Max Beerbohm Essay - Critical Essays


Max Beerbohm is both a product and a critic of the late nineteenth century aesthetic movement. He emphasizes the quality of beauty in a work of art, rather than its moral implications; this beauty is perceived by the reading audience in the writer’s style, his ability to choose the appropriate word. Although Beerbohm’s style develops from the stunning effects of exaggeration and fantasy in the 1890’s to a more measured, classical style in the 1920’s, his temperament and attitude remain the same through all forms of his writing. His delicate, elegant style, balanced by humor, biting satire, and accurate parody, treats the reader to some of the most amusing short fiction of the twentieth century.

Beerbohm understands that his work does not include that which is called “important”; he aims more for “the perfect adjustment of means to ends,” yet his writing is not merely surface brilliance. Within this approach of intelligent good sense Beerbohm’s criticism of art, artists, and life shows a subtle insight into people’s behavior and the ambiguities of human nature. In his fantasy stories he captures the moods and social conventions of the society of his time; in his parodies he dissects not only the style but also the thought of famous authors. His art, then, reveals a good measure of truth.

Seven Men

Seven Men is a collection of stories that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. In a very modern way Beerbohm self-consciously introduces himself as a character in the story, reminiscing about some of his extraordinary experiences. The stories also follow different periods in Beerbohm’s life. The autobiographical and realistic elements are further reinforced by the introduction of actual persons into the narrative. The two central stories, “Enoch Soames” and “‘Savonarola’ Brown,” focus upon this relationship of life to art and the illusions that can dominate both. Beerbohm characteristically parodies himself and his susceptibility to the manners and modes of the time; as an author he also comments obliquely on the nature of art itself.

“Enoch Soames” begins with Max looking eagerly into Mr. Holbrook Jackson’s book of the 1890’s for the entry SOAMES, ENOCH. Finding it missing as he had suspected, Beerbohm tells us about his meetings with the poet and author Enoch Soames and tells us why his story must be written. Sprinkled throughout the sketch are the names of the masters of the 1890’s: Wilde, Rothenstein, Walter Richard Sickert, and Beardsley. Soames patronizes the café society of this decade and tries to be as intellectually daring as the other famous artists and poets. We understand very soon, however, that the personality of the “stooping, shambling” Soames is of a different order from that of his colleagues. Max describes him as ridiculous and “dim,” and Rothenstein does not remember him. Rothenstein, in fact, will not even draw him, asking, “How can one draw a man who doesn’t exist?” Beerbohm reads Soames’s book Negations, but he cannot understand what it is about. It seems to have form but no substance, like Soames himself.

Soames is well aware that people, especially reviewers, do not notice him, and what he wants more than anything else is artistic recognition, especially for posterity. While dining with Max at le Restaurant du Vingtième Siècle, Soames, who earlier confessed to Max that he was a Catholic Diabolist, says he wants to go one hundred years into the future to see the editions, commentaries, and bibliographies of himself in the British Museum. For this, he says, “I’d sell myself body and soul to the devil.” The gentleman sitting next to them is the Devil and quickly accepts Soames’s terms. Soames disappears and then returns to Beerbohm, confirming the author’s suspicion that Soames’s search would be fruitless. The only reference to Soames, in the phonetic language of 1897, is that he is an imaginary character in a “sumwot labud sattire” by Max Beerbohm. Soames’s last words before the Devil fulfills his bargain are, “Try to make them know that I did exist.” Later, Max sees the Devil “over-dressed as usual” and is deliberately snubbed.

It seems that Soames, and possibly Max himself, is typical of the young authors of the 1890’s whose talent was imaginary or at least of little value to later generations. There are many like Soames who are only parodies of the French Symbolists or the Decadent novelists. The satire, however, succeeds at a deeper level. Beerbohm creates reflections and images that mirror the nature and the problems of art and artists. There is a fine distinction between art and life, and the author must create his own reality, which may be ephemeral. Max both acknowledges and fears the Soames side of his own character, the mediocre element, the part rebuffed by the Devil. In fashioning this type of narrative, Beerbohm examines the truth of fiction and our attitudes toward it. Soames is a fiction trying to become real, and the truth of his predicament both within the circumscribed world of the story and without is problematic. Beerbohm, on the other hand, is the working storyteller trying to get inside...

(The entire section is 2142 words.)