Absinthe with the Devil: “Enoch Soames” is the Best Story You’ve Never Read

Remember the nineties? Remember how we wanted to be writers, and painters and filmmakers, musicians—wanted it so badly like an anguished constant hunger? And maybe it was the eighties or the aughts but you remember what it was like, don’t you? Desperate to know if we had “talent,” aching for just an atom of recognition.

And then as that first decade of adulthood plays out a few people you know start to get somewhere; the book deal, the column, the attention. And then some don’t, and the differences become more and more obvious, it cuts like broken glass and nobody wants to talk about it but talking about it is what gives the farce of “Enoch Soames: a Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties” its glass-sharp edge, its twist of the knife.

Enoch Soames is—you know it’s coming—the best science fiction story you’ve never read. It was published in 1916, early 20th century Golden Age of British science fiction and fantasy, a moment (not so different from right now) when genre was a place where literary writers went to play and genre writers brought their A game and there wasn’t quite so much fuss about the distinction—writers like H. G. Wells and G. K. Chesterton and Max Beerbohm.

Enoch Soames is a hundred years old but doesn’t read like it—it’s all about ambition, all about vanity and what it takes to make art, and in all these things it hasn’t dated a second. I should mention it features both time travel and a pact with the Devil, so if that doesn’t get you at least a little intrigued then I’m saddened. And also—should we meet later on—there is no reason for us to become further acquainted.

Beerbohm’s recollection starts in 1893 at Oxford (throughout he is clear with us that this is not a story but a personal recollection and a factual account. Which of course it is). This is the moment Beerbohm gets his very first taste of the kind of life he wants, when a glamorous young upstart painter visits the campus, full of promise and charisma. They become friends and Beerbohm is taken up to bohemian London—a would-be writer, of course.

That’s where he meets Enoch Soames. Beerbohm sketches with merciless precision what we recognize as a hipster of the day. “He wore a soft black hat of clerical kind, but of Bohemian intention, and a gray waterproof cape which, perhaps because it was waterproof, failed to be romantic.” He’s written a book of poetry called Negations, he preens himself on being a “diabolist.” He drinks absinthe because of course he does.

(Sidebar: I wish I could tell you that in the nineties I never wore an outfit as stupid as Soames’s. I wish I never tried to drink absinthe for effect. I wish a lot of things.)

Beerbohm is equally precise about what happens over the next three years, as he rises in the world. He parses for us the exact millimeter-level changes in status that mark him for success:

“I was a—slight, but definite—‘personality.’ Frank Harris had engaged me to kick up my heels in ‘The Saturday Review,’ Alfred Harmsworth was letting me do likewise in ‘The Daily Mail.’” He renders exactly the tone of the young literary man unable to repress the smugness of early success—he stops barely short of letting you know he’s “kind of a big deal.”

Meanwhile, Soames is sinking, disappearing even from his momentary fractional elevation on the scene. His odd little books are ignored. He used to drink absinthe for show; now he just drinks it. “Sinking” is too kind a word: he’s drowning. It’s the unspeakable time we remember so keenly; the slow recognition that by this time some of one’s contemporaries are marked to move upwards; others are not. (If this time is still ahead of you in your life, well, bonne chance as Soames might say.)

Beerbohm and his chums avoid Soames and snicker behind his back but he’s honest enough to admit a little discomfort—the ineradicable truth that there’s something very slightly vulgar about success, and an inevitable portion of dignity in failure. He avoids Soames because “I was just what Soames wasn’t. And he shamed my gloss.”

It’s something, at least that Soames keeps a little pride, his faux-intellectual swagger—“he kept his dingy little flag flying.” But finally even that pride fades, if it was there at all—perhaps “Soames’s dignity was an illusion of mine. One day, in the first week of June, 1897, that illusion went. But on the evening of that day Soames went, too.”

Soames’s doom arrives. Beerbohm comes on him in a dingy restaurant and there they meet a stranger—tall, black hair, close-set eyes, something a little off about that scarlet waistcoat. The Devil, of course—and the self-proclaimed “diabolist” has met up with the real thing. Soames makes his deal in a flash of his old arrogance: He will travel a hundred years forward in time and sees what posterity has made of him. He does it; he returns to the present and departs to serve his sentence—I won’t spoil that scene, but you won’t see a better final exit from an innately ridiculous character.

And as for what he found in that strange dystopia of 1997, well… before pitching this story I searched for his name on Tor.com and got a single perfect result: “Enoch Soames, a character from a Max Beerbohm story. I have no idea who that is.” Let that stand.

I’m spoiling some of Enoch Soames here, but only because I’m not giving away all the good parts and because more than half the reason to read it is Beerbohm’s wit on the page and the way he anatomizes tiny details of status and posturing, the minutia of social interactions among the young and full of themselves.

Reading it is pure pleasure but however lovely it feels to idle in 1890s Bohemia and Max Beerbohm’s wit and invention, this is a hilarious and bruisingly accurate portrait of the bloodsport of art and ambition; the truth, now just as then, that the mass of its practitioners are invisibly eating their hearts out at least part of the time, and the only difference is that Soames isn’t checking Instagram. The day I quit pushing this story is the day I read anything remotely as good from the writers of the present day or the moment I quit eating my own heart out just as Soames did.

A coda: it happens that Max Beerbohm’s account is very specific about where and when Soames goes to when he travels: his destination is the reading room of the British Museum in London, England on June 3, 1997, 2:10pm in the afternoon. The story has enough of a following that a dozen or so pilgrims made the trip to meet him there. We are told that Enoch Soames did arrive and looked exactly as described – a tall pale figure, wispy facial hair, black clerical hat and grey cape, somewhat ridiculous. He proceeded to the card catalogue, and then the relevant reference volume. He left the reading room and vanished without a trace. The magician Teller happened to witness the event in question but maybe that was just a coincidence.

The lesson is—well, there are several. That writers are not always pretty creatures, and art is not always a pretty game. And for those in that particular line, the Devil may be watching you with special attention, looking for that breaking point when you forget why you started doing this in the first place, and you just want some fucking attention after all, after all this work, just for once in your life, and why can’t it be now?

It’s better to know the Devil for what he is. Remember what happened to Enoch Soames.

Austin Grossman is a novelist and game designer.  His novels include Soon I Will Be InvincibleYOU: a novel, and Crooked. He’s working on something new. Sometimes he’s on Twitter.

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