My column on “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm first appeared in Vector 281, Winter 2015.
In the early afternoon of 3rd June 1997, a small crowd of people gathered in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The Reading Room had been due to close for some time, but owing to a series of delays it was still open on this date. According to the American magician Teller, of Penn and Teller, at around 2.10 in the afternoon a nondescript man appeared and began searching through the various catalogues before disappearing into the stacks. Most accounts of that afternoon, however, report no sightings, and when the crowd dispersed, Enoch Soames returned to fiction.
The central events in the story “Enoch Soames” include a pact with the devil and a visit to the distant future, so it is remarkable that over 80 years after it was first published there were still people willing, indeed eager, to believe in the truth of the story. But then, “Enoch Soames” is a quite remarkable story.
There is a portrait of the author, Max Beerbohm, painted by William Nicholson in 1905, just over ten years before he wrote “Enoch Soames”. It shows an elegantly dressed man with thinning, slicked-down hair wearing a stylish black coat with a cane in one hand and a glossy top hat in the other. Just the image, one might imagine, of a confident member of upper-class Edwardian society. Except that he stands sideways to the artist, an awkward, slightly hunched posture. His face is not quite turned towards the artist, there is something in the attitude that suggests he would be happiest to turn his back completely. His eyes are downcast, the mouth thin and pursed. There is something stiff and uncomfortable about him, a retreat from attention, and it is no surprise to learn that in 1910 he and his new wife withdrew to Rapallo, Italy, where he would live in semi-retirement for the better part of 44 years. It was here that he was most productive as a writer, and it was in this period, in 1916, that he wrote “Enoch Soames”. Beerbohm himself appears in the story, which is presented as a memoir, but a lot of Beerbohm’s own character is so effectively transferred onto the failed poet, Enoch Soames, that I think it helps to explain why the fiction has been so readily and consistently believed as truth.
The story first appeared in the May 1916 edition of The Century Magazine, and there was nothing in its publication to suggest it was not fiction, except the tone of voice and the verisimilitude with which Beerbohm told it.
It begins as a memoir prompted by the publication of “a book about the literature of the eighteen-nineties” (425). This is a genuine book: The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century by Holbrook Jackson, one of the leading literary journalists of the day, was published in 1913. In the index of this book, Beerbohm fails to find an entry for Enoch Soames, and it is this absence, which he feels sure no one else would have noticed, that prompts him to write the memoir. However, there is a caveat whose import will become clear only later in the story: “Not my compassion, however, impels me to write of him. For his sake, poor fellow, I should be inclined to keep my pen out of the ink” (425). Beerbohm is not writing this for Soames’s sake, in that respect it would be better if he did not write, but because he is in some way compelled to do so: “sooner or later, write about him I must” (425). The inevitability with which he writes is the point of the story, but Beerbohm passes this over so lightly that we barely notice, but rather concentrate on the seeming reality of a poet omitted from the standard reference work on the period. And a man, moreover, that Beerbohm admits “WAS ridiculous” (425).
One of the things that is particularly interesting about this story is how closely Beerbohm sticks to fact; wherever possible, every name or location within the story is verifiable. So much so, indeed, that his original readers might well have assumed it was down to their ignorance that they had not encountered poor Enoch Soames. Thus he begins with the arrival of the artist Will Rothenstein in Oxford in 1893, who was there to produce a series of portraits of university figures to be published by the Bodley Head. Rothenstein really did know Whistler and Daudet and the Goncourts, and he really did produce a portrait of the young Enoch Soames (though this was produced later, to coincide with the publication of the story). The story goes on to record the young Beerbohm’s arrival in London (and so far this is a genuine memoir), and it really was Rothenstein who introduced Beerbohm to Walter Sickert and the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and “another haunt of intellect and daring, the domino-room of the Café Royal” (426).
