Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Max Beerbohm: Spectator Sport

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Max Beerbohm: Spectator Sport

Article excerpt

WE ALL HAVE FAVORITE BOOKSHOPS, and one of mine is in London. It's crammed with books, both new and secondhand, in tidy piles upstairs and in more enticingly untidy ones downstairs. It's a great place to wedge yourself in a corner and see what you find. A few years ago, I had already turned up a copy of The Wallet of Kai Lung (one of Lord Peter Wimsey's favorites for whiling away an idle hour on a punt), some light verse by Evoe, an H. Rider Haggard novel I'd never even heard of, a pile of Dornford Yates, and a prayer book for children from the 1930s ("Please God bless Mummy, Daddy, my brothers and sisters, Nanny, and all my dear friends"). Thinking I should really try to be more serious-minded, or at least up to date, I turned to a table of new books and had to catch my breath. For there amongst the new glossy art books and fat biographies was a matte orange book, elegantly square, with a spidery pen-and-ink portrait-a Beardsley?-with a name I'd never thought to see: Enoch Soames.

Soames (1862-1897) was an English self-declared Catholic diabolist poet minor to the point of invisibility. Have you ever run across even a mention of his books Negations and Fungoids? I confess that I never have either-apparently only four copies of Fungoids exist-except for one occasionally anthologized poem, "To a Young Woman." I quote it here in full.

Insubstantial and dated, really. And yet here was Enoch Soames: The Critical Heritage with (when I opened it with a slightly shaky hand) essays on Soames's life and work, religion and philosophy by an international array of academics, a brief foreward by the novelist Peter Ackroyd, and finally extensive iconobibliographia (a catalogue of portraits of Soames and works about him) and appendices. There were references to influences and websites-274 pages in all. It was eerie to see such a substantial scholarly presence attached to so ghostly a figure.

I bought the book of course, and have it before me as I write. But inevitably another ghost rises alongside Soames', his slightly younger contemporary Max Beerbohm (1872-1956). In life, Beerbohm quickly overshadowed Soames. While he was still an undergraduate, his Wildean essay "A Defence of Cosmetics" was published in the very first volume of the Yellow Book (accompanying contributions by Henry James and Edmund Gosse); in 1896, by the age of twenty-four, he published both a book of drawings, Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen, and a book of prose, The Works of Max Beerbohm. Meanwhile, Soames had sold exactly three copies of Fungoids. In death, however, it becomes a little harder to say which cat is licking the cream of the jest. For on June 3, 1997, in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Soames inspired an extraordinary, perhaps unique, celebration. For Soames, for whom only one contemporary review remains, from the Preston Telegraph ("Strikes a note of modernity throughout. . . . These tripping numbers"), it must have been glorious indeed to have the event announced in the Times, the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and the TLS. But I haven't heard of any similar ceremony for Beerbohm.

And this is all the odder because Soames is Beerbohm's creation.

Well, writers will have their fun. Beerbohm's had his, I've had mine, and N. John Hall, in his new biography of Beerbohm, Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life,1 definitely has his. As a man who's devoted quite a bit of his life to Beerbohm (and thus to Soames), Hall was there that day at the British Museum and also contributed to the little orange volume-I couldn't have made that up. In fact Hall is a perfectly genuine professor of English literature who worked for thirty years on a very worthy and long biography of his other great passion, Trollope, which appeared in 1991. This book is shorter, though no less thorough, but on almost every page you can feel Hall's pleasure in lightening up, in being, as he puts it, "short, selective and personal. Some would say quirky. …

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