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Authors: Gerald Kersh

The Implacable Hunter

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The Implacable Hunter

GERALD KERSH

For
Ann
Petrina
Madsen

At his death in 1968 Kersh had left us with a dazzling gallery of criminals and artists, characters filled with love and loathing, and carrying the seeds of their own destruction. It’s a mystery that he is not regarded as a great British writer of the twentieth century.

Christopher Fowler,
Independent on Sunday
, 18 September 2011

Forty-five years after he left us Gerald Kersh still suffers from little better than the ‘large, vague renown’ Orwell famously ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. He is remembered chiefly for
Night and the City
(1938), one of the great novels of London’s Soho, driven by its shabby anti-hero Harry Fabian. Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version starring Richard Widmark has certainly helped that book to endure. But Kersh’s novel lives on by itself because it teems with adroitly observed forms of (low) life, and it still feels like the real thing. Readers who come newly to Kersh usually sense quite soon from his salty, word-rich presence on the page that this was a writer who lived fully, and who never missed a trick. Evidently all he saw was of interest to him, not to say fair game.

Kersh does have his notable and steadfast champions today: Harlan Ellison has vigorously sought to promote awareness of a man whose talent he considered ‘immense and compelling’; Michael Moorcock is the ‘sometime executor’ of the Kersh estate and has kindly made possible Faber Finds’ reissues of a selection of Kersh’s finest works; while cinema-book specialist Paul Duncan has also been an avid advocate for Kersh, and is understood to have been at work awhile on a biography. What general readers may know of Kersh for the moment is largely down to the information these men have placed in the public domain.

Kersh was born in Teddington on 26 August 1911. Writing as a meaningful pastime came quickly to him, such that he soon sniffed a vocation. He quit schooling early, and raced through a succession of jobs as if seeking to go one better on Hemingway’s maxim that a novelist ought to have a friend in every occupation. In 1934 he published a
roman-à-clef
,
Jews without Jehovah
, but it wasn’t on sale for very long, since three uncles and a cousin of Kersh’s made out unflattering renderings of themselves within its pages, and sought legal redress – apparently a lasting source of tension at Kersh family occasions.

Following the outbreak of war Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 and seems to have been rated a decent soldier. His first stint of leave was during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, whereupon he narrowly escaped fatal injury but was thereafter reassigned to desk duties. In 1941 he drew on his Guardsman experience to write
They Die with Their Boots Clean
, a classic fictional account of basic training, and he enjoyed a surprise bestseller with a work that is richly illustrative of his gift for refining into print things you can well imagine he actually heard. (Finds offers the book, bound up with its sequel
The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson
, under the title given this pairing by their US publisher:
Sergeant Nelson of the Guards
.)

Thereafter Kersh would be phenomenally productive: a writer not merely of novels and stories but of journalism, sketches and columns, radio and documentary film scripts. After the war he settled in the US and there made himself a fixture in popular magazines that paid well for stories and brought him to huge readerships: the
Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy
. Kersh’s stories are the most accessible demonstration of his protean gifts: the strange and fantastical tales are especially
cherished, and may be sampled in Finds’ reissues of
The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories
as well as a broader selection chosen by Simon Raven entitled
The Best of Gerald Kersh
. At the height of this productivity came three of his most admired novels:
Prelude to a Certain Midnight
(1947),
The Song of the Flea
(1948), and
The Thousand Deaths of Mr Small
(1950).

Kersh wrote so much, his printed output was so compendious, that one might suppose he never had time to blot a line. And yet his sentence-making is remarkably strong. He was both a singular talent and a hard grafter: a crafter of sentences, spinner of yarns, scholar of human follies. His living by the pen, however, seems to have been rarely better than precarious, for a variety of reasons: he had money troubles, personal troubles, health troubles, and over time these tended to come at him in battalions. Amid this turmoil he could still produce
Fowler’s End
(1958), judged by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century’. Burgess was also a champion of
The Implacable Hunter
(1961); and
The Angel and the Cuckoo
(1966) earned Kersh more high praise. But by then he was very nearly through: he died in New York on 5 November 1968, aged fifty-seven. He remains one of those writers perpetually in need of revival, admired by near enough all who read him, awaiting still his golden hour of evangelism. The reader, if not already a convert, is warmly invited to start here.

As the second most formidable figure in the New Testament Saint Paul is of obvious interest to writers of all stripes, despite (or because of?) the fact that scriptural accounts are the only sources we have by which to know him. Yet the literary worth of his Epistles, above all in their King James rendering, is so great that attempts to attain a
psychological insight into his character are only natural. For a novelist the challenge has an obvious savour to it, and yet it’s one that has been rarely taken up.

