For each of Kersh’s books published in the UK and US, I have listed some reviews.
At present, I have not found any US reviews for Men Ar e So Ardent, Nightshades & Damnations, and The Angel And The Cuckoo. If you find any, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jews Without Jehovah
Gerald Gould, Observer, June 10 1934
...With a smaller canvas, Mr Kersh displays much the same qualities of raciness and reality. He, too, is in complete control of a conversational method brilliantly, and somewhat disconcertingly, lifelike. He is concerned, not with a community, but with a family; and not with the rich varieties of human nature, but, for the most part, with odious fools, whom one cannot help regarding (no doubt very unjustly) as all the more odious because of their folly’s grossness! It is true that there is at least one fine, even magnificent character, Mark Leonoff, tailor by trade, adventurer by disposition, and idealist by conviction: his son John too has honesty, strength and dignity, and there are some sympathetic minor characters. But unfortunately the Leonoffs, besides playing a smaller part in the narrative, are less convincing and less interesting than the Ratner brothers, of whom it may be said, roughly and broadly, that, coming into their father’s fortune, made out of the bakery business, they throw it away in ridiculous attempts to make sweets and to make books (the betting, not the literary kind), and in another adventure which even more reveals their incompetence. We get good, rich, salty, comedy-farce of the Ben Jonson type, in this account of greasy, greedy, cowardly humbugs tumbling from one disaster to another, and talking, talking, talking...! If the account were presented as a study of a race, it would be grotesquely untrue; as a comic picture of a few persons, it is grand. The voluble trickster Kornblum is a host of rascals in himself.
Men Are So Ardent
Francis Iles, Daily Telegraph, January 17 1936
Sophisticated Satire - It is notoriously hard luck on the novelist that, unlike the painter, the dramatist, and the composer, he can never see the effects of his work on the public. I take pleasure therefore in telling Mr Gerald Kersh that, having laughed over it myself earlier in the day, I hand around his Men Are So Ardent among a small gathering in the evening and made each member read, to himself or herself, the little chapter entitled ‘The Nameless Dog,’ The results were all that any author could have wished.
I understand that Men Are So Ardent is Mr Kersh’s second novel, and I regret having missed his first; for here is a witty and naughty satirist with a flavour very much his own, with plenty to say, and with a way of saying it which will, within limits, please the sophisticated as much as it will upset the conventional.
Not that this story of gold-diggers and frailty, of biters bit, and a preposterous bevy of hangers-on clustered round a preposterous superannuated dancer, is without its faults. Much of it is crude; the irony is sometimes too often at our elbow with unnecessary comment. But these are the faults of the book’s own particular virtues, which are drive, enthusiasm, exuberant imagination, and wit; and if we cannot have force without crudity, wit without impropriety, or imagination without restraint, let us by all means have both rather than neither.
Night And The City
Richard Church, John O’London’s, March 25 1938
Gerald Kersh Shows Us The Underworld Of The West End - The influence of contemporary American fiction is apparent in Night And The City (Michael Joseph 8s 6d). It is a brutal, ruthless piece of work. But how well it is executed, and what moral austerity lies behind the author’s conception? Only a visionary who feels desperately about the sins of the world could apply the scourge so mercilessly.
The scene is the underworld of London’s West End. The people are those who make a filthy living in one way or another out of the moral weaknesses of human flesh. The central figure is Harry Fabian, born in the gutter and still shadowed by his brother, who trundles a fruit barrow and is comparatively honest. But harry has white hands, oily eyes, and American suits. He cultivates a Hollywood accent, and talks in terms of dollars instead of pounds. And finally he lives on the immoral earnings of Zoë, his girl, a lovely licentiate of twenty three, who at present can make money easily.
They live in Rupert Street, and their market-place is Leicester Square. Their money is spent in night clubs on Whiskey at two pounds a bottle, and chocolates as twelve shillings a pound. Harry has a wide circle of confederates; Figler, for instance. ‘Looking at him you had an impression of a large quantity of something soft poured into a smallish black suit with a pin-stripe, and overflowing at the wrists and collar; a long body supported by little crooked legs; a curved spine, round shoulders, a pot-belly, and a face of the colour and texture of a Welsh rarebit.’ Figler made a living by buying and selling on the undercut principle, without any money of his own. By always having some juggling in hand he managed to maintain a credit at the bank.
He and Harry go in together for the promotion of all-in contests. A dirty game, because neither trusts the other, and neither is interested in fair-play or the sport. In fact, the whole of the activities of this world take place in cellars, prostitute’s bedrooms, and bars. The author has a rhetorical gift for describing the squalor of it all.
It is macabre. It has the horrible fascinated hatred of vice which mediaeval poets from Dante downwards, revelled in and demonstrated with all their rhetorical devices then fashionable. Now rhetoric is too rarely used today. It is a technique too heavy and too large-scale for everyday use. Only a man with the strength of moral fervour can pick it up and use it. Mr Kersh is original today because he is a moral rhetorician. ‘Our faces are masks...without mirrors.’
Here, indeed, is a latter-day Bunyan in our Uncelestial City!
I Got References
Pamela Hansford Johnson, John O’london’s, November 3 1939
Elusive Mr Kersh - An Author Who Hides Behind A Gallery Of Fantastic Characters - Mr Gerald Kersh has written three tough novels, of which Night And The City is the most recent. He belongs to the school of literary cut-and-thrusters, of writers who have hair on their chests, who have called such rich, fantastic characters by the first person singular that they remain more remote and less credible than any of their creations. What is Hemingway really like? What is Mr Kersh really like? I Got References (Michael Joseph 10s 6d) won’t tell you. It is a book about all manner of rare and wonderful people, collected by the author and neatly harpooned to his pages. ‘I am the original Peeping Tom, or Nosey Parker, or Paul Pry,’ he tells us, ‘there is something about me...I know enough to hang at least three people.’
So, this, then, is a book of remarkable stories, more spicy, more marvellous than any of Scheherazade’s told by a shadow whom the author has called Kersh.
A Vampire Mother - It begins with a story about a dainty old vampire mother whose death releases her unhappy daughter to a normal life. ‘The worms have eaten he chin, her dewlap, and her saintly haunches. The earth has swallowed her bones - if, indeed, she had any bones. Time has covered her glory and her martyrdom, and her saintly voice is silent.’
Next comes an appreciation of London characters: Monolulu, who has ‘the audacity of the Devil...struts like a peacock, and fears neither man nor beast of God...’, the Chinese gentleman, ‘who promenades in silver shoes, plaid trousers, a bowler hat painted with aluminium paint, and a parasol girded to his hip like a sword,’ the ‘wild young man with the face of a Buster Keaton, who, brandishing an umbrella, and displaying a mop of fair hair of incredible length, walks rapidly up and down between Marble Arch and Aldgate Pump’, and all the rest of them.
There is an excellent study in the macabre, concerning a house in the Strand where Mr Kersh saw a little hanging face, like that of a doll, and where he discovered secret pipes installed for no purpose, andd an exquisite tale of a frightful, fascinating housekeeper called Charity.
The best thing in this Aladdin’s cave of a book is Mr Kersh’s review of a tough and terrible childhood, when he was an Attila of small boys. ‘I achieved notoriety on account of my destructive tendencies. Once, when a tramcar fell over near Acton, I was seized and chastised, as it were absent-mindedly, as soon as the crash was heard.’
The Joys Of Childhood - The author, in his final summing-up, looks sadly backwards. ‘Boo-hoo, then, for the joys of childhood! It is night. Let us weep. - The day when I took the Bunce boy’s trousers! ...The Sabbath afternoon when I felled Joan Cook with a lump of coal! ...The three-penny bit I swallowed and apparently digested, since it never saw the light of day again! ...Gerald Kersh, Gerald Kersh, where is your virginity? Why, Gerald Kersh, my loved one, did you ever grow up? Couldn’t you have been a Peter Pan?’
Oh, Mr Kersh is tough. I can imagine him weeping at nothing; unless, perhaps, he weeps at Shirley Temple.
They Die With Their Boots Clean
Times Literary Supplement, January 10 1942.
Here is a picture of life in the raw in the Coldstream Guards, with all its rigorous discipline, its humour and comradeship, its pride of achievement. In some respects the picture is over-drawn - it is, indeed, classed as fiction - but Guardsman Kersh is writing first hand of his personal experiences; and as a domestic study of Army life his book has few equals. It deals with his own batch of recruits, and in a series of intimate character sketches shows us the men they rae, from the time they draw their uniform at the depot until they pass out to the Holding Battalion as trained soliders.
