 210 pp. Paperback, $15