Gerhardie, Waugh and Boyd

Novelist William Boyd has written an essay for The Spectator about the influence of William Gerhardie’s novels on several British novelists of the interwar period. It is entitled “Evelyn Waugh’s sincerest form of flattery.” Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Olivia Manning, Katherine Mansfield and many others later testified to the impact that reading [Gerhardie’s] early novels made on them. Evelyn Waugh was no exception. In a letter written later in life when Gerhardie had hit hard financial times and the literary world was getting up a collection of funds for him, Waugh sent in his check and added: “As you no doubt recognized, I learned a great deal of my trade from your own novels.” Waugh read Gerhardie when an undergraduate at Oxford — Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), was very Gerhardian. In the 1930s Waugh admitted to a mutual friend, “I shall never be as good as he. I know I have great talent, but he has genius.”

As a near obsessive reader of Waugh’s work and as someone with an intense curiosity about the man he was, I found these admissions — these confessions — both surprising and revelatory. Waugh was not the sort of person to consign himself happily to second place, and I felt there must be a clue to the formation of his particular tone of voice and the Wavian view of the human condition in this oblique and very unusual praise. It wasn’t Waugh that took me to Gerhardie, but as I read my way through Gerhardie’s many novels, particularly the early ones, I was repeatedly struck by how closely Waugh’s sense of humor and his take on life resembled Gerhardie’s. It seemed to me that a more forensic examination of the older writer’s influence on his younger contemporary might be worthwhile.

I decided to look closely at two books published not far apart: Gerhardie’s third novel, Jazz and Jasper (1928), and Waugh’s second, Vile Bodies (1930). Jazz and Jasper is an oddity. It was commissioned as a serial by Lord Beaverbrook (a great champion and new friend of Gerhardie) and designed to run in the Daily Express. It never did, in fact, though Beaverbrook paid Gerhardie the $350 he promised (about $25,000 today). When the book eventually appeared as an orthodox novel it was something of a success, but not an overwhelming one. It’s a measure of Gerhardie’s fame at the time that the cover of the first edition was simply a portrait of the author’s face. It’s hard to imagine that happening today — let alone ever — for a new work of fiction.

Boyd goes on to discuss in some detail particular passages and themes of Vile Bodies, elements of which can be traced to Gerhardie’s novel Jazz and Jasper (in America Eva’s Apples). He also notes Gerhardie’s distaste for Virginia Woolf (some one whom Waugh rarely praised) and discusses the influence of Gerhardie’s novel on the comedy of Scoop. Boyd also notes that Gerhardie greatly admired the works of Chekhov and helped introduce Checkhovian influences into English writing. Boyd’s article concludes with this:

Eventually, Gerhardie’s career went into a slow and relentless decline, though he regarded his failing fortunes with stoical resignation. He published no new writing in the last thirty-seven years of his life — as Evelyn Waugh’s star inexorably rose. Today, the one is justly feted, and the other is unjustly forgotten. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: “Mature novelists steal — and good novelists make what they take into something better.”

The full article is recommended and can be read at this link. There is a paywall but you may register for The Spectator’s three free articles per month if you don’t want a subscription. Unfortunately, Gerhardie’s 1928 novel Jazz and Jasper, which I believe was his third, was apparently never reprinted under that title or its US title (Eva’s Apples). You may find it in reprints entitled Doom and My Sinful Earth. His first two novels–Futility and The Polyglots–as well as some of the later ones have also been reprinted and are readily available from Amazon.com  and second hand booksellers.

UPDATE (25 July 2022): Additional titles of reprint editions of Jazz and Jasper were added.

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