Welcome to portrait country.
Not physical portraits as in the Dorian Gray sense (although one does show up in our second story “Enoch Soames”), but the prose sort. First in the short ghost story “Importance” by Manuel Mujica Lainez, about a Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno, a self-important woman whose soul after her death lingers on for eternity among her possessions, and second in Max Beerbohm’s longer story about time travel, deals with the devil, and “Enoch Soames”, its titular self-important writer of dubious quality.
I’ve little to say about “Importance”. It’s a good story, concisely told and with a barb to it. Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno is a very important widow, nearly the most important widow in her city. The one blemish in her pedigree is that she comes from a less than spectacular family. All of whom she cut out of her life as she rose in society. Then, as these things happen, she woke up one morning only to find herself dead. At first she assumed it was only a matter of time before the angels appeared to take her on to her celestial reward, but as time goes by, and her dreaded relations reappear, she realizes that no angels are coming for her, and this is to be her eternity, her soul trapped in her bedroom, ever aware of how her family degrades her memory.
It’s a good solid shot of smugness followed by impotent rage towards God and man.
What’s not to like?
I hadn’t heard of Lainez until now and it appears his books were never much translated into English. The two that were, Bomarzo about an immortal Renaissance duke and The Wandering Unicorn a tale about the fairy Melusine set against the back drop of the Crusades, sound right up my alley and will likely warrant some tracking down or interlibrary loan next time I’m in the USA.
Now back to the Black Water and “Enoch Soames”…
I don’t know if Max Beerbohm is much remembered these days. He’s certainly someone that shows up a lot in any book about early 20th century English Literature, but more as a scenester than an actual writer. The sort who draws funny pictures of literati and has those pictures and his bon mots published in the smart set papers. Beerbohm’s funny, and perceptive, but a bit arch and smugly long winded in that British high society sort of way. If he were alive today, he’d very likely have a very popular podcast or even late night talk show.
“Enoch Soames” starts as a cutting satire of a certain type of wannabe writer. Soames is the arrogant dabbler who lurks at the margins of the literary scene whose overwhelming sense of self-importance is so distant from his actual ability and output to make him a farcical character. He apes the decadent style while also dismissing it and everything else that crosses his field of vision while working intently on some niche work he proclaims to be nothing shor of groundbreaking. When it’s published it has the title “Fungoids” and no more than three people buy it.
Beerbohm recounts meeting Soames on multiple occasions and finds him morbidly fascinating. As things progress, Soames worries more and more about his legacy and whether people will realize his genius after his death. He’s nearing a fever pitch when the devil steps in (or speaks up since he’s sitting next to Soames and Beerbohm in a crowded café) and offers to transport Soames exactly one hundred years into the future in exchange for his soul. Soames makes the deal and from that point on things go very badly for Enoch Soames.
First he’s not remembered as a significant writer at all. Second, he’s not even real but an imaginary character most famous as the subject of Max Beerbohm’s short story “Enoch Soames”. This leaves him crushed and deflated, so that when he returns to his own present day he’s unable to resist when the devil comes calling for him. The devil here is the theatrical sort dressed in pure Mephistopheles. Beerbohm describes him as looking like the sort of criminal that lingers around train stations in the hopes of stealing some high-class lady’s jewelry case.
As a rather Soamesian sort myself, the story did make me cringe. Beerbohm’s best remembered as a caricaturist after all. The portrait is perfect and Soames has a vividness despite his being described as “dim”. Trust me, if you have ever at all been near any sort of scene then you have met guys like Enoch Soames with their unwarranted high opinions of themselves. That Beerbohm paints his picture and then erases it in the same story is a clever act.
Next week. . . more writers I’ve only heard about but never read!