I’m picky about short stories. They have to be truly amazing for me to care at all. Where worldbuilding or a few interesting characters might get me through a novel, a short story has limited pages to make an impression. I have some I like, mostly science fiction (or scifi-inflected) with the occasional classic like “Bartleby the Scrivener” (love), but if there’s no scifi it needs to be all the better to make regular old people seem interesting.
Enter Max Beerbohm, hailed as a genius in his time (the early 1900s) and now almost forgotten, probably because he wasn’t a prolific writer of fiction. He published the short story collection Seven Men, one novel-length work called Zuleika Dobson, one or two satires, and various books of essays. He was a theater critic and caricaturist, among other things. I get the sense that he didn’t necessarily write to be remembered, that he saw the absurdity in Serious Art, and something about that kind of life and work catches my imagination much more than the serious classicists.
Seven Men holds five stories, each about a different character and one story about two. That makes six; the seventh man is Max himself, writing each story as if it’s an essay on someone he knows. In some cases he’s an active part of the story, in others he’s more of an observer, but this gives us our first sense of the book. It’s about writers, aspirations, fictions and metafictions, with a sense of humor.
“Enoch Soames,” the first story, I’ve talked about before. I will again, because it currently holds pride of place as my favorite short story. I found it in Flowers from Hell: A Satanic Reader, because I’m interested in Luciferianism and fiction, and it completely amazed me. It’s about a poet and philosopher who is desperate to be remembered as a great writer and makes a deal with the devil to travel to the future and see how he is remembered. It’s the best story in the volume, has Max’s character at his most active, and delivers not only themes worth reading but a killer twist.
“Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” is almost as good, featuring two competing authors (who reminded me rather of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, although before their time), both of whom are preoccupied with their social success achieved via popular novels (in an Oscar Wilde sort of way based on their wit at parties). That turns into a kind of wildly creative ghost story. It combines the silliness of authorial pretension with the acute pain of social awkwardness, and although it doesn’t have a plot twist at the end, struck me as entirely unexpected all the way through.
“Joseph Pethel” I thought was the weakest of the five, more a straightforward character study of a gambler. It’s still good writing, but doesn’t really have a twist and doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the themes of the others.
“A.V. Laider” is back to great, a story not about an author, but about a palmist recovering from influenza at a near-empty resort, along with Max. It explores tale-telling, with a meditation on lost letters at the beginning and a gut-wrenching story in the middle. You think it’s going to be a story about connection, a lost opportunity at friendship, then the ending section throws the story into a new light and makes it wholly different than you thought.
“‘Savonarola’ Brown,” I have mixed feelings about, because I’m not sure I fully understood it. The idea is that Brown was a friend who was working on a play about Girolamo Savonarola, talks about it for years, and then dies before he finishes it. Max includes the text of the first four acts, which are slightly insane and incorporate figures from the whole Italian Renaissance. Max makes an attempt to finish the play in a satisfactory way, but fails, and calls on the readers to write their own fifth acts. So, the large part of the story taken up by the play was a slog, but at the same time I enjoyed the commentary on writing, on whether or not characters have lives of their own, on reader involvement. I wonder if I would think differently if I knew more about Savonarola, but I think probably the story still has the intended effect.
So, five short stories, all worth reading and especially great in combination with each other. They all explore what stories are, ourselves as stories, and our acquaintances as stories that glancingly interact with ours, the feeling we get when we see glimpses of another person’s whole life and know it’s different from our own. I am quite comfortable saying that I, too, think Max Beerbohm was and is a genius, and although I wish he’d written more stories, I look forward to exploring his other work!