Gerald Kersh: The Angel And The Cuckoo – Paul Duncan


Hi, I’m Paul Duncan. I write and edit books
and I love the novelist Gerald Kersh and I want to share that love, that passion with
you today. On October 9, 1963, around 5.30 or 6.00am,
Gerald Kersh rose as usual and began the first rough sculpturing of a new novel, tentatively
titled Poor Tom Henceforth, which he hoped and believed would be a major work. He needed it to be a success in America. Though born in London, he had left for America
in 1954 where he was already established as a best-selling author. His last novel to be
published in the U.S. was Fowlers End in 1957. For five years, each of his books had been
rejected by American publishers. The Implacable Hunter, the masterful story
of St. Paul told by the Roman soldier who hunted him down, had been rejected by U.S.
publishers, several citing religious reasons. Kersh planned a series of murder mysteries
starring female reporter Little Snowdrop, the first of which was A Long Cool Day in
Hell – published in the UK, and rejected in America – but it died a death and so
did the series. His biggest blow came with The Dabchick. The
novel revolved around a woman who holds two men in the palm of her hand as they pursue
her. His agent Elizabeth Otis told people it was
a portrait of Kersh’s ex-wife, Lee. That killed the book. On top of this the magazine market, which
supplemented his income between novels, had dried up. Kersh and his third wife Flossie,
in financial peril, had to move further and further from New York, ending up in a shack
in upstate New York. So it was under these circumstances that on
October 9, 1963, somewhere between 5.30 and 6.00am, that Gerald Kersh woke and began the
first draft of Poor Tom Henceforth. The novel is composed of several complex structures,
creating something akin to a prose version of those Russian Dolls that contain multiples
within them. One character reminisces about another, then
this second character takes over to recount stories in differing times and places, at
which time a third character…and so on. Disconcerting at first, seemingly stream of
consciousness, it eventually plays like a jazz piece, revealing its true structure after
several chapters. There are three love stories, all connected
by Steve Zobrany, proprietor of The Angel and the Cuckoo, a café in a courtyard hidden
beyond a doorway at one end of Carnaby Street in Soho, London. Beginning early one morning in 1937 – no
doubt somewhere in between 5:30 to 6:00am – the good-natured Hungarian Zobrany reflects
on how he purchased the café sight unseen in 1911, through his ‘friend’ Gèza Cseh. Cseh wrongs all those he comes into contact
with and profits financially from them, whereas Zobrany trusts and believes in everybody. Thus Cseh’s machinations garner him passage
to pastures new, but Zobrany, cast away in Masham Court, finds Alma, the love of his
life, and best friend John Howgego. So who has profited most from the transaction? Artist Tom Henceforth takes it upon himself
to make a sign for Zobrany’s café. After 24 hours scavenging London and assembling
the pieces, Tom presents Zobrany with the sign. From a certain angle the sign is obscene
and so becomes a local landmark. Cseh and Henceforth take over the story. Cseh
becomes powerful Hollywood film producer Gabrielle Chess and falls for Erabella Moon. Henceforth
frequents the world of crooks, conmen, artists, writers and other forms of lowlife after falling
for Lady Patricia d’Ordinay. The story bounces between these characters,
between different times in their lives, between locations, but always we are drawn back to
Zobrany and Soho. Kersh sent a 558-page manuscript of The Angel
and the Cuckoo to Heinemann on March 27, 1965. Kersh wrote ‘It’s my first novel to be
out in America for 10 years. I feel somewhat as I felt 33 years ago when I first got into
print.’ As the author of 18 novels and hundreds of
short stories, Kersh had developed a stock company of characters and types. Much like
film directors John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, and Pedro Almodóvar, who cast a stock company
to play their screen personas, so Kersh cast his novels with variations from previous works. In this respect, The Angel and the Cuckoo
can be considered a summation of his life’s work, since it features a number of these
characters. The reason for their fecundity in this novel
may lie in the discovery that during the planning and writing of it, Kersh was told that he
had throat cancer. Before the operation that rendered his dumb,
throughout the period of investigation and diagnosis of his cancer, it is not hard to
imagine Kersh reliving and re-imagining his past life in Soho, and the people he knew
and loved there. Kersh’s father Hyman, a master tailor who
died in 1929 when Kersh was just 18, is the basis for Mark Leonoff, a dignified old man
of integrity and character in Kersh’s first novel Jews Without Jehovah. Hyman had known
for two years that he had kidney stones, but kept it from his family and died in tremendous
