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Mark Handley, Max Beerbohm - William Palmer on Max Beerbohm, Seven Men and Two Others - Slightly Foxed Issue 12

Soames’s Second Coming

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On 3 June 1997 a small group of writers and other interested parties gathered near the bound catalogues, under Panizzi’s magnificently airy and light-filled dome, in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The new, long-promised British Library had already suffered any number of delays; by all the planners’ schedules the Reading Room should have been closed months before, its contents and purpose transferred to the new King’s Cross site. But any of those present could tell you why the old place had to stay open until this date. A visitor was expected – one whose original appointment had been made, rather surprisingly, a hundred years before, on 3 June 1897.

The person expected was a poet of the 1890s called Enoch Soames. Of all the great figures of the nineteenth century one might have wished to see at work in the Reading Room – Carlyle, Macaulay, Marx, Rimbaud, George Eliot – Soames was a peculiar choice. Max Beerbohm wrote, ‘When a book about the literature of the eighteen nineties was given by Mr Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for Soames, Enoch. I had feared he would not be there. He was not there.’ In fact, the only record of the poet is in a long story by Beerbohm himself, published in his book Seven Men (1920).

I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat.

The author of Seven Men was consistently self-derogatory in an engaging way. His forebears were Lithuanian but, born in 1872, he was brought up in a classically English upper middle-class way, going to Charterhouse and then

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On 3 June 1997 a small group of writers and other interested parties gathered near the bound catalogues, under Panizzi’s magnificently airy and light-filled dome, in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The new, long-promised British Library had already suffered any number of delays; by all the planners’ schedules the Reading Room should have been closed months before, its contents and purpose transferred to the new King’s Cross site. But any of those present could tell you why the old place had to stay open until this date. A visitor was expected – one whose original appointment had been made, rather surprisingly, a hundred years before, on 3 June 1897.

