January 25, 2015

The Devil and Max Beerbohm, or, Magic at a Distance

The past is a work of art, free of irrelevancies and loose ends.  
- Max Beerbohm

Reality seems so simple. We just open our eyes and there it is. But that doesn't mean it is simple.
- Teller

The Book

A package came for me on Thursday.  I took from the envelope Max Beerbohm's Seven Men.  This is not the first edition of 1919, alas, but it's close.  My copy is from the (third) October 1923 impression.  It's the same publisher, William Heinemann Ltd. of London.  The cover is just a little worn, the gold leaf a trifle faded, but as nonagenarians go it looks pretty good:  

On the flyleaf, in a clear, modern-looking cursive hand, there is this inscription:

Christmas 1925 

Hoping this will
add to the mel-
lowness of your  
outlook on  
literature.  De-  
votedly W.H.W(?).

The last initial is a little unclear.  I thinks it's a "W", but it might be an "A" or a "U".  I have no idea who wrote this, but note that the first two initials, at least, match those of the publisher.

I got the book because John Updike told me to.  A couple of decades ago Robertson Davies told me (here) to get A Christmas Garland, and I have never regretted that decision.  But having done so, I imagined that I had exhausted possibilities of of Beerbohm for a modern reader - after all, his reputation is for underachievement in creative work and overachievement in raconteuring.  But no,  last week as I riffled through one of the Updike collections littering the house, I came upon this, a full-on endorsement of Beerbohm's Seven Men (the essay originally appeared here).  Due to poor Internet response in Mountain View, it nevertheless took almost seven seconds for my order to be recorded on Amazon's servers.

Enoch Soames

I opened the book yesterday expecting some light prose, and was not disappointed, but before I had finished the first story, "Enoch Soames", I had also been sucked into a time vortex that brought me face to face with Beerbohm, the devil, and the greatest magician in the world, ultimately leading me to question the nature of time and reality itself.

To recount here all the good things about "Enoch Soames" would require that we reproduce the story in full, but that has already been done at Project Gutenberg.  Suffice to say that Beerbohm introduces us to a man he claims he once knew named Enoch Soames.  He says Soames was painted by the estimable Rothenstein, and it turns out that this is true:

Soames, by Rothenstein

As every schoolchild knows, Beerbohm was a renowned caricaturist himself.  He made his own sketch:

Soames, by Beerbohm

This is a lot of trouble to go to for a fictional character, particularly one as devoid of charm and talent as Beerbohm reports Soames to be.  And yet, having done so much, he errs - does he not? - by making a clearly falsifiable claim.  Beerbohm states that in his presence, Soames contracted with the devil to visit the British Museum Reading Room in the year 1997, and that the devil held up his end of the deal.
You realize that the reading-room into which Soames was projected by the devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realize, therefore, that on that afternoon, when it comes round, there the selfsame crowd will be, and there Soames will be, punctually, he and they doing precisely what they did before. Recall now Soames's account of the sensation he made. You may say that the mere difference of his costume was enough to make him sensational in that uniformed crowd. You wouldn't say so if you had ever seen him, and I assure you that in no period would Soames be anything but dim. The fact that people are going to stare at him and follow him around and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly visitation. They will have been awfully waiting to see whether he really would come. And when he does come the effect will of course be—awful.

It's a rather uncharacteristic error for such a clever man, to allow the mere passage of time to destroy such a charming conceit.  Beerbohm should have known that when Soames failed to appear at the appointed hour (or if the Reading Room had been ruined or remodeled), his lie would be exposed, and the fragile enterprise wrecked for all time.

But what if, by some chance, Soames did appear?  What would we say then?


If Soames were to appear - in that exact room, at the correct hour - then the pretense would be preserved.  And at that moment a very clever story would become something much more - a finished work of art, its mysteries forever impenetrable.

And of course, he did appear...

Soames appears at the appointed hour.

The details are recounted in a 1997 Atlantic piece"A Memory of the the Nineteen-Nineties", written by the magician Teller, who was there when it happened.  Some might skeptically suppose the great magician had something to do with the appearance of the apparition, or with the fact that no one exactly saw how it appeared or departed without using the door.  But this sort of cynicism diminishes us.

Let us say instead that in 1916 Max Beerbohm began a work of art, knowing that it could only be completed by an accomplice as yet unborn.  And now, thanks to that accomplice, no one can ever prove Max Beerbohm a liar.  Max played va banque and earned his winnings.

If there is any truth to Beerbohm's tale, pity poor Soames, who, having completed his transit across the century, resides now in eternal torment, comforted only by the knowledge that he was, after all, properly memorialized.
I never forget him for long. He is where he is and forever. The more rigid moralists among you may say he has only himself to blame. For my part, I think he has been very hardly used. It is well that vanity should be chastened; and Enoch Soames's vanity was, I admit, above the average, and called for special treatment. But there was no need for vindictiveness. You say he contracted to pay the price he is paying. Yes; but I maintain that he was induced to do so by fraud. Well informed in all things, the devil must have known that my friend would gain nothing by his visit to futurity. The whole thing was a very shabby trick. The more I think of it, the more detestable the devil seems to me.

The devil must not be pleased either, that Beerbohm has forever given Soames a tiny sliver of joy that he cannot be deprived of.  There is also the pretty paradox that without Soames, Beerbohm himself might have been forgotten.

Not bad for a first outing.  I'll bet the other stories in the book are good, too.

This new book is also relevant, and upon first inspection, lots of fun.


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