It was here, in the Café Royal, that Beerbohm introduces Soames into this portrait of sophisticated fin-de-siecle London artistic society. Beerbohm immediately identifies Soames as odd, then steps back from that oddity:
He was a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair. He had a thin, vague beard, or, rather, he had a chin on which a large number of hairs weakly curled and clustered to cover its retreat. He was an odd-looking person; but in the nineties odd apparitions were more frequent, I think, than they are now. (426)
“Longish,” “brownish,” “vague,” Soames isn’t just odd, he is ill-formed, he has not come into focus. The fictional Beerbohm is here confident and comfortable in this high social circle; upon Soames is loaded all of the awkwardness and unease that presumably led the real Beerbohm to later withdraw from that society. Soames’s undefined character is highlighted in his first exchange with Rothenstein: Rothenstein vaguely recalls meeting him in Paris, and when Soames says he visited the studio, Rothenstein apologises for being out. “But you were in,” (427) Soames replies, and we see immediately that he is someone impossible to pin in the memory. As Rothenstein says later: “How can one draw a man who does not exist?” (428) And when Beerbohm next runs into Soames, he has “a vague sense that I ought to have recognized him” (429).
When this imprecise being joins the group in the Café Royal, Soames makes a series of gestures, flinging his cape back, ordering absinthe, speaking awkwardly and pretentiously in French. But they are no more than gestures, the man is all pretence. Though Beerbohm notes that they did not identify him as a fool because “he had written a book. It was wonderful to have written a book” (427). And all of Beerbohm’s ambition is alive in that last sentence. When he acquires the book, however, he finds it impenetrable, all carefully wrought, but “Was there, I wondered, any substance at all?” (429) And while the young Beerbohm continues to respect Soames as someone who has been published, we readers get a less positive perspective on him. He talks slightingly of Shelley and Keats, he insists his work owes nothing to contemporary French decadents such as Baudelaire and Verlaine despite the fact that Beerbohm recognises their influence, and he publishes a slim volume of poetry called Fungoids which sinks without trace, deservedly so given the two examples that Beerbohm quotes.
Aside from his being a mediocre poet, the other thing we learn about Soames, ominously given what is to follow, is that he calls himself a “Catholic diabolist” (430), and indeed “Diabolism seemed to be a cheerful, even a wholesome influence in his life” (431).
Meanwhile the relationship between the two is starting to change. By now (another accurate memoir) Beerbohm had sold an essay to Aubrey Beardsley’s “The Yellow Book”; consequently he feels more firmly entrenched in the society within which he moves. Soames, “that absurd creature” (432), remains outside the charmed circle. His poems are rejected by “The Yellow Book”, and thereafter “for the poets and prosaists of ‘The Yellow Book’ and later of ‘The Savoy’ he had never a word but of scorn” (433). Though Beerbohm has a grudging admiration for the way Soames “kept his dingy little flag flying” (433), by the time Soames brings out, at his own expense, his third and final book, Beerbohm forgets to buy it and cannot even remember what it was called. Though Soames is, I believe, Beerbohm’s portrait of himself if he had not made it, a creature shunned and resentful, surviving on a minute inheritance and continuing to believe absolutely in his own literary genius, because Beerbohm had in fact made it – “John Lane had published, by this time, two little books of mine, and they had had a pleasant little success of esteem” (433) – he could afford now to regard Soames with pity for the tragedy of the man. Rothenstein does indeed paint a portrait of Soames – “it ‘existed’ so much more than he; it was bound to” (433) – which gives Soames a brief, belated taste of fame, but its withdrawal breaks him.
