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The same quality that makes Russian novels so distinctive in world literature can also transform even sensitive Anglophone readers into the boy at the back of English class who keeps asking why Hamlet doesn’t just make up his mind already. It comes down to a certain implausibility in the characters. They tend to oscillate between Dostoevskyan melodrama and inexplicable Chekhovian paralysis, both of which are frustrating to Anglo-Saxon readers for whom pragmatism and emotional continence rank among the four cardinal virtues. I confess that I have sometimes fantasized about jumping through the page and giving Ivan and Nikolai and Mitya and Katya a good shake. So has Woody Allen , if you remember Love and Death .

This frustration is shared by the narrator of Futility , William Gerhardie’s 1922 novel about a very Russian family and their very Russian problems. Our level-headed, kind-hearted English protagonist tries very hard to make the Bursanovs behave sensibly. It would be hard to say which side ends up looking more absurd, the Russian archetypes or the English meddler, which makes the book, among other things, an interesting act of literary criticism from a British novelist. It is also extremely funny—as funny as anything Evelyn Waugh ever wrote, by Waugh’s own admission. He said of Gerhardie, “I have talent, but he has genius.”

Our narrator, probably named Andrew but called “Andrei Andreiech” by everyone, first becomes involved with the Bursanovs when he falls in love with the middle daughter, Nina, while living in St. Petersburg. This quickly entangles him in her complicated family. Patriarch Nikolai is juggling three different women: his wife Magda, the girls’ mother, who lives in Moscow and whom he would like to divorce but doesn’t; his common-law wife Fanny, who would like to marry him legally but can’t; and passionate teenager Zina, whom he would prefer to marry but would be content to have just as a mistress. At the periphery of the family circle are such familiar-seeming characters as Baron Wunderhausen, the dashing German aristocrat who wants to marry the eldest Bursanov daughter, and little Zina’s Uncle Kostia, who is reputed to be a philosopher but never actually publishes anything. None of these people has any money. Everyone lives on hand-outs from patriarch Nikolai, who himself is only borrowing against a far-off Siberian gold mine that he fervently hopes will one day produce gold.

Andrei can’t marry Nina until all this gets sorted out, so during one particularly agonizing night he decides to take action:

I switched on the light over my writing-table and began to write. I wrote down their names in two columns. Then I perceived that the two columns did not serve my purpose; so I drew arrows and circles round the names and endeavored to arrange them in sets and groups according to my own ideas as to how they should be mated. I began by mating Nina with myself. This was easy enough: it was obvious. I consented to make Baron Wunderhausen a present of Sonia . . . . Nikolai must be prevailed upon to marry Fanny. This step would do much to relieve the tension and prevent bad blood between the two. It would secure Fanny’s prestige in her own eyes and would consolidate her position in regard to her relatives in Germany. Now, Fanny having been granted this very liberal concession, which after all was nothing short of her one real great ambition in life, she on her part should not be allowed to impede Zina’s passionate desire to live with Nikolai: a gratification, as a matter of fact, demanded by the overpowering love of two human beings; and Zina, who had always been prepared for anything from suicide upward, would not begrudge Fanny the formal and somewhat hollow superiority of wedlock.

He proceeds from romantic arrangements to financial ones (“Uncle Kostia’s manuscripts would have to be examined, and possibly some of his deeper thoughts might be published with advantage”), and then lifts his head from his work with everyone’s fate adequately sorted. “I felt as President Wilson must have felt years later when he was laying down the principles of a future League of Nations.”

His plan doesn’t work. Apparently the idea of progress, even on such a small scale, is antithetical to the Slavic mind, and Andrei is almost relieved when the Bolshevik Revolution intrudes halfway through the novel and the British government dispatches him east to assist the counterrevolution. The British army officers he meets out there are frankly as ineffectual as the Bursanovs, though in a different way. (This is probably the section that resonated with Evelyn Waugh.) At one point a messenger bursts into British headquarters to warn of enemy fire approaching, only to find the naval commander “writing to a Czech colonel of his acquaintance to apologize for misspelling the colonel’s name in a recent letter.” This same officer, when briefed on the Bursanov saga, “looked as if he thought it was a case of damned bad staff work.”

In all of Andrei’s periodic dealings with the Bursanov family, he tries desperately to bring matters to a head, or at least get a straight answer from Nina on his proposal of marriage. But by the end—without giving too much away—he comes around to their fatalistic view of things. “When you have made up your mind what you want, you might as well, for the difference it makes to you, have never had a mind to make up. For the consequences have a way of getting out of hand and laying out the motives indiscriminately. And you with your intent and will seem rather in the way.”

I referred to Gerhardie as a British novelist, but he was born in St. Petersburg and lived there until he was 18, and he spoke with a Russian accent all his life. Growing up an Englishman in St. Petersburg, he must have had a keen sense of how ridiculous British mores seem to Russians, and as a member of the London literary set of the Twenties, he would have learned how ridiculous Russians seem to the British. He seems to have concluded from this that life is absurd wherever you are, which may be why Futility , for all its satirical flourishes, takes a forgiving attitude to Russian absurdity. Life may be an inept play, Andrei suggests, but in the exaggerated world of the Russian sensibility, “our life was an inept play with some disproportionately good acting in it.”

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