“The Strong Beat of Life” by Edith Wharton
The following is Edith Wharton’s introduction to William Gerhardie’s novel, Futility, releasing next month as part of Melville House’s THE NEVERSINK LIBRARY …
There are few novelists nowadays, I suppose, who will not readily acknowledge that, in certain most intrinsic qualities of the art, the great Russians are what Henry James once called Balzac, the masters of us all. To many readers of the western world, however, there was — there still is, despite the blinding glare which the Russian disaster has shed on the national character — a recurring sense of bewilderment in trying to trace the motives of the strange, seductive and incoherent people who live in the pages of Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, and their mighty group. In Balzac, at all times, the western mind is at home: even when the presentment is obviously a caricature, one knows what is being caricatured. But there are moments — to me at least — in the greatest of Russian novels, and just as I feel the directing pressure of the novelist most strongly on my shoulder, when somehow I stumble, the path fades to a trail, the trail to a sand-heap, and hopelessly I perceive that the clue is gone, and that I no longer know which way the master is seeking to propel me, because his people are behaving as I never knew people to behave. “Oh, no; we know they’re like that, because he says so — but they’re too different!” one groans. And then, perhaps, for enlightenment, one turns to the western novelist, French or English or other, the avowed “authority” who, especially since the war, has undertaken to translate the Russian soul in terms of our vernacular.
Well — I had more than once so turned … and had vainly hunted, through the familiar scenery of vodka, moujik, eikon, izba and all the rest, for the souls of the wooden puppets who seemed to me differentiated only from similar wooden puppets by being called Alexander Son-of-Somebody instead of Mr. Jones or M. Dupont.
Then I fell upon Futility. Someone said: “It’s another new novel about Russia” — and every one of my eager feelers curled up in a tight knot of refusal. But I had a railway-journey to make, and the book in my bag — and I began it. And I remember nothing of that railway-journey, of its dust, discomfort, heat and length, because, on the second or third page, I had met living intelligible people, Sons-and-Daughters-of-Somebody, as Russian, I vow, as those of Dostoievsky or Goncharoff, and yet conceivable by me because presented to me by a mind open at once to their skies and to mine. I read on, amused, moved, absorbed, till the tale and the journey ended together.
This, it seems to me, is the most striking quality of Mr. Gerhardi’s book: that he has (even in this, his first venture) enough of the true novelist’s “objectivity” to focus the two so utterly alien races to which he belongs almost equally by birth and bringing-up — the English and Russian; to sympathize with both, and to depict them for us as they see each other, with the play of their mutual reactions illuminating and animating them all.
There are lots of other good things in the book; indeed, it is so surprisingly full of them that one wonders at the firmness of the hand which has held together all the fun, pathos and irony of the thronged sprawling tale, and guided it resolutely to an inevitable conclusion. “It takes genius to make an ending” Nietzsche said; and, perhaps partly for that reason, the modern novelist seems often to have decided that it is the trifle most conveniently dispensed with.
Mr. Gerhardi’s novel is extremely modern; but it has bulk and form, a recognizable orbit, and that promise of more to come which one always feels latent in the beginnings of the born novelist. For all these reasons — and most of all for the laughter, the tears, the strong beat of life in it — I should like to hand on my enjoyment of the book to as many other American readers as possible.
Read more about Gerhardie’s FUTILITY, here.