No doubt the author has accentuated the characteristics of the members of his squad - the miner and the Cockney, the simple giant from the land, the university graduate and the ‘dangerous’ man who turns out right in the end. They are nearly all volunteers, drawn for the life-blood of England, ‘this mixing-bowl of all that is most fierce and enduring in man.’ Mr Kersh may have over-done his colours, but there is no mistaking the spirit of his comrades. We are given, too, something of the meaning of Guards’ ‘spit and polish’ and everything that goes into the proud esprit de corps of the Coldstreams; there are vivid tales from France and Palestine to show what relentless discipline can do in a tight corner, and terse recitals of Guardsmen’s exploits that have won V.C.s. Among the most colourful personalities, of course, are those tremendous drill sergeants and other n.c.o.s, tough as hide, whose command of epithet and satire knows no bounds. Neither, in spite of a formidable exterior, does their humanity. Apart from the personal link to the Coldstream Guards, Mr Kersh gives an interesting insight into the manifold aspects of modern infantry training. His book is in a class of its own.
The Nine Lives Of Bill Nelson
Times Literary Supplement, July 11 1942
As in They Die With Their Boots Clean, Mr Gerald Kersh writes of the way they do things in the Coldstream Guards. The idiom is the same as before, perhaps rather more rollicking in humour, but this time the vein of narrative is more openly ficticious. In a loosely arranged series of conversations a number of Guardsmen who know him pay tribute in their own fashion to the memory of Sergeant Bill Nelson, who was caught in an air raid while on leave and killed. The conversations are terse, ferociously slangy, full of hyperbole and outrageous wit, often irresistly funny and always, even when the pathos of the situation they reveal seems to be on the conventional side, stamped with the impress of life and character. From them one learns what Bill Nelson was like, what his friends are like, what existence in the Coldstream Guards is peace and war is like. One learns rather more than that, too.
The news of Bill Nelson’s death comes from the cookhouse warrior, Butcher the Butcher, who has overstayed his seven days’ leave by some hours because of the air raid in question and is under open arrest. To the other Guardsmen in the hut he describes how Bill Nelson died game, holding up with his shoulders the roof of a cellar in which two peopel are still alive. No east sentiment here, only a hardbitten and fatalistic irony and a ribald turn of speech. Corporal Bearsbreath takes up the story of Bill Nelson, an old sweat with a conduct-sheet as black as pitch, always earning new tapes after being busted. Another sergeant, known as the Budgerigar, tells how he stole Bill Nelson’s girl. Others contribute their share - a tough, fearsome, inarticulate character, a Guardsman of more than average cultivation, who is perfectly happy and at peace because ‘the Army leaves a man alone,’ a cantankerous ox of a man - and it seems plain that Bill Nelson, though he was different things to different men, was never less than a man.
Some of the more sentimental incidents, for the mostt part concerned with the females in Bill Nelson’s life or the life of his friends, make no deep impression by themselves, but the style in which they are told always has a two-fisted comic punch. Now and then the yarning gives Bill Nelson a miss, as when Guardsman Cattle passes on the story told him by a French officer of the ten old tigers of Tolly during the débâcle in France. But only Bill Nelson really matters.
The Dead Look On
Times Literary Supplement, February 27 1943.
Novel Of The Week - The dedication is to ‘the murdered men of Lidice, and their memory.’ Every word that comes afterwards plainly springs from a white heat of passion. It is a terrible and burning evocation, this imaginative recital of the scarcely imaginable event. Completely subdued and non-resistant at the time of reading to Mr Kersh’s unrelenting power and purpose, afterr an interval one may possibly begin to resist the effect he has had. Is the Lidice massacre, one asks, a subject for fiction here and now? Is it truly a theme to be served up piping hot? The question, perhaps, is irrelevant. Mr Kersh writes with hard, controlled power, building up a German universe of evil, of calculated vileness and bestiality, that freezes one’s mind. Though he calls in the aid of a bold dramatic sense to sharpen the storytelling effect, there is no cheap exploitation of horror.
Somewhere in Bohemia or Moravia a Max Bertsch, SS Obergruppenführer, almost at the moment of expounding to his staff a most methodical and architectonic philosophy of terror, is shot at by a passing motor-cyclist and killed. The sirens sound, the police-cars stream in all directions, Heinz Horner flies from Berlin. This is a description of the man:
‘Heinz Horner sat and thought. He thought best on weak tea. Horner was a thorough man, ambitious, precise, esteemed for his nerveless cunning and his cold inquisitiveness, his dogged obstinacy and hit pitiless energy. You would never have noticed him in a group of ordinary men. There was primness in the shape and set of his rimless spectacles on his nondescript nose; modesty in the cut of his small black moustache....Dull, colourless, plain, passionless, Heinz Horner sipped his tea and sat stiffly in the dead man’s chair. Far beyond earshot, men wlked on tiptoe and spoke in whispers.’
An abandoned moter-cycle is found near a little village on a little river. The name of the village is Dudicka. It has a population of some 400. A map spread in front of him, Horner draws a neat ring round the village of Dudicka. At dawn a company of parachutists descends from the sky over the village, a column of heavily armed motor-cyclists follows along the road, with armoured cars and trucks behind. Aircraft patrol overhead.
Mr Kersh sketches the character and history of the village, lightly touches in some of the inhabitants. It is simply and effectively done, and here and there a faintly sentimental touch for decoration seems excusable enough. There is the schoolmaster, Karel Marek, who has a bundle of unpublished stories in a drawer; there is the butcher, Otakar Blazek; there is the glassmaker, the son and grandson of a master craftsman, Jan Balaban; there are the old, somnolent mayor and his wife. But the almost non-human lust forr power, the glorying in evil, the delight in cruelty that Mr Kersh reveals in the soliders and police who round up the population; such episodes as the animal baiting of the woman caught in adultery or the removal of the woman newly given birth to twin children scarcely bear retelling. Mr Kersh exhibits with cold precision the intoxicated savagery that springs from the Teuton myth of racial superiority, the sheer posturing inhumanity to the dogma of Slaven Sind Sklaven. In spare, incisive strokes he hits off the hideously brutal Sergeant Schlager, a prixe fighter shapped by Dr Goebbels into ‘a hammer-handed Aryan fighting man;’ the captain of the company of parachute troops with a delicate wit and a developed sensiblerie allemande; the raoring humorist Sergeant Bauer. He catches, too, a momentary confusion or a sudden change of tone in the voice of one of the grey-helmeted Guards as they go methodically about the tasks allotted to them. And there is the grim-faced, ageing Major van Esser, with his Kaiserr Wilhelm moustache and duelling scars, whose rigid sense of duty brings him before Heinz Horner to report that the motor-cycle found near Dudicka is mere scrap-iron and could not have been riddeen for years - and who, having thus outlived discretion and usefulness to the Reich, pays the prescribed penalty and wins promotion for his murderer.
The show goes on: the example must be made, the rules of terror vindicated. First, there is salvage in the shape of the lead roof of the church, the church candlesticks, the village stoves and brass lamps, wedding rings, sickles, corckscrews, watches, the tops of soda-water syphons. Then the human material is dealt with. The people of Dudicka are divided into three groups; while the men are made to dig their own common grave, the women and children are taken away, herded like droves of cattle, separately. The firing squads complete their work and then the village is razed by artillery. Three missing people are cuaght in the end - a half-witted old man and the lovers Max and Anna. Mr Kersh salutes the faith and fortitude of the people of Dudicka, but he leaves the reader with, above all else, an unbearable sense of the nightmare evil, the immeasurable depravity and mania of the opprssor.
A Brain And Ten Fingers
Times Literary Supplement, July 10 1943.
Yugoslav Guerrillas - Mr Kersh seems to be making himself a specialist in the horrors and thrills of the war. After a short and powerful novel commemorating the Lidice massacre, The Dead Look On, comes a short novel or long short-story celebrating the resistance of the Yugoslav guerrillas. This, too, is done in an impassioned and forcible way, though one is much more conscious on the present occasion of the cleverness with which Mr Kersh applies himself to the job of being terse and pregnant of phrase. His air of simplicity, in fact, for all its felicities, seems a little too passionately studied, with the result that what might otherwise strike a pardonable key of sentiment appears to be contrived with consistent artifice. However, there are many touches of true and poetical perception in the telling of a simple enough tale of heroic resistance, and it his best Mr Kersh catches a lightly epic note and something of a folktale quality of eloquence too.
The tale is pieced together of fragments related by various participants in the guerrilla’s brief little action against the Italians. First comes the boy Andrej, who had seen his village burned to the ground by the enemy and has joined a little band of dour and desperate men, comprising all the elements of Yugoslav nationalism, under the leadership of Marko, a born leader. In a raid on an Italian arms dump for the purpose of obtaining detonators and fuses for their work of sabotage, nine men only survive out of the thirty who took part. Marko is among the dead, and his place is filled by the artless, impassive Klemen. In substance this is an account of how most of the nine make their escape from the pursuing Italians after the raid, by building a bridge across a river in flood. One is drowned as the hurried bridge making goes on, another is drowned crossing over to safety, and a third, the poetry-impelled Janez, dies of his wounds; but the rest live to fight another day. In spite of the sentimentalities there is here an ardent and poetical sense of the eternal verities in war.