Paul does make a memorable fantasy cameo in the celebrated final act of Kazantzakis’
The Last Temptation
(1954), as the former ‘bloodthirsty Saul’, ‘a squat, fat hunchback, still young, but bald’, whose zeal to preach of his conversion to Christianity is briefly derailed when he runs into an ageing Jesus of Nazareth who insists that he never died on the cross. Still, after a brow-furrowed pause Paul presses on regardless, more or less threatening the Messiah that he will finish the job himself if needs be. Kazantzakis’ Paul is ‘like a famished wolf, running to eat up the world’: he goes forth in his evangelising mission already anticipating the ‘joy’ of being ‘shunned, beaten, thrown in deep pits and killed’.

In
The Implacable Hunter
Gerald Kersh follows a more rugged, thorny path towards an understanding of Paul. Not for him the biblical years in which the narrative line is tolerably clear: Kersh concerns himself with that bloodthirsty period in which Saul of Tarsus was the vigilant and diligent scourge of Nazarene Christians. (And Kersh’s Saul bears two names within these pages, just as a Jewish native of Tarsus who was also a Roman citizen would have done: Saul a natural choice in memory of Israel’s first king, Paulus equally obvious for a Roman.)

Kersh tells the tale from the vantage of Diomed, Roman prefect in Tarsus, who makes himself a mentor to young Saul, only to be much amazed by what follows. The path takes Kersh and his readers all the way to the famous Damascene conversion where a peculiar vision (or ‘episode’) causes scales to fall from Saul’s eyes. But the purpose of the journey is really to examine how this Pharisee, who took the Torah as divine law and
policed the hard barriers between Jew and Gentile, turned into the man who could write ‘For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.’ (Galatians 2:19) To this end Kersh occupies Paul’s mind on the page in ways that stimulate and fascinate. We are quickly made aware of his obvious abhorrence of the notion that a crucified criminal could possibly be ‘the light of the world’; and yet in his mission to purge the Roman-occupied lands of the Christ cult Saul/Paulus confronts sights that unnerve his conviction – none more forcefully than the stoning of Stephen, which Kersh re-imagines from the Book of Acts with great skill.

Along the route there are other insights into a mind ill at ease: scholars have assumed Paul never married, but Kersh endows him with a beautiful wife. This good fortune, however, doesn’t prevent Kersh’s Paul from expounding anti-female opinions of a disturbing virulence to his friend Diomed – views a good deal stronger, even, than those expressed in the Epistles that have given Paul such a bad reputation for misogyny, and which accordingly received close attention from revisionist scholars. Elsewhere, though we know little of Paul’s parentage, his father is accorded a significant place in Kersh’s narrative – in such a way as to make us ponder the possible reasons why a Jew who was the son of a Roman citizen might first have done murderous service to Rome, only to remake himself as a subversive antagonist of both the Pharisees and the Emperor. By the time Kersh’s magisterial novel closes – returning to the Neronian court where it begins – these great mysteries have been both deepened and elucidated.

Richard T. Kelly

Editor, Faber Finds

July 2013

P
AINTED
as I was with a savage’s pattern of inlaid red dust mixed with sweat that filled the countless folds and wrinkles in my battered face, and mounted on a lame clay horse, my old friend Marcus Flaminius did not know me until I called him by name in the courtyard of his pretty villa on the outskirts of Antium.

‘Diomed!’ he said, and caught me as I dismounted, for I was stiff in every muscle and sore in every bone from the long ride. ‘Diomed, old friend, where have you sprung from?’

‘Home,’ I said.

‘You seem to have come in a devil of a hurry.’

‘I did.’

‘Come in, come in! You have spoiled a good horse there.’

‘Yes. And left a better one dead on the road,’ I told him.

‘Not the mare Daphne?’

‘Yes. She burst her heart thirty miles back.’

‘Aie-aie! Then you are in a hurry indeed, Diomed! First drink some wine. Then tell me who’s after you. This is not much of a place to hide in, but we’ll see what we can do.’

‘I’m not hiding, my dear Flaminius. But if I might beg a bath, the loan of your barber, something to eat, and leave to rest a couple of hours, one or other of my men will catch me up, bringing fresh clothes.’

‘You know very well that my house is yours. How long have you been in the saddle?’

Gratefully drinking, I replied: ‘A hundred miles or so. If you love me, give me another pillow – I am not the man I was forty years ago.’

‘You always were made of iron. We are of an age, I think, give or take a year. What are you, sixty-nine? And look at you: iron, bronze, rock. “A hundred miles or so” – just like that! If I rode twenty I’d drop dead. It is as much as I can do to travel a day’s journey in my chair.’

‘I rather think I’ll trouble you for a loan of that same chair, when I go to pay my visit,’ I said.

‘And who are you visiting so urgently at Antium?’ he asked.

