Saturday 3 January 2015

Futility by William Gerhardi (sometimes with an e, though this may be an affectation, like the brocade dressing gown in which the author liked to be photographed).

In my twenties I read him under the rubric of bad literature, and ventured to say so to Kay Dick, whom I met this once; he's a great writer, she said indignantly, as if I might be sweeping her own writing into the same bin.
And so we covered verst after verst, as our luxurious train, freshly painted, beautifully furnished, admirably kept, rushed through a stricken land of misery. On our choice engines we moved like lightning, or perchance stood long hours at lonely wayside stations, the glamour of innumerable electric lights within our carriages presenting to a community of half-starving refugees the gloating picture of the Admiral and his 'staff' at dinner.
Wry, perhaps, faintly sardonic but moist; bad. Not Debbie Harry bad. Indulgent bad. Any insider/outsider who charts this mess of creaking aristocrats with their pert daughters in pre-revolutionary Russia is going to look bad. Revolution starts to look like a relief, cleanser of the last privileged social group who read, wrote, and thought; and lost their fortunes, or mislaid them.
'Motives!' he cried. 'That is the very point, There are no motives. The motives are naught. It is the consequences. Where are we going? Why are we going? Look: we are moving. Going somewhere. Doing something. The train rushes through Siberia. The wheels are moving. The engine-drivers are adding fuel to the engines. Why? Why are we here? What are we doing in Siberia? Where are we heading for? Something. Somewhere. But what? Where? Why?
Households. Dependents. Old men. Dependents. Scenery. Goldmines. Wives. Daughters. Mistresses. Their sisters. The tedium of expedience. Politics. The expedience of tedium. Divorce, or not. Boches and Bolsheviks. Petersburg Moscow or Siberia, everything remains the same. Complete households move from one side of a continent to the other: wives daughters, mistresses, dependents (quiet, persistent, grateful, anxious), their light feet on the brink of decamping.

The pages that please me the most take place on the Trans-Siberian Express, a journey that Uncle Kostia fears is in excess of anything they are likely to achieve, though everyone behaved as though they were going to Siberia for some reason.
'Oh' groaned Uncle Kostia at my stupidity. 'Can't you understand that it is the very fact of this physical futility that inflates me with a sense of spiritual importance?
I looked at him with a blank expression.
'When I am at home – I mean anywhere at a standstill – I am wretched intolerably. I write and I think – –'. He stopped.  …
Now it is different. We are moving, apparently doing something, going somewhere. One has a sense of accomplishing something. I lie here in my coupé and I think: It is good. At last I am doing something. Living, not recording. Living! Living!

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