Faces In A Dusty Picture
Times Literary Supplement, February 26 1944.
Mr Kersh is a fast worker. The latest work of his, like so much that is written in the form of fiction about the war, is something more than descriptive commentary and something less than a novel. It is about a British offensive, at a difficult and menacing phase of our Middle East fortunes, in the Western Desert, and more particularly about some of the officers and men of a Midland regiment, the Royal Archers, which has a perhaps exceptionally tough job to do on that occasion in order to be in at the kill. Once more Mr Kersh’s speciality is the plain, course, lively, everyday speeches of the troops, and again there is much to admire in the vigour and skill of his dialogue and in the assurance with which he draws from it an impression of English character or of English idiosyncracies. There are, in fact, several good sketches in the tale of common English types in this Midlans regiment, some comic little episodes andd one or two starkly tragic scenes of battle. And yet the thing is hardly what it should or could have been. Partly because he snatches at the opportunity to be tremendously masculine, partly because he slips too easily intto the kind of comic hyperbole which has always been a principal failing of his. Mr Kersh’s effect is uneven and sometimes a bit false. The truth may be that as a novelist of Army life or of war he needs at this stage above all else to sit down and think.
His virtues here should not go unnoticed, however, among them a degree of economy in reporting death and horror in battle that is all but excessive for his purposes. The sketches include, among the officers, the observant Mann, who is more rhetorical than he suspects; Pryde, who in an almost normal way is tormented by the fear of being afraid; the fearless and high-spirited Hazlitt; sleepless, almost graceless, professionally selfless General Eagles. Among the men are Sergeants Doughty and Edgeworth, friends turned bitter enemies over a girl; the Bible-reading Ben Cream; the dogged Madison and the talkative Bennett. There is not a great deal in the way of incident before the enemy wadi is carried; but the march in the desert, the torments of thirst the men endure, the threatened sandstorm, the dive-bombing, the apparent general exhaustion before the attack opens are set down in terse, hard phrases. Edgeworth and Doughty are reconciled only in the moment of Edgeworth’s death, and Madison and Bennett, lost on the march, at their last gasp, pick up a full water-bottle from a crashed plane; then wander through a minefield on their way back to their unit, the better man to be killed in the fighting and the other to win promotion he does not merit. There is nothing sentimental in all this, but its conventionality of cast may point to what is missing from Mr Kersh’s imaginative assimilation of the whole experience.
The Horrible Dummy And Other Stories
Times Literary Supplement, October 21 1944.
It is a quality of flambouyant vigour in Mr Kersh that wins attention first of all for his fiction, and more especially, perhaps, for his occasional short story. When his flambouyant energy of sentiment and language comes off he achieves an effect of genuine distinction; at his surest, that is, he is a short story writer of a strongly individual and rewarding kind. With all his talent, however, he does not often seem able to produce a short story of adequeat or balanced imaginative substance. It is his manner, in fact, or even as worst a trick of manner, rather than thee substance of his stories, to which he evidently gives most thought. The result is that when, as happens frequently, he seems to start from a love of the ringing, heroic note and not from a considered dramatic situation, or when, as again happens quite often, his tatse for the grotesque turns into mere hyperbole, he is badly out in his calculations. His worst failing, indeed, is that, beneath the trappings of spectacular oddity or pathos which he presents with such gusto, he is inclined to be rather nakedly sentimental.
This is borne out by the present collection of stories. There are two or threee excellent specimens among the twenty-three in the volume, and in the narrative dash of almost the majority of those which are unsuccessful forr one reason or another there is a sort of bold and buccaneering air that engages attention. Nevertheless, the leaning towards the sentimental for all Mr Kersh’s disguises, is very noticable too. Until the last moment or two it is not so apparent, perhaps, in a tale like the first in the volume, which is about an elderly ex-wrestler, a Pole who meant to be undefeated in life as he has been undefeated in the wrestling ring; but that last moment or two undoes a good deal that goes before. And in the second story in the volume, which is aboutt ten pensioned veteran’s of France’s wars who stood up against the might of the Wehrmacht in 1940, Mr Kersh is purely and solely sentimental, or very nearly so. So he is in the tale of the aged fine flower of cosmospolitan society in the years of penury, and again in the last story of all, which is about a British hero of this war. However, Mr Kersh has his successes. The best and cleverest of these, which gives part at least of its title to the collection, tells with excellent economy of a ventriloquist’s dummy which was inhabited, or so it seemed, by the spirit of the ventriloquist’s murdered father. Among two or three studies of its kind ‘The Drunk And The Blind’, the sketch of an old, battered and mentally ruined boxer, is done with a telling and slightly brutal power. ‘The Devil That Cracked The Chess-Board’, though it misses something of a firmness or clarity, is another sound thing in a vein of the slightly macabre.
An Ape, A Dog And A Serpent
Times Literary Supplement, May 19 1945.
Film World - When it comes off, Mr Kersh’s habitual extravagance of fancy and of language is, at the very least, entertaining. The habit seems, however, so ingrained in him that Mr Kersh cannot be depended upon to be at all self-critical in indulging it, with the result that his flights into the grotesque are not always funny and are sometimes without any apparent point. In the present instance it is doubtful, in any case, whether he was wise to choose, as the subject of ‘a fantastic novel’, the obvious world of fantasy of films, and film-making; the chances were very much that he would overplay his hand andd generally overdo the riot and ribaldry of his accompanying gestures, and this, in fact, is precisely what he has done.
We begin with an unfortunate named Edward Prem, a journalist, who after a drunken journalistic misadventure ran into the great Walter Chincilla in Paris. Chincilla’s was only an unexpressed greatness at the time, but Prem had complete faith in him from the start. The man had a big white face, a mindless, sensual, intoxicating slattern of a wife and a genius for extracting money from a stone or a star actor. With those advantages the peerless Chincilla, who saw everything, thought everything in terms of masterpieces of the screen, was bound to have his heart’s desire. Accordingly, some twenty years later, when Prem was a name to conjure with and lived in a sound-proof flat, when the great cameraman van Dyke, the great film director Kuragin, the great idol Lola Pearl were all only just within human reach, the more than mortally great Chincilla himself was beyond human imagining. And that beyond Mr Kersh has filled with a waste of arbitrary fancy and verbal excess. True, he has his happy moments of preposterous invention, his turns of pungent phrase, and generally maintains an air of unflagging energy. But the trouble is that he does not quite know what to do with the pile of absurdity he has assembled. In the end, when Chincilla has been run to earth by the highest paid journalist in Fleet Street and abruptly expires in the studio, Mr Kersh has no choice but to allow his extravagance to peter out in an all too obvious void.
The Weak And The Strong
Times Literary Supplement, October 13 1945.
A breath of hot air from the 1930’s, Mr Kersh’s new story is uncommonly welcome in these inclement days. No wars, no charters, no atomic bombs, no international responsibilities, nothing but a good emotional turmoil - what a relief it is to re-enter the hothouse of pure fiction! Mr Kersh stages his little melodrama on a volcanic island, the sort of sub-tropical watering place that has an expensive hotel and might well provide a meeting place for the rich and the notorious, the criminal at the head of his profession and the professionally beautiful. Anyhow, here it does, and they all go on an expedition together to the famous caves and are trapped inside by a landslip and have the very dickens of an experience. This is the signal for Mr Kersh to bring out the short stories of his people: the ingratiating local doctor has quietly been poisoning his ailing and adoring wife, the film magnate started his climb in order to impress some girl he can scarcely remember, the professor hadd a miraculous adventure in South America, the depressed composer oncee had an inspiration that might have relieved his melancholy, the Russian prince is not a prince at all, and so on.
Some of the stories are imaginative, some commonplace, but the effect of it all is enhanced by Mr Kersh’s adroit handling. The drama of the past is kept deftly in touch with that of the present, there are some agreeable if temporary changes of heart, and the author commands at times an effective pathos. Apart from the derence the weak must always pay to violence (when there are no policemen about), his out-and-out criminals are not worth regarding - gunmen and theirr ladies are last year’s fashions in crime. But the witty, sentimental, weak doctor and his wife are another matter. These make some claim on one’s interest and even on one’s sympathy. One very nearly believes in them, one pities them. What if Mr Kersh were to persevere with these characters that have a suggestion of death instead of vivid superficial colouring? He would then perhaps hold the attention, whereas now he merely captures it.
