This book was very kindly sent to me by Melville House while I was ill with a lingering flu (back in February, I think?) and though I tore through it, it’s taken me ages to get round to reviewing it – essay commitments, revisions, trips to mysterious mansion houses and parklands, you know how it goes.
The Polyglots is the story of an international family stranded in the far east in the wake of the First World War, as told by the rakishly egocentric narrator, an Anglo-Russian young man, born in Japan and saddled with the unlikely name of Georges Diabologh. That’s right, a French first name and a hybrid Swedish-Scottish-Italian surname (you can slightly lose track).
Georges, recently back from the trenches, adjusts to life living with his Belgian aunt and uncle, who are in reduced circumstances thanks to the decrease in the Russian side of the family’s fortunes after the revolution. Soon more relatives and needy folks pile into a sequence of small but elegant apartments, though there are too many tragedies and twists for roots to be set down for long.
The novel bursts at the seams with lively and read-out-loud-to-the-nearest-listener moments as well as some deeply moving moments:
Our spacious pessimism, what is it? The squeal of a puppy. Life hurts, and then the night is starless, the world a desolating void where the wind groans and mutters and complains in our echo. But we go on, amazed, a little puzzled, inert, day-dreaming and unquestioning.
Taken out of context this and other diversions into the human condition might seem fatalistic, but are in fact, almost immediately called into question by a sudden swing into a comedic situation in a brothel, or by the tenderness of the very small children constantly getting underfoot.
The Polyglots seems so true amongst the farce perhaps because it was drawn from the experiences of the author. Gerhardie was an Anglo-Russian, and the novel, first published in 1925, was written with an eye to that time of turmoil in which it is set. If it is occasionally a bit loose at the seams, I was willing to forgive. Georges – who, despite being in love with his teenaged cousin and being a rather mansplaining, psuedo-philosophising cockscomb, has been deeply affected by the war, and now seeks to find genuine meaning in life. For the most part, he finds meaning in the multilingual people around him. Flawed, ridiculous, chaotic, sweet, indefatigable. Just like The Polyglots itself.