The person expected was a poet of the 1890s called Enoch Soames. Of all the great figures of the nineteenth century one might have wished to see at work in the Reading Room – Carlyle, Macaulay, Marx, Rimbaud, George Eliot – Soames was a peculiar choice. Max Beerbohm wrote, ‘When a book about the literature of the eighteen nineties was given by Mr Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for Soames, Enoch. I had feared he would not be there. He was not there.’ In fact, the only record of the poet is in a long story by Beerbohm himself, published in his book Seven Men (1920). I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat. The author of Seven Men was consistently self-derogatory in an engaging way. His forebears were Lithuanian but, born in 1872, he was brought up in a classically English upper middle-class way, going to Charterhouse and then to Oxford. His first book, a slim volume of essays, was published when he was 24, and was entitled The Works of Max Beerbohm. This self-parodic title was a guide to the future, for Beerbohm’s gift was for perfect control in minor forms; the short story and essay, and literary parody. His exact and hilarious dissections of the styles of other writers of his time such as Conrad, Hardy, Kipling and Henry James were gathered together in A Christmas Garland. He wrote only one novel, Zuleika Dobson: it was as if once he had mastered a form, he had no wish to develop it any further or to repeat his endeavour. He wrote very little after 1920. He spent his days happily in Rapallo in Italy, drawing his excellent caricatures and indulging in the odd habit of defacing, cleverly and maliciously, copies of books of his contemporaries, and altering photographs so that, as Edmund Wilson said, William Morris and Harley Granville-Barker were made to look like ‘horrible prognathous gorillas’. He died in 1956. Beerbohm’s masterpiece, Seven Men, is composed of five stories dealing with six men (the seventh is Beerbohm himself, who appears as narrator throughout). They are all remarkable for the brilliance of their humour, but though I have read and reread the others constantly, ‘Enoch Soames’ is the one rightly most often singled out as a classic. A mixture of cod memoir and ghost story without a ghost, or at any rate a ghost projected forward to 1997, it is also extraordinarily ‘modern’ in the way we use that word to mean that someone was doing something many years ago in a way we wish we could now. You could even say it was post-modern in its mixing of people from real life such as Beerbohm himself, and the artist Will Rothenstein, with the imaginary characters of Soames and the Devil. To give the plot to those who haven’t read the story is not to spoil it; the joy is in the way it is told. Enoch Soames is a very minor poet of a type recognizable in any period: ‘He had a thin, vague beard – or rather, he had a chin on which a number of hairs weakly curled and clustered . . . He wore a soft black hat of clerical kind but of Bohemian intention, and a grey waterproof cape which, perhaps because it was waterproof, failed to be romantic.’  Soames has published a book of poems called Fungoids. (I shall withhold examples, for their true awfulness can only be appreciated within the context of the story.) The book sells few copies. Soames is tortured by his sense of neglect and failure; Beerbohm commiserates with him over lunch in a little restaurant in Soho on a June day in 1897. Soames complains with uncharacteristic vivacity, ‘Posterity! What use is it to me? A dead man can’t know that people are visiting his grave . . . unveiling statues of him. A dead man can’t read the books that are written about him . . . A hundred years hence! Think of it! If I could come back to life then – just for a few hours – and go to the reading-room, and read! . . . just for this one afternoon I’d sell myself body and soul to the devil, for that! Think of the endless pages in the catalogue . . . endless editions, commentaries, prolegomena, biographies . . .’ Unfortunately for Soames, the Devil – a large, florid man with waxed moustaches – is listening at the next table. He offers Soames a bargain, but you will have to read on for yourself to discover what Soames finds in the British Museum Reading Room a hundred years on. ‘Enoch Soames’ is forty odd pages of sheer delight, but the stories that follow are almost equally brilliant. The subject of ‘Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton’ is the enduring one – recently treated in Martin Amis’s The Information – of intense rivalry between two writers. This story may indeed have been family reading in the Amis household: the mounting list of horrible social solecisms committed by Maltby at a country-house party echoes Jim Dixon’s multiple embarrassments at Professor Welch’s cultural weekend in Kingsley’s Lucky Jim. Maltby is the author of Ariel in Mayfair and Braxton of A Faun in the Cotswolds. Both are first novels and huge successes, but their authors could not be more different: ‘Dapper little Maltby – blond, bland, diminutive Maltby, with his monocle and gardenia; big black Braxton, with his lank hair and his square blue jaw and his square sallow forehead.’ They appear at all the fashionable parties; both, for all their differences, are assiduous social climbers. But Maltby slyly robs Braxton of an invitation to a splendid weekend at Keeb Hall, home of the Duke and Duchess of Hertfordshire. In search of revenge, the spirit of Braxton turns up to haunt Maltby. Maltby keeps glimpsing his rival: he cuts himself shaving, he spills bortsch down his waistcoat at dinner, he mows down a titled lady on his bicycle. Horrors multiply as Braxton’s ghost appears, blocking his path, sleeping in and so denying him his bed, sinking horribly into him as Maltby joins the family in their pew at the village church. ‘Braxton did not push past me. What he did was to sit slowly and fully down on me. No, not down on me. Down through me . . . It was inclusion, envelopment, eclipse,’ says Maltby, when Beerbohm hears the full story from him years later in Italy. For poor Maltby had fled the house that Sunday, and then the country, to spend the rest of his life in exile. ‘Savonarola Brown’ is ostensibly the story of a clerk and aspiring playwright, but really an excuse for presenting a hilarious and perfectly sustained parody of a late Victorian verse play, set in Renaissance Italy and full of ludicrous echoes of Shakespearian blank verse that, aiming for tragedy and high drama, inevitably trips over itself and falls into bathos and low farce. All the stories concern literature or story-telling. In ‘A.V. Laider’ a fellow guest convalescing at a small seaside hotel recounts a terrible story of his weak-willed neglect that has resulted in the death of several innocent people. As always Beerbohm is the sympathetic, cool observer providing the framework for the tales of others – in this case one by someone who turns out to be a highly unreliable narrator. The opening to the story shows Beerbohm’s skill at setting scene and mood:
I had been here just a year before, in mid-February, after an attack of influenza. And now I had returned, after an attack of influenza. Nothing was changed. It had been raining when I left, and the waiter – there was but a single, a very old waiter – had told me it was only a shower. That waiter was still here, not a day older. And the shower had not ceased.
On the surface this is a simple passage; it does not draw attention to itself, but if one reads it carefully the artful alternation of ‘had’ and ‘was’ enables the writer to hold two separate times, the two visits with a year between, in perfect equilibrium. The last tale is ‘James Pethel’, the story of a gambler who is extraordinarily lucky. Beerbohm shares a hair-raising car journey with him, during which Pethel seems to be daring both road and car to kill him – and his unwilling passenger. Beerbohm hears of Pethel’s adventures mainly through others; even his death seems a stroke of good fortune. Seven Men was reissued in 1950, with the addition of two more stories and retitled as Seven Men and Two Others. The two new stories were fine ones, but they were rather like those bonus tracks added to CDs that are welcome but sometimes seem to take away from the harmony of the original album. But then any more Beerbohm is welcome: for those who love his writing cannot have enough of the small and uniformly perfect work he produced. Beerbohm had a gift for mixing the real with the fictional so that one cannot sometimes see where the one leaves off and the other takes over. The people gathered in the Reading Room on that June day in 1997 were real enough, as was the actor hired to impersonate the poet. It was only poor dim Enoch who never existed, though his sole leading role in literature, as the invention of a superbly witty writer in one of the funniest stories ever written, fully entitles him to a grateful remembrance.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © William Palmer 2006


About the contributor

William Palmer’s novel The India House is out now in paperback. He has other plans but keeps quiet about them for fear of making God laugh.

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