Neither Man Nor Dog
Times Literary Supplement, March 16 1946.
Explosives - Mr Kersh’s new volume contains thirty-seven stories of the kind the author made made so distinctly his own; the short piece, explosive with violence, and loaded with a kind of Eastern European squalor and colour. The best of them are very good. The unfailing fertility of his imagination is indeed to be wondered at, and so, too, his unwinking eye for the hard, the horrible, the grotesque. He speaks of several of his characters as ‘quarried’ rather than born, and one would look far among other English writers of short stories for such frames of adamant and nerves of steel. Injuries and disasters which would splinter armies are hardly more than a toothache to the Krations and Adzes. Gomez, the hero of one of the best stories in this collection, has survived such frightful mutilations on a score of occasions that he fears God must be reserving him ‘for something terrible.’ But what should he fear? Not even the atom bomb.
Accompanying the excessibe hardness of many of the stories is a lavish sentimentality. The strongest man (or brute) has his weakness. Adze allows his shipwrecked companions to go mad with thrist for the water he keeps from them, but he hides a cockroach from the sun; the title ‘A Small And Dirty Dog’ carries all its story with it. For the postman always rings twice: once with a knout and once with a tear. To read ‘Red Gentleman Of Staffordshire’ is to recall (with a difference) Dr Johnson’s remonstrance to the lady novelist: ‘Madam, I do not believe that upon moral grounds you have the right to make your readers suffer so much.’
For entertainment of a strong kind Mr Kersh would be hard to beat. And occasionally from amidst the batterings and brutalities, and gougings and bashings, comes a piercing irony. ‘The Fortunes Of The Pryskys,’ ‘The Ruined Wall’ and ‘The Dungeon’ are admirable examples of his skill and vision, where the cleverness is curbed and tolerance orr pity shines. But when he misses the bullseye, as he does in the weaker stories here, the result is embarrassing to the critical reader, who can be wave his flag with equal vigour and dismay.
Clean, Bright & Slightly Oiled
Times Literary Supplement, October 12 1946.
In Clean, Bright And Slightly Oiled, a series of sketches in an autobiographical vein, and his thirteenth book since 1941, Mr Kersh presents himself as a guardsman and guardsman-writer against his now familiar background of the war-time Army. Mr Kersh’s attitude to service life has aroused discussion among novel readers, so that his precise point of view, as quoted here, may be noted:
‘The common soldier is a normal man in strange circumstances, to which he must adjust himself. For the sake of his spiritual health and strength he must rise superior to an abnormal environment. He must be tough (I have begun to hate that word) or be useless as a soldier. He tends to sentimentality, expresses his love of home in long-drawn-out anecdotes and banal songs... He is conscious of the intellectual in his hut... The intellectual is always wrong... It is the sturdy, disciplined man who wins wars, saving his tears for to-morrow.’
Accordingly Mr Kersh writes of ‘normal’, sturdy, soldier-types, avoiding the particular and the questions it might pose. But when he writes of the Guards’ barracks he knew andd relished, atmosphere and language are authentic, his gusto is immense, and he achieves, almost flawlessly, that which he sets out to do. Recognising that ‘toughness’ and sentimentality move closely together, he carefully invests his descriptive passages with violence; to avaoid monotony of theme he introduces short-story plots. Mr Kersh has a large audience, with whom immediate impact, accurate reporting and conventional sentiment probably cound for more that profundity or literary style. He knows his audience and is demonstrable a master at applying its demands. Here he uses his position to launch attacks, more emotional than logical, on those with whom he does not agree. This is regrettable because, as his pre-war books, Night And The City, Men Are So Ardent and I Got References demonstrated, Mr Kersh’s rôle is that of the story-teller, not of the rhetorician.
Sad Road To The Sea
G A Sheldon, Birmingham Post, July 24 1947.
(Reviewed with Graham Greene’s Nineteen Stories) The darker aspects of life fascinate both Mr Greene and Mr Kersh, whose stories probe into ugly recesses of human experience. Mr Greene’s are the more urbane, accomplished and significant. There is a quiet, rather dreadful efficiency about his exploration into the minds of terror-stricken children; and with a cool relentlessness he stalks the spirit of evil, incarnate in many strange characters from Paris to Mexico, and from the Edgware Road to the African bush. Mr Kersh more brutally ranges the world and the ages in search of the ironic, the macabre, the gruesome and the fantastic. Some of his thirty-five tales are merely grim anecdotes, but he is capable of realising imaginatively a sense of horror and describing it with terse vigour.
Prelude To A Certain Midnight
N.E., Liverpool Post & Mercury, September 12 1947
Murder Most Foul - Gerald Kersh has long since established himself in wide public favour with books like They Die With Their Boots Clean, and there will certainly be a ready call for his latest novel Prelude To A Certain Midnight (Heinemann, 8s 6d). But whetherit will enhance his popularity to any extent is open to question.
It is, in fact, a remarkable essay in the sordid things in life, with a most ingeniously-devised chain of events depending on the search for the person responsible for the grim sex-murder of a ten-years-old girl. With few exceptions, the characters are queer eccentrics, like Asta Thundersley, a female dragon of masculine appearance who ‘for a kicked puppy would drag the Home Secretary out of his bath’, and who in fact takes it on herself to lead the search for the murderer.
The author’s imaginative intensity is well in evidence in this strange tale. One sometimes feels, indeed, that he has difficulty in suppressing it. His characterisation and description are occasionally almost extravagently brutal in their impact. There is, for instance, a degenerated beauty whose eyes have become like ‘a couple of cockroaches desperately swimming in two saucers of boiled rhubarb.’ The springs come out of the divan ‘like the entrails of a disembowelled horse.’
There is a nightmare quality about this strange book and a curious unreality about many of its characters. In regard to certain of them, some readers may well share the wish which the author sets down for ‘a good high wind’ to blow their kind from what he calls ‘the fly-blown face of the exhausted earth.’ They amy wish, to, for a theme more worthy of a highly talented writer.
The Song Of The Flea
Times Literary Supplement, August 7 1948.
Mr Kersh is at once the delight and despair of his admirers. He is their delight because he is one of the comparatively few living novelists in this country who write with energy and originality and whose ideas are not drawn from a residumm of novels that have been written before: he is their despair because the lack of restraint which makes him such a welcome relief in one direction leads him to all sorts of imperfection in another. We suspect him of writing too fast; though rate of production is, naturally, a matter that a writer can only decide for himself.
The Song Of The Flea is a better book than Prelude To A Certain Midnight, but perhaps not so complete a success as Night And The City. Somewhat ressembling the latter, some of the characters of which appear once more - notably Mr Harry Fabian - it is the story of John Pym, a young man trying to earn his living as a writer: and not make much of a business of it.
In outlining Mr Pym’s character, Mr Kersh seems at moments to have found himself unable to decide whether to praise or blame: and the series of incidents in which Mr Pym’s artless good nature is demonstrated sometimes border not merely on the romantic but on the implausible. They are, however, evidently intended to show, as the book develops, that if people are soft-hearted in this world they often do more harm than good; and, in establishing this thesis, Mr Kersh draws on his picturesque and convincing knowledge of human vileness in a manner which is both entertaining and instructive.
The book opens with Pym at the end of his tether in Busto’s horrible lodging house. Little by little he betters his position by various lucky strokes - though all the time handicapped by his refusal to recognise the worthlessness of girls like Win or men like Rocky Gagan. In the background - from Pym’s point of view, uncomfortably close in the background - are the pimps and gangsters of Nightt And The City.
Mr Kersh is like an enormously high-spirited and sardonic Gissing - if such a thing can be imagined. He revels in squalor and failure in all shapes. His weakness is that he fails to convince us that Pym himself is a competent writer, far less a potentially brilliant novelist. But his unsentimentalised underworld has about it all the ring of truth; and in his way Mr Harry Fabian, in his yellow shoes and powder-blue double-breasted suit, steps from the book into the world of reality. Proudfoot’s madness is also excellently done. The scene is set before the outbreak of war, and we may be permitted to wonder whether some of the writing of The Song Of The Flea dates back to that period. If Mr Kersh could get a little further away from his heroes, he might write something outstandingly good. He has a remarkable talent.
Clock Without Hands
Pamela Hansford Johnson, Daily Telegraph, May 13 1949.
Battering The Emotions - Clock Without Hands is the first title of three short, rough novels, hard-hitting, battering the simpler human emotions without compunction. Kersh could not care less what anyone saidd about him. ‘Call me vulgar if you like’ he seems to imply,’I got you crying your eyes out, didn’t I?’ And indeed, his frontal assaults upon the tear-ducts are seldom ineffectual.