‘Nero.’

He raised his brows. ‘By Hermes and by Aphrodite, you choose a pretty time to visit that one!’ he said, shaking his head.

‘Oh, he’ll spare me a quarter of an hour from his falsetto singers and his Greek bugger-boys,’ I said. ‘I’m bringing him a gift’ – I tapped with my knuckles a narrow box which I had been holding on my knees.

Marcus Flaminius said: ‘There is something strange about this. Diomed is not in the habit of burning up the road and killing blood mares riding through the night, to bring gifts to Caesar.’

‘I have a favour to ask of him.’

‘Out of character again, and an unpropitious time.’

‘The gift, I hope, will make the time propitious,’ I said.

‘What is it?’ Flaminius asked.

‘A sword,’ I said; and the consternation on his face would have made me laugh if I had not been so tired.

‘Now look here, Diomed – you put me in a very queer position here, you know! I protest, I’m too old and weak, now, for such games. It is not as if I had been made privy to any plan, or anything. You’re my friend, and I’ll stand by you; but under protest! Leave the young fool alone, I say, and he’ll kill himself. He’s well on the way to doing it already. Insurrection in Gaul, they tell me; Vindex showing his teeth. Galba growling in Spain. Britain in turmoil, and the Londinium garrison wiped out. Pompeii gone with a
whuff
– dust and ashes. Rome in chaos. Have sense, man! But here you, Diomed of all created men, here you come riding like a madman out of the night with a sword for Caesar!’

‘Oh, be quiet!’ I said. ‘Do you think I’d ride Daphne to death for a flea-bite of an assassination? I say, I have a favour to ask.’

‘For the moment I thought you were going to –’ Flaminius drew a finger across his throat.

‘No, I want him to spare me a man’s life.’

‘Well, but why the sword?’

‘Because he’ll like it. It is the sword of the Great Alexander, taken from the King of Persia’s tent; the same sword Alexander killed Hephaestion with.
Complete
with scabbard, attested history, affirmed pedigree, and all. It was one of the gems of Barbatus’s collection. Look and see.’

I opened the box and showed my friend the sword.

‘Aie!’ cried Flaminius. ‘Nero would give you anybody’s life you like, for a thing like that. He’s got Alexander’s shield
already; or thinks he has. Whose life d’you want?’ he asked, in his pouncing way.

‘A Tarsian Roman. A Jewish Nazarene,’ I answered.

‘But the Nazarenes are in terribly bad odour, you know – they brought down the wrath of the gods on Rome in the form of heavier taxation, and what not…. Well, so long as the sword is simply a gift … even so, I’d choose my little speech very carefully before I offered a sword to Nero at this moment, my friend. But, gods! What a beauty! Let me hold it once again. What steel! … By the bye, Diomed, did you remember to bring side-arms – if I may use the expression – under your clothes?’

‘Was I born yesterday?’ I asked; and showed him a number of little bags of gold coins fastened to a sling over my shoulder.

‘I was going to say; if not, my purse is yours.’

‘Thanks. Let me bathe and be shaved, and sleep just two hours, and when my men come up I’ll dress and take my chance.’

‘The Officer in Waiting today is one Leitus Rufus. Mention my name … and give him fifty gold pieces…. What is this man to you, anyway?’

‘My friend. What would you think of me if you were under a death sentence, and I didn’t put myself to some little inconvenience for your sake?’

‘Alas, Diomed; we are the last of the old breed, are we not? Friendship was a sacred thing, in our day.’

‘Yes. And now, for pity’s sake let me be rubbed with oil, for I swear by all the gods that I feel, all at once, every ache and pain and fatigue I have endured this past seventy years, back to the very bruises of birth!’

So, my servants having come at last, flogging their jaded horses, and I shaved and trimmed and anointed, dressed with appropriately discreet richness, and went to Nero.

My name, it appeared, was not unknown. I was received
without much delay, and conducted into a large, cool marble room pierced with great windows, through which came the sight and smell of the sea.

He was fidgeting in an ivory chair, in a litter of scrolls: a large young man with red-gold curls, the face of a pretty child debauched, and the body of one of those
correctly-muscled
men that sculptors like to use as models for athletes but blurred in its definition, curiously pasty. Yes, take some second-rate marble Apollo, give it a perfectly even coat of tallow as thick as your thumb, and there you have Nero.

‘State your business,’ he said, as from an immeasurable distance. ‘What is that you are carrying? Speak.’

I said: ‘Caesar, you have heard of Barbatus, whose eye for the rare and the beautiful was comparable only with your own?’

‘Yes, of course I have heard of Barbatus – he had some exquisite pieces, some of which have come my way. Is that one of them?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is Alexander the Great’s own sword, which he took from the Persian Darius. It is the sword with which Alexander slew his friend Hephaestion. Here are the
documents
to prove it’ – I offered him a golden scroll-case and a letter.

