I find it hard to explain why I like Max Beerbohm’s stories so much. The British caricaturist and dandy, author of the classic Oxford satire Zuleika Dobson, though witty, is not as great a short story writer as his fellow-Edwardian satirist Saki, and certainly not as funny or lovable as his contemporary P. G. Wodehouse. My attraction to Beerbohm is probably due to his prose style, for he was a student of Walter Pater, one of the great aesthetes of the Victorian age. Beerbohm’s somewhat frivolous but captivating story ‘Enoch Soames’ is encapsulated within the story itself in these memorable lines:
a riter ov th time, naimd 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.
By arrangement with the Devil, Enoch Soames, a self-absorbed, absinthe-swilling fin-de-siècle poet whose most successful book sold no more than three copies, is projected to the Round Reading Room in the British Museum precisely a hundred years later (that is, to the afternoon of June 3, 1997), to discover the verdict of posterity. By then, people wear dull uniforms with their identification numbers sewed on, and they use a phonetic spelling (perhaps a nod to Beerbohm’s Café Royal fellow-patron George Bernard Shaw, who proposed one such spelling ‘reform’). The only reference Soames finds to himself is in a historical survey of late 19th-Century literature, quoted above. Naturally, the Devil comes to collect, but is that the end of Soames? Beerbohm’s narrator points out that anyone visiting the Round Reading Room on that afternoon in the future would be able to confirm, contrary to the historian’s claim, that Soames was far from imaginary. A short story penned by the American magician Teller and published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1997, tells of the events that transpired on a visit to the Round Reading Room on the prescribed date.