It is now, in the summer of 1897, that what has seemed like a memoir, an account of a deservedly-forgotten writer, suddenly lurches into the fantastic. Beerbohm dines at a short-lived café in Greek Street called Restaurant du Vingtieme Siecle, a name which signals that a tale about the past has become a journey into the future. He finds Soames at the café, who treats him to a long diatribe about being neglected, then, still convinced that fame will come his way eventually, he declares that he would sell his soul for the chance to go to the Reading Room of the British Museum one hundred years hence and see the “endless editions, commentaries, prolegomena, biographies” (436) devoted to him and his work. Whereupon a “Mephistophelian” (434) man at the next table joins them and introduces himself as the Devil. He is not as either man imagine the Devil to be, Beerbohm later describes him as “the sort of man who hangs about the corridors of trains going to the Riviera and steals ladies’ jewel-cases” (439). Later still, he says that “Dread was indeed rather blunted in me by his looking so absurdly like a villain in a melodrama” (442). Beerbohm’s understandable response, therefore, is to burst into laughter: “I tried not to, I knew there was nothing to laugh at, my rudeness shamed me; but – I laughed with increasing volume” (436). This disdain between Beerbohm and the Devil is echoed at the very end of the story when, years later, Beerbohm passes the Devil in Paris and “he, if you please, stared straight at me with the utmost haughtiness” (444). Beerbohm is so assured of his own position that he expects even the Devil to treat him with proper civility; confirmation in its way that Beerbohm’s own social standing is the central issue of the story.
Soames, already a diabolist and anxious to discover his own renown, is less dismissive. He quickly agrees to the deal which will transport him to the Museum exactly one hundred years hence. The Devil checks his watch, ten past two, with closing time at seven, at which point, as the Devil puts it: “pouf! – you find yourself again here, sitting at this table” (437). For Soames, the scene switches to where Teller and his companions are waiting. Left behind, Beerbohm says dryly to the Devil: “‘The Time Machine’ is a delightful book, don’t you think? So entirely original” to which the Devil replies: “it is one thing to write about an impossible machine; it is quite another to be a supernatural power” (437). Even now, Beerbohm and the Devil are jockeying for position.
Beerbohm returns early to the café, and exactly on time Soames reappears. Beerbohm tries to persuade him to renege on the deal, to flee from the Devil, but Soames is fatalistic: “‘It’s like my luck,’ he said, ‘to spend my last hours on earth with an ass.’ But I was not offended. ‘And a treacherous ass’” (438). This last is explained by a passage Soames copied from a book he found in 1997:
Fr egzarmpl, a riter ov th time, naimed Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil alive in th twentieth senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld ‘Enoch Soames’ – a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire, but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz. (441)
The debased language, a distant ancestor, perhaps, of the language in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and used here to the same end to illustrate how far the future has fallen, is the most startling and inventive aspect of the story. Though H.G. Wells in The Time Machine, the novel to which Beerbohm has already made specific allusion, has his time traveller unable to communicate with the Eloi of the distant future, he had not attempted to present the language of that distant time. This is, I suspect, the first time that a fragmented language of the future is presented in fiction, and that such broken and distorted prose stands as a representation of the times.
There is also a deliciously inverted self reference in the passage. The story we are reading was written in 1916, is itself a reference point in a book read in 1997, yet all of this relates to events in 1897. In 1916 and 1997 the story is fiction, yet its very fictionality is a bone of contention in the “reality” of 1897 of which this is a memoir, and a time in which Beerbohm himself did not write any fiction. Soames spells it out when he attacks Beerbohm: “you’re so hopelessly not an artist that, so far from being able to imagine a thing and make it seem true, you’re going to make even a true thing seem as if you’d made it up” (442). In other words, Beerbohm is so poor a writer that he’ll make a true story seem as if it is fiction, which is how it will be recorded in the reference book of 1997; but this in turn means that the fiction we think we are reading is in fact a true story, and hence Teller and his companions waiting at the British Museum in 1997. And they are there in the story, the people in the Reading Room: “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” (444). Teller and co must be there, just as Beerbohm must write the story, and still we wonder if, perhaps, that nondescript man really was …
It is an infinite regress: if we read “Enoch Soames” as fiction then it is a true story, but if we recognise it as a true story then it is fiction. Which is one of the cleverest and most satisfying aspects of this most intricate of works.
Quotations taken from “Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties” by Max Beerbohm in The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, New York, Tor, 2014, pp425-444.