The first story concerns a wretched little man who has murdered, and is bitterly resentful because police and public attribute the crime to somebody else. He has longed all his life for the limelight. When it is denied him he tries to become a Jack The Ripper, but fails even in this through sheerr inefficiency. ‘Flight To The World’s End’ sketches the miserable life of an orphan boy and his betrayal, by an artistic household all sympathy and principles, but no heart. It is a little false - everything and everybody have been made just a little worse than they would in fact have been, and plausibility suffers. All the same, Mr Kersh has set out to wring the withers, and he has wrung mine. The third story is a contrived piece of nonsense about a cruel joke which proves a blessing, and is the least successful.
Mr Kersh tells a story; as such, rather better than anybody else. Point and pith are all-important to him, and though he may reject the literary graces, I feel that a greater emphasis on point might improve some of our more graceful writers.
The Thousand Deaths Of Mr Small
Phyllis Bentley, Yorkshire Post, June 29 1951.
The Cad As Hero - I wish the fashion in heroes would change; I am tired of the cad and neurotic and long for the triumph of the good straightforward man. The four novels on my list this weak unfortunately all offer unlikely protagonists. ...
In spite of this personal prejudice, however, I think that The Thousand Deaths Of Mr Small is the best novel that Mr Gerald Kersh has yet written. It has a greater depth and a warmer humanity than he has shown before.
The title comes, of course, from Shakespeare’s ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths, The valient never taste of death but once.’ Charles Small, successful advertising expert and miserable man, turns over in his mind the ‘stinking, sour, stagnant, untransmitted mass’ which is his life. The story is not told chronologically, and from time to time we revert to the middle-aged failure rolling on the bed which his cowardice has so unwillingly and inevitably made for himself.
Life With Father - All these present-day interludes are marked by an almost unbearable bitterness towards Charlie’s parents, whom he blames for his defeats: Ysrael Schmulowitz (anglice I. Small) and his wife Millie. Towards Millie and the mother-son relationship especially, Charles Small is horribly cruel, and the earlier incidents of his life are narrated with the same crude resentment.
But as the story moves on Charleies seems to learn compassion, and we soon grow to love poor silly old I Small, so well-meaning, so hopelessly ineffective, and to understand why that ruthless hunchback, Solly Schwarz is always ready to help him. Schwar’s rise to power, though lurid enough, is told at too great length, alloted too much space, for artistic unity. But for all its unevenness of tone and pattern, this book has a rich warm quality; long and full of detail, it teems with humour, satire, incident, character; in a word, with life.
Times Literary Supplement, July 4 1952.
Mr Gerald Kersh established a considerable reputation for himself, both as a chronicler of disreputable life in the purlieus of Shaftsbury Avenue and also of lively scenes, usually close-ups, of the Brigade of Guards during the war. Amusing, violent, sentimental, he has a style of his own, but in this present volume of short stories it is clear that he is exploring new fields; not perhaps always with complete success. The longest story in this book, a conte taking up more than a hundred pages, describes the adventures of Major Ratapoil, French half-pay officer, during the episode of an attempted coup d’etat against Bonaparte. The manner is close to that of Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard, and it is possibly a pity that Mr Kersh, in attempting this particular type of narrative - for which his talent might well suit him - should have chosen a period and setting that inevitably recall the work of so first-class a performer in that genre. It seems that Mr Kersh is searching for a new ‘popular’ method of approach. This is reasonable, because he is essentially a ‘popular’ writer. Here, however, he does not seem quite as much at ease as is usual in his work.
The Great Wash
Julian Maclaren-Ross, Sunday Times, January 18 1953
‘The best talker is the one who believes wholeheartedly in his show, because belief begets belief.’ The sentence from The Great Wash, though referring to fairground barkers, could partly be applied to its author, for Gerald Kersh is a literary spieler of abundant energy, who sees the world as a vast circus cramful of entertaining oddities, glittering sideshows, burlesques of blood and sawdust - though even his persuasive talents and vivid, pictorial phrasing cannot make us believe in the novel under review.
With the tragi-comic figure of Monty Cello, the Chicago gunman so sadly adrift in London and Sussex, he seems about to equal his best form; then Monty dies falling down a well in an effort to escape his enemies, and the book becomes an extravaganza which no amount of fertile invention and forceful style can lift above the level of Bulldog Drummond and the science-fiction magazine. This involves a conspiracy to subjugate mankind after three-quarters of the population has been engulfed in atomically-caused inundation, a catastrophe, we are told, which impends anyway in five hundred years’ time. The sinister Sciocrats are, however, thwarted eventually by the narrator and his newspaperman friend George Oaks, a non-stop talker with an encyclopedic memory and a habit, which he shares with his creator, of imparting miscellaneous though fascinating information to the reader. Mr Kersh’s many admirers will undoubtedly devour this highly flavoured hotch-potch with avidity, though a friendly critic must deplore the choice of such ingredients by an author of this capacity.
The Brighton Monster & Other Stories
Times Literary Supplement, September 25 1953.
Both the strength and the weakness of Mr Gerald Kersh’s stories in The Brighton Monster are indicated by the opening sentence: ‘I wish that Sir Norton Mannering had done what I wanted him to do when I asked him to say nothing about the affair of the Message that came to him at twenty-five minutes past four o’clock in the morning of September 1, 1947, when he was playing with what he called his ‘toys’ in his house near Guildford.’
It is such a sentence as H G Wells might have written, and it leads on to a story of Wellsian ingenuity: yet at second reading the sentence is not quite Wellsian, there is an element almost of farce in the Message and even in the name of Sir Norton Mannering, which is destructive of the effect Mr Kersh intends. Every one of the twelve stories in this collection shows a fertile imagination and an ingenious mind at work: almost every one is in some degree spoiled by descentt into vulgar farce. Thus a well-told story about Leonardo da Vinci ends with the revelation that the Mona Lisa’s tight-lipped ambiguous smile had its origin in the fact that she had bad teeth. Only in the title-stroy and in a truly horrible anecdote called ‘The Queen Of Pig Island’ does Mr Kersh show something like the full reach of his talents.
Guttersnipe: Little Novels
Naomi Lewis, Observer, April 25 1954.
In Guttersnipe Mr Gerald Kersh seems rather to have taken the Ancient Mariner as his model, only without the poetry, and in shorter sketches. If he never convinces us that he has actually been on the voyage, he does not feel, we feel, that it greatly matters. He is an enormously prolific writer with a light-hearted belief, one suspects, that energy and luck rather than design will carry him through to the story’s end. In a way, they do. But like so many writers with this kind of ability he falls back more and more on horror and grotesquery to cover the thin places. One might be walking through Mr Jarley’s waxworks.
For out of the gallery of monstrousities and prodigies not a single figure comes to life - except perhaps the amusing Pifferai, the Musician’s Agent, who relates a number of the stories. But as an old hand in the genre Mr Kersh should know better than to describe his pieces - however long they go on - as ‘Little Novels.’
Men Without Bones
John Metcalf, Sunday Times, December 18 1955
Just why is Mr Kersh such an infuriating writer? The answer can partly be found in his new volume of short stories; but it’s what isn’t in the book as much as what is that makes for irritation. Because we all remember the thrusting vitality of They Die With Their Boots Clean; we have all been charmed or surprised or shocked at one time or another since then byb Mr Kersh’s energy and expertness; but with each book there has been less of the writer whose promise we hallooed and more of the casually professional huckster of trinkets and tricks. In one of the better stories in the present volume Mr Kersh goes as far as to declaim:
‘...the greatest composer of stories is life itself, and the greatest teller of stories is a man who clings faithfully to life as it is lived. The most ingenious and tortuous brilliance of a man can never equal the overwhelming creative combinations of the living moment.’
Men Without Bones is a mixture of ‘ingenuous and torutuous brilliance’ and slapdash slickness; its pages are crowded with a nightmare jumble of characters; Shakespeare (twice), Ben Jonson, Stradivari, Siamese twins, hangmen, circus freaks, Martians, Leonardi, ghosts, Good King Wenceslas - these are the livening injections that Mr Kersh seems now to need.
In a few stories the old quick flare of vitality can still be felt; but basicallyy they’re dead clay that for all Mr Kersh’s would-be animatory huffing and puffing just refuse to get up and walk. For Men Without Bones is nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘living moment’ that it so forthrightly proclaims. And it would seem that after living those ‘overwhelming creative combinations’ that made They Die With Their Boots Clean memorable, Mr Kersh ever since has lacked a focal point of existence. These latest efforts represent his furthest withdrawal so far into fantasy. There was a time when he looked to have the chance of becoming a Kipling or a Huxley: all we have now is a kind of poor man’s Orson Welles of the short story.
