Wednesday 1 September 2021

Kersh in Tarsus

 Gerald Kersh could justifiably be classified as a forgotten writer – too forgotten even to make it into Christopher Fowler's Book of Forgotten Authors – but in fact Kersh has a small cult following, mostly on the strength of his novels of London low life, and a few of his many titles have been reissued in recent years. As well as these low-life tales, Kersh, like many a hack writer of his day, could turn his hand to virtually any genre, and had an early success with the twice-filmed thriller Night and the City. He led a rackety life – one that gave him much material for his fiction – and the classic combination of drink, women and unpaid income tax ensured that he had to keep on churning out the stories and novels just to stay afloat. 
  My father enjoyed his books, and the paperback library that was housed in the lavatory of my boyhood home contained several of Kersh's titles, all of which I eagerly read, despite being too young and inexperienced to appreciate them. I have forgotten almost all, but one – an untypical historical novel called The Implacable Hunter – did leave some impression, and the other day I decided I might seek it out and reread it. Happily I found a reasonably priced copy (it's long out of print) and am reading it now. It comes highly praised by Anthony Burgess (not necessarily a recommendation) – 'This is a masterly book, full of live people and a live age, live language too...'  It tells the story of Paulus (Saint Paul to be) and how he was sent to persecute the Nazarenes (Christians). The narrator is one Diomed, a Roman colonial officer in Tarsus, keeping the peace as best he can, fraternising with the more patrician of the natives and enjoying their hospitality and conversation. He is educated, urbane, borderline cynical, and an adroit diplomat – as he has to be in a community as divided and easily inflamed as first-century Tarsus. 
  The story is told in the first person, and almost entirely in dialogue, so there is little or none of the scene-setting, exposition and local colour that mar so many historical novels; we experience Diomed's world from the inside. This makes for an exhilarating read, and so far I am enjoying it greatly: this does seem like a novel that should be much better known. And, as Burgess says, it is written in 'live language', robust and colourful, with nothing mealy-mouthed or self-consciously 'historical' about it. At one point a friend of Diomed's describes being present at the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he gives a decidedly prosaic, unimpressed account. Summing up, he concludes 
'And there is all I can tell you about the individual who influenced history to this extent – that now, hundreds of miles away, an orthodox Jew spits in the beard of an unorthodox one for kindling fire to cook his porridge on the Jewish sabbath; whereupon, in the name of Peace, the dissenter throws boiling porridge into the orthodox one's face; and Diomed, coming with soldiers to keep the Peace of Rome, is hit in the eye with a rotten fig hurled by a child still raw from his circumcision. And somebody sends a report to Rome. (a) Diomed is keeping the peace. (b) Diomed is persecuting the Jews.'
And here is an equally robust passage, narrated by Diomed, describing his visit to the house of a Jewish money lender:
'He was one of the sackcloth-and-ashes school, and when he saw the glint of the sunlight on Sergius's armour, and caught sight of me, he fell into the irritatingly equivocal attitude of body and expression of face which says at the same time "That's right – murder me because I am a Jew! But why do you want to murder me just because I am a Jew? It is a Jew's honour and privilege to be murdered because he is a Jew. I shall be delighted to be murdered because I am a Jew, this being part of my proud heritage. But why should a fine young fellow like you want to risk the wrath of the Almighty by murdering an abject old wretch like me, just because I am a Jew? Murder me by all means, but first let us talk things over..."'
   Kersh was himself Jewish, and his first novel, Jews without Jehovah, was based on his own impoverished early years – indeed based rather too closely, as it had to be quickly withdrawn when members of his own family threatened to sue for libel. Not the most auspicious beginning for a literary career – but four years later came Night and the City, and Kersh was launched.  

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