pain. It is fair to say that Kersh wrote variations of him in most of the London novels – Colonel
Bulba in Men Are So Ardent, Ali the Terrible Turk in Night and the City, Zobrany here – and
in each we watch the old man suffer, sometimes unto death, yet retain his dignity. The pushy small man who rises from rags to
riches on a little bit of luck and common sense, but mostly on nerve, is film producer
Gèza Cseh here, but has also been hunchbacked Solomon Schwartz in The Thousand Deaths of
Mr. Small, cinema manager Sam Yudenow in Fowlers End, and film producer Walter Chinchilla in
An Ape, A Dog and A Serpent. The troubled artist who cannot create anything
worthwhile – Tom Henceforth here – has many brothers in Kersh’s work, from author John
Leonoff in Jews Without Jehovah, to sculptor Adam in The Night and the City, and writer
John Pym in The Song of the Flea. Obviously an autobiographical figure, each of them are
placed in 1930s London, before Kersh became a bestselling author. There are many other examples in The Angel
and the Cuckoo. But don’t think that such characters are
empty repetitions of previous books. If anything, this novel represents a deepening of Kersh’s
understanding of his archetypes. For example, Cseh could simply be the villain of the piece,
but gradually we see that he as much a victim of his nature as the people around him. The Angel and the Cuckoo was published by
New American Library on May 28, 1966. Kersh asked for copies to be sent to his friends
and admirers – Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Al Capp, Ellery Queen, J.B. Priestly, Jane
Fonda, and John Steinbeck – and waited for the reviews. They did not come. Although highly recommended by the industry
press, and to libraries, the public at large did not get to hear about the novel because
internal disputes at the publisher meant no publicity was issued. Two years later, total US hardback sales were
a meagre 2,554. This from an author who had sold over one
million hardback copies of Night and the City 20 years earlier. Heinemann published The Angel and the Cuckoo
in the UK to modest critical acclaim. After reviewing 30 Kersh books over 30 years, critics
had become inured to his charms, and blind to his quality. It doesn’t help that the book is hugely
amusing. Let’s face it, nobody takes comedy seriously. Yet the comedy in The Angel and the Cuckoo
is not placed there simply for the enjoyment of the reader. It is used to distract from
and dissipate the pain and suffering and embarrassment of the central characters. After reading a farcical account of Tom Henceforth’s
first love affair, we later discover that Tom added the farce to cover up his failure
to woo the maiden. It is a strategy taken from Kersh’s own life, to transform the
distress and despair of his cancer into laughter and amusement. It was his strategy to keep a pitiless universe
at bay. After completing his last novel, Brock, Kersh
passed away on Tuesday, November 5, 1968, riddled with cancer, leaving Flossie alone
to handle their many debts. A couple of months later, Flossie wrote: ‘Gerald
was the quintessential artist-born. His kin, those of us closest to him, even physical
pain – all were secondary. That is, early in life Gerald made his choice. He was dedicated,
vowed, given over. An extreme example is, of course, that five years of throat cancer
could be fended off, held at bay, because of a yet greater struggle. And that is, Gerald’s
tearing out of his own innards, apart from delightful short stories, two beautiful novels.’ Brock is fun, but The Angel and the Cuckoo
is the last, great masterpiece of Gerald Kersh. Gerald Kersh was asked ‘What do you consider
the distinguishing or important aspects of this book?’ He replied: ‘It is amusing. It is readable.
It is rereadable. It represents money well-spent by whoever buys it.’ The Angel and the Cuckoo is currently in print,
published by London Books. Buy it. It will be money well spent.
And while your at it you can buy Night and the City as well, also published by London
Books. See you next time.

2 thoughts on “Gerald Kersh: The Angel And The Cuckoo – Paul Duncan

  1. Hello Paul,

    Are you still updating your listing of Gerard Kersh stories (http://www.harlanellison.com/kersh/shorts.htm) as is doesn't include entries for collections in the last few years?

    You may well already be aware that The Epistle of Simple Simon, was in Tomorrow: Speculative Fiction June 1947 see http://www.philsp.com/homeville/isfac/s169.htm. If you have a more recent list I'd be interested in see it, otherwise I'll try to see what I can do about the other red enteries!

    Regards

    Bill Seabrook
    Tyne and Wear
    UK

  2. Just reading Night and the City and enjoying tremendously.KInd of arrived at it via Amazon after buying Patrick Hamiltons 20,000 streets and Hangover Square ,then London belongs to me by Collins.The era,the characters and location are very evocative.Has anybody done a biography of Kersh,?

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