‘The sword, the sword, let me see the sword,’ he said, petulant as a pampered child.

And he beckoned to two soldiers, who stood very close behind me while I unwrapped the box. Making no sudden movements, I took out the sheathed sword and placed it in his hands. Nero looked at the jewelled hilt for a long time, and then from it to the great rings on his fingers: their bezels gripped more jewels but the hilt of that sword made the gems with which it was adorned live and glow.

He saw this, and pursed his rosy mouth thoughtfully. At last, he drew the blade, very slowly – and if true beauty lies
in perfect function, that piece of steel was one of the wonders of the world.

I said: ‘Take care, Caesar – it will sever a hair at a touch.’

At this, he called: ‘A hair! Get me a hair!’

A naked boy, tressed like a girl, plucked from his head a long, curling, black hair, and offered it to Nero. He holding it at arm’s length between thumb and forefinger, touched the edge of the sword to it. There was an almost inaudible twang, and the hair was cut. Nero sheathed the sword and caressed it. He fondled the hilt, and ran his soft fingers over the carvings on the scabbard, smiling an odiously shy and voluptuous little smile.

‘They say that it is unlucky to accept a gift of a sword without shedding a little blood with it,’ he said.

I bared my right arm, boldly, and held it forward.

‘Shed, Caesar!’ I said.

But he tickled my arm with his fingertip; my spine tingled with revulsion. ‘Oh, see what an arm he has!’ cried Nero. ‘The sinews! The thews! An arm of bronze – the aged Hercules!’

‘At your service,’ I said.

‘No. It would be a pity to cut such a fine arm. I need such arms, the gods know! … But perhaps this sword is not a gift?’ he asked, in a womanish, worried voice. ‘Perhaps you want to sell it?’

I was throwing my dice with my eyes shut, now; here was my strategy. I said: ‘If Nero is willing to pay the price I ask for it.’

‘I could take it, darling, for nothing, you know.’

‘Yes, but that would bring bad luck.’

‘What did you say your name was? Diomed? You are a brave man, Diomed, the bravest of the bravest of the brave! There now, I like you. Name your price. Anything you want – there!’

I pointed to a gold lyre by the window, and said in the
Greek language which I knew he loved: ‘If Nero will improvise for me Alexander’s Lament for Hephaestion, I go home and die happy. That is my price.’

To my everlasting disgust, Nero leapt up and kissed me, smearing my mouth with paint. ‘The elegiac?’ he asked.

‘Yes, the hexameter-pentameter –’ I had been informed that this was one of his favourite poetic forms ‘– but not Ovidian. Ovid? Who was Ovid? In Asia it is Nero who is worshipped as the incarnation of Apollo.’ He was jealous of the fame of Ovid.

‘Great grief, but kingly grief!’ cried Nero. ‘Diomed you inspire me!’

‘Nero,’ I said, ‘Alexander’s sword has been in my
possession
these thirty years. Was I fit to draw it? No. I thought of Tiberius. No. Then Caligula. Certainly not. Claudius? Questionable. But in a dream a voice told me, Nero. I killed the finest horse in Italy to bring it to you forthwith for these are troubled times, Nero, and you must be our Alexander.’

Possibly one of the silliest speeches even I have ever made, but he fell upon my neck again, and shouted: ‘Wine, more wine! I cannot improvise without wine, white wine, lots and lots of cold white wine; sparkling, spuming, icy, white, white wine!’

Then he called in secretaries and soldiers to listen, and he made me lie on a couch hip-deep in sensuous cushions and sickly with strong perfumes, while the black-haired boy served me with wine. He put one foot on a stool, arranged the lyre on his knee, threw back his foolish golden head and, in a tremendous tenor voice, soullessly accurate and tallowy like his form, began to sing, shoving harsh handfuls of hastily-plucked notes into every halting ellipsis as one might hastily caulk a leaky boat in mid-stream with torn sacking.

‘Little Lucius!’ I thought. ‘It is Little Lucius! This is not Now and I am not Here…. It was all a dream, a devious and uneasy dream! …’

But it was not a dream, and I was here and in anguish for my friend; we being the last two left alive of Soxias’s guests.

‘Alas, alas!’ I thought. ‘There is no such thing as a dream!’

Nero was Nero, drunk as a fiddler’s bitch, and I was crafty old Diomed, a monolith of bygone days, and full of the facts of life if one knew how to read the runes of my lined face, and construe the cuneiform of my scars.

So, disciplined man that I am, while Nero sang and sang, and twanged and strummed, stopping my ears from within against his stridencies and his plangencies, I made myself remember why I was here …

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