Geoffrey Bullough, Birmingham Post, Tues, April 22 1958.
Gerald Kersh ... draws a bold Hogarthian picture of life during the ‘thirties in a seedy London community north of Euston, where his hero, a ferociously ugly fellow with a soft heart, becomes manager (and chucker-out) at a cinema in pre-talkie days whose habitués could give points to the worst-behaved post-war Teddy Boys.
The central figure in Fowler’s End is the proprietor, Sam Yudenow, a creation worthy of Ben Johnson in his sly vitality, cruelty, greed and loquacity. His monlogues, ungrammatical, starred with malapropisms, shamelessly self-revealing, are among the funniest things I have read in a long time: and the hero’s speedy shift from fascination to revulsion it traced with great truth and humour. There is a host of minor characters, the kindly, cynical operator, the pianist (drink her downfall), the Cypriot café proprietor making bombs on his premises, and so on, each involving the manager in some extravagant escapade. This is that rare thing, a fine comic novel.
The Ugly Face Of Love
David Williams, Time And Tide, April 23 1960
Mr Kersh is a skilled professional entertainer, addressing himself very deliberately to an audience. He likes to come on stage with a flourish: ‘Imagine an old white Boston bulldog wearing a pince-nez, a string tie and a portentuous collar: such was Mr Penumbra, the great lawyer, the King Of Fixers.’ This is the opening of one of the stories in his present collection. He flourishes his silk hat at you, strokes the carnation in the lapel of his tailsuit, and throws matey asides at you across the footlights. He is a storyteller in the O.Henry manner, with not all of the master’s trickiness, but making up for the lack with a gift for sustained fantasy and exaggeration which is peculiarly his own. Some of the pieces here are too strenuously high-spirited to be tolerable. He turns his wireless set up too loud and the hiss and crackle of the static quite overcrow the reader’s readiness to listen, but ‘Prohet Without Honour’, ‘Collector’s Piece’ and ‘Ou Est the Corpse de Ma Tante’ - Mr Kersh, as you can see, is quite at home on both sides of the Channel, and indeed on both sides of the Atlantic - are in his best vein.
The Best Of Gerald Kersh
Times Literary Supplement, September 9 1960.
Feverish Country - As good an introduction as any to this selection of Gerald Kersh’s stories are the words of one of his characters: ‘I’m not crazy’, he said, ‘Not actually... a little fever, nothing more. Malaria, dengue fever, jungle fever, rat-bite fever. Feverish country, this...’
It is a feverish country indeed that Mr Kersh’s imagination inhabits. He is fascinated by the grotesque and the bizarre, by the misfits off life, the angry, the down-and-outs and the damned. A girl of eight commits a murder. Some circus freaks are shipwrecked on an island. A chess champion walks in his sleep and destroys the games he has so carefully planned. And there are Siamese twins, onew of whom wants to be helthy, while the other is an alcoholic. In other words, nearly all his characters are lonely or obsessed or freaks or just mad.
As for love - love of life and love of other things - in a remarkable number of these stories love is felt only forr things which are not human. A boy loves a mouse, a rapacious landlord loves a fleabitten old mongrel, and most characteristic of all a shipwrecked sailor - there is that theme again - loves a cockroach. ‘Friends’, he said...
‘Friends are for cowards. You have friends because you are afraid to be alone. You value your friends because they are a kind of mirror in which you see reflected the best-looking aspects of yourself. Friends!’
But a little later he says: ‘But when I saw that my cockroach was gone, then, for the first time in my life, I felt lonely.’
It is Mr Kersh’s strength as well as his weakness that he is a story-teller of an almost vanished kind - though the proper description is perhaps a teller of ‘rattling good yarns.’ The trouble is that often the yarns do not so much rattle as creak, or expose elements of contrivance which are, to say the least, meretricious. Mayakovsky could and did make literature out of such an idea as the sailor alone with his cockroach - in his case, with his Russian peasant resurrected into the brave new world of 1984 and understanding and loving only the flea on his body resurrected along with him. Conrad equally could make literature out of the far-travelled filling their pipes and talking into the darkness. But Mr Kersh rarely achieves more than a brisk commercial smartness, a pseudo-toughness along with a pseudo-profundity (‘all peopel are odd’), and written for the most part in pseudo-Hemingwayese.
All these elements in Mr Kersh can best be seen in one of his earlier novels, Night And The City, or even indicated by the title of perhapss his best known work, They Died With Their Boots Clean - neither included here. That second title suggests the element of the historic in his work better than pages of exegesis. However it can at least be admitted that when his publishers claim that The Best Of Gerald Kersh can be ‘read with the greatest of ease’ they are stating the simple truth. That these stories can be forgotten with the greatest of ease - that one dreads to think of The Worst Of Gerald Kersh - well, these are other matters.
The Implacable Hunter
Anthony Burgess, The Yorkshire Post, June 29 1961
Gerald Kersh At His Peak - Too many critics affect to mourn a dead talent in Gerald Kersh, a gift that died with his boots clean; there has been a tendency to ignore or disparage his later work, patronise, sigh, and pretend a nostalgia for the tremendous Nelson.
I can’t see why. I read Fowlers End in darkest Borneo, at a time when it was hard to laugh, and considered it to be one of the best comic novels of the century, with Sam Yudenow as superb a creation (almost) as Falstaff.
Many total and partial rereadings have strengthened this conviction. We may adjudge Mr Kersh, after reading The Implaccable Hunter, To be now at the height of his powers.
Story Of St Paul - This new novel is not without wide boys, swaddies, or East End bug houses; it is the story of the beginning and the end of St Paul, that most complicated and worrying of all the saints. The narrator is Diomed, a colonial officer stationed at Tarsus, enlightened, intelligent, a great fraterniser with the patrician natives.
It is he who, having met Saul or Paulus at a feast given by the shrewd sybaritic magnate Soxias, sends the strange young Jew to persecute the Nazarenes. And it is Diomed who finally, but too late, pleads with Nero for Paul’s life.
No piece of popular hagiography, The Implaccable Hunter does not attempt religious-epic paraphrase of the Acts or the Pauline Epistles. Mr Kersh swings censers and flashes gold at us, bringing a highly concentrated area of Roman colonial history to very real life - the ornate wine-cup, the crapulous cold fruit-juice at dawn, dust on a sandal.
Curious Lore - This is the same lightly carried classical learning as in (yes, we may say it) Robert Graves, the same curious lore (how, for instance, to stone Stephen). Mr Kersh is not a professional poet; he can afford to make his prose richer, more Silver talion, than the chronicles of Claudius and King Jesus.
King Jesus is here, all the time, gnawing at the soul of the orthodox, the fly-itch nuisance to the Empire that wakes its prefects up in nightmare. There are theories of the Ressurrection, of the character of Judas, talk of the Sign of the Fish between dirty poetry and visits to the vomitarium. This is a masterly book, full of live people and a live age, live language, too.
The Terribly Wild Flowers
Arthur Boyars, Daily Telegraph, November 30 1962
It is now, surely, highh time to start calling Gerald Kersh ‘inimitable.’ He needs hardly any words at all to beguile the reader onto that infinitely-ranging time-place machine of his, and its fictional stops are given a kind of factual substance which is often chillingly identical to reality.
Luckily, for his more nervous passengers, he knows his strength. And so his latest collection, The Terribly Wild Flowers, contains only one really frightening tale calculated, this time, to make us tremble at the mere sight of seawater.
Botany, high-finance, tailoring, archaeology - Mr Kersh knows them all and uses them with staggering expertise to make his fantasies stick. But perhaps the greatest, as well as the most amiable, demonstration of his inventive powers in this volume is the one he leaves till the last.
This is the novella-length tale called ‘The Pug And The Angel,’ in which the central figures of William Makepeace Thackeray and Penitence Twatchman, the American impresario, could hardly have been more themselves in their actual mid-19th-century life. Here a stage-struck Cockney colossus of a prize-fighter called Deaf Burke also provides a hero for the best short story Thackeray ever wrote, but Mr Kersh has perfectly repaired the old writer’s omission.
More Than Once Upon A Time
Times Literary Supplement, July 16 1964.
Gerald Kersh is, as they say, a rum one. As far as writing goes, both in material and technique he has stronger affinities with the nineteenth than with the twentieth century, and particularly with Dickens. He has the same fascination with idiosyncratic character-full monologue. His stories range from his own idea, presented in the form of oratio recta by Alexandre Dumas, of the background story of The Count Of Monte Cristo, to a contemporary butler’s tale of impersonation. But although sometimes Mr Kersh drops into the whimsical, his stories have the pace and invention to transscend their sometimes startlingly archaic structure. He offers a simple kind of diversion, but he can tell a story and tell it well.
