GOD'S FIFTH COLUMN: A Biography of the Age: 1890-1940 by William Gerhardie

GOD'S FIFTH COLUMN: A Biography of the Age: 1890-1940

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A curiously appealing, if ultimately unsuccessful, mÉlange of traditional history, biography, literary criticism, religious meditation, ethical tract, and a half-dozen other genres. Gethardie, who died in 1977 at the age of 82, was a widely respected British novelist during the Twenties and Thirties; and while he's more or less forgotten now, this posthumous work shows him as a passionate and perceptive observer of his century. Though the phrase is almost maddeningly multivalent, ""God's Fifth Column"" means something like divine Nemesis: in true Pauline fashion the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, and so in the course of modern history God undoes the folly and viciousness of kaisers, kings, and fuehrers, tears down empires, and generally makes a spectacle of human pride. One of the ways He does this is through great artists, like Tolstoy and Proust, whose pens lay bare the cancerous heart of European society. In Gethardie's view Chekhov is a world-historical actor on the same scale as Nicholas II (G. was born and raised in St. Petersburg), and he gives them equal attention. The approach, then, is at once personal, religious, and romantic; and Gerhardie carries it off with considerable style. He has a penchant for death scenes, and does moving little set pieces on the final moments of various major figures, from Tolstoy to George V. Gerhardie was remarkably well-informed, and his prose is rich and subtle. But the whole thing doesn't quite work. Gerhardie had persistent streaks of naivetÉ--about the ""innate common decency of the average citizen"" vs. the cruelty and megalomania of rulers, about the virtuousness of America, about the utopian possibilities of ""benevolent capitalism."" His indictment of the horrors of his age carries immense conviction, but not so his attempt to trace the omnipresent sublime sabotage of G.F.C. A quixotic, but humane and generous-spirited book.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster