Genius According to Evelyn Waugh

One of the officers who served with Colonel Alfred Knox in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution and joined him, when he became commander of the British mission in Siberia in 1918 was the enigmatic William Gerhardi, who subsequently earned fame as an author, but ultimately died in poverty in 1977.

His parents, who were expatriates living in Russia, were ruined by the revolution and only just managed to escape to England. As a 23 year-old staff captain, fluent in Russian, he was employed as a liaison officer in Vladivostok, but did not see action on the front line. He was awarded an OBE for his services, but this was mysteriously delayed for a year after the main Siberian Honours were announced in the London Gazette.

After the war, Gerhardi returned to the University of Oxford where he wrote his critically acclaimed first novel, Futility. His fan club included Evelyn Waugh who wrote about him: “I have talent, but he has genius”. Perhaps even more impressive is the comment by Graham Greene: “to those of my generation, he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life”.

Among Gerhardi’s literary work is Memoirs of a Polyglot, published in 1931. In this elegant book, he describes the fate of some of the officers who he worked for in Siberia, including the “charmingly courteous baronet” and the Brigadier “overwhelmed with duties”, who died in Serbia. By then, he was firmly opinionated about the waste and cruelty of war and became a darling of the 1930s appeasement movement.

Perhaps this is the reason why his writing lost potency after the Second World War and was “re-discovered” by anti-war activists after the invasion of Iraq. Whether he was right or wrong about its utility, he certainly has a memorable turn of phrase, including this abiding comment about historical analysis: “In the exercise of prophecy one is inclined to expect history to describe the same pattern as before, forgetting that if the initial curves are sometimes the same, those who follow often diverge, forming the initial curves of a new pattern.”

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