A Long Cool Day In Hell
Robin Oakley, Liverpool Daily Post, February 10 1965.
Kersh And Cardboard - Mr Kersh has done better. The sardonic wit is still there in this weird story, but the curiously dated characters are cardboard. Jumbo, the wise old newspaper office know-all, ‘bright with the fever-light of the embattled leader-writer’, the shadowy gangsters, the high-class call-girl, the seedy private eye, the shadowy international financier with untold millions: we see them only in glimpses and when we hear them they are apt to be mock-sermonising: ‘God save us from your wormy generation of slack-mouthed finger sniffers that hates the True and Beautiful.’ All are inevitably ready with a slick wisecrack or an appropriate psychological summing-up of the situation.
Lily Star Clarke is an impossibly direct and (naturally) beautiful young reporter whom everybody chooses as a confidente. She is sent on the hopeless assignment of cracking the cover that protects a lonely millionaire from the world. Few have ever even seen him. But our little Snowdrop gets his story, and more into the bargain, in a half-facetious, half-serious rampage, along the journalistic trail.
The story is forced and most of the characters would be more appropriate in a stage musical but there is, as the blurb claims, a nightmarish quality about the whole. As always with Mr Kersh once you start the book you go on till you finish it. And even then you remember it.
The Angel And The Cuckoo
Claire Tomalin, Observer, February 26 1967
...To move from this into Gerald Kersh’s baroque Vistavision is a pretty heady experience. With thunderous Niagara-like charm anecdote crashes on anecdote. Open the book anywhere and heroines like huge goddesses appear, ferociously over-perfumed and sexually endowed so that they cannot walk through a hotel lobby without every man in the place becoming tumescent. For their part, the men glitter with confidence in their fake titles, their crimes worthy of Wilkie Collins, their malice and know-how; there is even a hero of impregnable virtue to carry the story through from Edwardian Soho to Brighton in the Fifties.
The atmosphere of Never-Never land is unchanged from start to finish but it has an undoubtedly bracing effect on the reader, something like the drink offered by one character to another: a double dry gin, a double curacoa, a glass of brandy, a glass of calvados and the juice of two oranges stirred with half a pint of champagne.
Francis King, Sunday Telegraph, October 26 1969
There was a period in the late 30s and early 40s when Gerald Kersh’s stories were provking the same kind of critical enthusiasm as Angus Wilson’s a few years later. Angus Wilson went on to become one of the best-known of living English novelists; Gerald Kersh merely turned into one of those middle-aged writers of whom other middle-aged writers ask: ‘Whatever happened to so-and-so?’
His posthumously published Brock explains both his earlier success and his subsequent failure to consolidate it. A picaresque account of the life of an American crook, it is full of arresting imagery, bizarre characters and pounding creative energy; but a shaping intelligence is sadly absent and the result is a brilliant mess.
Elizabeth Berridge, Daily Telegraph, October 30 1969.
Gerald Kersh died just after he had finished Brock, and it is as if he had decided to give all the extraordinary characters he had put into his short stories a final airing. His writing has always fizzed with petty crooks, wrestlers, tatooed women, tough smoothies, pawky philosphers, and the like, and here they are - or rather their counterparts - in a fast-moving jam-packed novel that moves from America to England and back again.
His hero, if we may call him that, is one George Castashoe Brock, whose inheritance is snatched away by his tricky English mother. George spends some thirty years as a smooth rogue-errant (touched lightly by a Bondish penchant for international deals, super clothes, food, drink and women) before returning home to avenge himself.
Addicts will miss from now on Mr Kersh’s bubbling energy and non-stop inventiveness.
John Whitley, Sunday Times, November 2 1969
It is sad to think that with Brock Gerald Kersh has let the final cat out of the ultimate bag. But this long last novel assembles most of the ingredients of his marvellous edge-of-the-seat short stories under cover of chronicling the feud between Brock himself, smooth scion of ruined family, and crippled Rose Fairchild whose fortunes rose with his family’s fall. The narrative jumps and dives and swerves like a salmon as Brock tells of his childhood cunning, his apprenticeship to Europe’s fixer-in-chief, his prowess as a spy and his final, rather deflating (and perhaps postumously completed?) victory over the redoubtable Rose. Packed with odd information, beautiful characterisation, crackling tension and dark, cynical humour.
Faces In A Dusty Picture
A C Spectorsky, Book Week, February 25 1945.
Faults in this book are a certain self-conscious grimness, an occasional showing of the moving parts of his mechanisms, a tendancy to borrow...and a surprisingly soppy kind of sentiment in unexpected places... Such shortcomings should not lessen the reader’s joy in thios fine story. If you’ve read and admired A Walk In The Sun, this British counterpart is your meat. It’s a more ambitious book, a longer one, a less monochromatic one, and I think it comes off equally well. The fact that it’s about the British in Africa does not, in the slightest, date it.
Carlton Brown, New York Times, February 25 1945
The treads are woven together skillfully enough to form a graphic surface pattern of an admittedly circumscribed segment of this total war. Because books are urgently needed that will give civilians a compelling sense of what warfare is like, it is regrettable that the pattern of this one is without depth or perspective. Gerald Kersh, who fought in the Libyan campaign with the Coldstream Guard, evidently has first-hand observation to draw upon, but in transforming it into art he suffers from a tendency to strain for startling metaphor...and to tie large experiences into such a neat little package.
Sergeant Nelson Of The Guards
Time, April 16 1945
Sergeant Nelson Of The Guards is part fact, part fiction; part Coldstream history, part rag-chewing. It is also the most blood-&-thunder, swashbuckling, super-patriotic book of World War II; an American equivelent might be a history of the US Marine Corps written by General George S Patton, Margaret Mitchell and Fred Allen.
Ray McPartlin, Boston Globe, April 18 1945
It is all soldier talk - 317 pages of it - always hard, sometimes eloquent, infrequently pathetic, occasionally funny. Much of it, but for the local turns of phrase, would seem familar in an American barracks or foxhole or wherever American fighting men find themselves. It’s the record of a world ruled by non-coms, and by them strictly according to rank and seniority... A novel by courtesy... the book is faintly reminiscent of Kipling, more mindful of Thomason’s Marine stories and Nason’s cavalry tales. Women readers probably won’t have the faintest notion of its charm.
Kenneth Fearing, New York Times, April 29 1945 pc
The childhood that Mr Kersh pieces together is horrible and haunting; added to the background of other Coldstream Guardsmen, the whole is a grim and uncompromising social indictment. A further measure of the book - which tells only of life in the training camps - is its humor. The argot is strange, but it is so natural and pungent that after a few pages an American reader has an intuitive understanding of it. In short, the humour, and the book itself, are much more Yank than Punch... It is a truly fine novel, it is good reading and it is sound information.
Night And The City
G W Hill, Library Journal, March 15 1946
This novel of the London underworld has something of the realism of a Hogarth picture and the satire of a Swift. Pimps, prostitutes, panderers, petty crooks and odd characters move about in low joints and night clubs, fleecing and being fleeced by each other. Good study of the types, but the almost unrelieveded sordidness of the background will make the book a questionable purchase for many libraries.
Russell Maloney, New York Times, April 7 1946
The city of Mr Kersh’s title is pre-war London, and the people of his story are the sorry little people who make up the underworld of a big city - prostitutes, pimps, waiters and bartenders in clip-joints, gamblers, promoters, peddlers and night-club hostesses. It is certainly the best novel of this kind since John T McIntyre’s magnificent Steps Going Down, which was about the underworld of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, London, or New York, however, the underworld is the underworld.
The Weak And The Strong
Theodore Pratt, New York Times, October 27 1946
The bare story situation is more exciting than the actual telling. The characters are pretty much stock, slick magazine jobs with little of the breath of life in them. When Mr Kersh takes us off his mythical island and tells us of the naturalist’s experience with a native tribe, it becomes forr that section an enjoyable and interesting tale. But he has not on the whole realised the possibilities of the usually reliable device of a conglomerate group of people suddenly isolated and threatened with death - and the total result, even as a slick job, is disappointing.
Time, November 4 1946
Author Kersh - who worked as baker, bouncer, wrestler and Coldstream Guardsman before he became known as a novelist - is at his lively best when he is wallowing in gore, at his worst when he tries to raise the level of his thriller by expatiating on Man, Life and The Eternal. Those who believe... that Author Kersh is ‘one of England’s foremost writers,’ or even those who considered him a man after Hemingway’s heart, will find their faith severely shaken by The Weak And The Strong.
Robert Pitkin, Saturday Review, December 7 1946
Mr Kersh’s Faces In A Dusty Picture belongs to the very first rank of World War II writing. In this country his novel Night And The City has won him a considerable reputation. Admirers of his talent had a right to expect even greater efforts. His present book will come as a shocking disappointment to them. It is not only a failure, but its plan and what becomes visible of its design are so much below the level of the author’s earlier accomplishments that this reviewer for one is still wondering whether the whole affair is not intended as a satire on pseudo-philosophical sentimental fiction writing.
Prelude To A Certain Midnight
Stephen Stepanchev, New York Herald Tribune, May 25 1947
The novel is wholly successful in it’s integration of meaning, story and character. The Kersh cosmos and and the people who inhabit it carry his insights easily, without forcing. There is a curious relevance even in the mingling of Bohemian and criminal elements, for in Kersh’s view both are Nietzschean rebels, obsessed by a wish for freedom and power. The book is unquestionably good reading. In style it is pleasantly informal, as if the author were writing a letter to the reader, and its phrasing is quick and perceptive. No one who ventures on Prelude To A Certain Midnight is likely to put it down in a hurry.
Saturday Review Of Literature, May 31 1947
This novel is worth while for the not unpleasant tingling it will produce along the reader’s backbone, though it will not be conducive to pleasant walks in a city park at night. For the author of Faces In A Dusty Picture, a remarkable first novel, it is a minor work. The plot itself is a contrivance and, in spite of the vividness with which he presents his characters, it seems incredible that so many dubious and frightening people could be assembled together under one roof. Harrison Smith,
Russell Maloney, New York Times, June 8 1947
Kersh is not a writer to be recommended to everyone without reservations. If you like him you like him very much, and his nuisance value to those who don’t like him is correspondingly great. Everyone must agree that he is unique. If, in each of his books, he occasionally falls into a fit of moralizing, while he keeps the reader anxiously awaiting the next happening in his story, that is something we’ll just have to learn to put up with.
The Song Of The Flea
Marc Brandel, New York Times, April 25 1948
Beneath his talented lightness and fantasy Gerald Kersh is a serious man. Like Graham Greene, he has a personal philosophy, an axe to grind, however charmingly. Which each one of his books, that philosophy has grown clearer, more easily perceived. Despite his English regard for fair play, his occasional priggishness, Mr Kersh is a passionate, if half ashamed, Nietzschean, who worships strength and despises weakness. And no matter how well he writes, he cannot keep the essential contempt for ordinary people and their frailties, implicit in that philosophy, out of his books.
Thomas Sugrue, New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, May 9 1948
The Song Of The Flea is not a satire, but a realistic novel which grins and jokes as it tells its grisly tale, pretending, for its own poor solace that misery and heartache and starvation and loneliness are very funny things. It will tie a stone around the heart of a reader and sink it in a well.
Thousand Deaths Of Mr Small
Richard Match, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 8 1950
Mr Kersh does indeed ride his horse into the ground long before the last page, but on the way he puts on a performance that is both intemperate and a little terrifying. It see-saws from side-splitting dialogue to such catalogues of loathing and revulsion as have rarely been seen in print, from outrageous farce to sudden compassion for the Smalls of this world, who find Hell enough in ‘thee eternal contemplation of themselves as they made themselves.’
W R Burnett, Saturday Review Of Literature, September 16 1950
Gerald Kersh is a powerful but extremely uneven writer. He is capable of projecting scenes, both comic and tragic, of first-rate intensity and reality; and on the next page he will bore you to exasperation with the mooncalf maunderings of his hero. It takes patience to read this book to the end, but your patience will be rewarded... A Writer who at this point in time is able to create a character capable of standing on its own feet beside Wilkins Micawber can be allowed a few faults.
C H Weiss, Commonweal, September 29 1950
As in Philip Wylie’s Momism there is a disturbing quality in this muckraking of the venerated institution of the family. All of us can remember distressing incidents when we, like Charles, were secretly ashamed of ourselves and our parents. But the indictment here is too grimly savage... But nothing can gainsay Mr Kersh’s superb technical skill. He has exquisitely impaled the genteel horror of the Smalls... With brilliant descriptive power and an emetic vocabulary, he has produced a tormented and forceful work.
The Secret Masters
Basil Davenport, New York Times, July 19 1953
Mr Kersh has the ability that seems to belong to especially to a few English novelists - the ability to create a world which is not realistic and which is yet entrirely credible and convincing on its own fantastic terms. The Secret Masters is sometimes funny, sometimes nightmarish, always first-class entertainment.
H H Holmes, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 30 1953
The relatively quiet but incisive and suspenseful opening portions of the books are first-rate Kersh, richly peopled with the odd bit roles he sketches so well and written with style and individuality. The large scale melodrama which develops later is as banal and dated as it is overwritten and incredible
Groff Conklin, GALAXY, December 1953.
When an expert Britisher starts out to write a suspense novel and give it everything he’s got, he’s hard to surpass. Gerald Kersh is definitely one of the British experts. THE SECRET MASTERS, a suspense novel with science fiction aspects, provides one of Kersh’s most continuously thrilling narratives and along with it a set of characters so three dimensional and individual that they seem to be living portraits.
The story is not quite so convincing as the characters nor as effective as the style in which it is written. It concerns itself with the uncovering of an international plot by the most powerful men in the world to destroy five-sixths of the human race by means of a fantastic new type of atomic bomb and to use most of the remaining people in a ‘sciocratic’ slavocracy.
The story gradually collapses in a morass of unresolved and unfinished business in the last few chapters. But don’t let this defect hinder you from reading the book. It is still, on the whole, a first rate science fiction goose pimpler.
P Schuyler Miller, Asounding Science Fiction, January 1954.
Time was when this ‘save the world’ theme was much more popular in the borderland between science fiction and detection than it has been lately. All the detective story masters tried it from time to time and men like Sax Rohmer became identified with it.
The plot is usually the same; a master criminal and/or an organisation of would-be world masters hit upon or steal some scientific secret which will enable them to get the world in a nutcracker. Our hero or heroes must find the hiding place of the conspirators, regain or destroy the invention, and save the world.
This is what happens when George Oaks, journalist, and Albert Kemp, writer of occasional science fiction, mistakenly pick up the nervous American gunman, Monty Cello and find that he is terrified of one of their own betes noir, Major Chatterton of the organisation known as the Sciocrats. And Monty has been hired to track down a mad scientist, escaped from Chatterton’s mysterious stronghold in the Gaspe, and has made the serious mistake of taking off with the man’s mysterious papers...
Presently Monty is dead in the bottom of a well, George and Albert are kidnapped, three degrees of torture are mentioned lovingly... well, it’s all according to formula. Personally I’ll take John Buchan or Eric Ambler without fissionable silicon.
Roger Pippett, New York Times, May 26 1957
The veteran Mr Kersh (this is his twenty-third book) is still too exuberant to know when he is repeating himself or when he is writing under a coprophilic compulsion (which happens too often in these pages). But strong-stomached readers will be rewarded with many a shrewd insight into Cockney mentality if they follow the author in his exploration of the blind alleys and dust heaps of Fowlers End.
Time, June 3 1957
Just as products containing poison are required to carry a warning label, this book should be wrapped in a band warning the weak of stomach that the characters, language, incidents and atmosphere are apt to induce acute nausea. Yet for those who can take it, the book provides the grisly fascination which clings to any dissection of rottenness.
Martin Levin, Saturday Review, June 29 1957
Mr Kersh diagrams Leverock’s adventures with great relish and with an infectious delight in the complete gaminess of the landscape. Though the author is sometimes so carried away by the sound of cockney that he overindulges in dialectal monologues. Fowler’s End is a generally entertaining escapade that is fun to read.
On An Odd Note
Floyd C Gale, Galaxy, April 1959.
I have always had a small quarrel with the Ballantine squibs. However, to describe as science fiction this Kersh collection is considerably point-stretching.
A handful of stories touch the outer perimeter of fantasy-science: ‘The Eye’ a transplant story such as underwent multiple jeopardy during Hollywood’s ‘Karloff Period’ but in Kersh’s treatment head, shoulders, knees and ankles above its ilk; ‘Frozen Beauty’, concerning a resuscitated Siberian Ice Age female; the time-warp effect of the Hiroshima bomb in the ‘Brighton Monster’ - these qualify, but the remaining ten do not. Good fiction, yes. Science fiction, no.
Kersh is a phrase-turner of prime distinction; ‘To die, that’s nothing. It’s easier to die than to live, once you’ve got the hang of it.’
If off-trail, well-written fantasy is your dish, here’s a tureen of it.
Men Without Bones
New York Times
Mr Kersh has the ability...to create a world which is not realistic and which is yet entirely credible and convincing on its own fantastic terms.
Beneath his talented lightness and fantasy, Gerald Kersh is a serious man...
Kersh has a strange, perverted sort of genius. And how he can write.
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