THE GUILLOTINE

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 45: MAX BEERBOHM
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In mathematics, an infinitesimal is usually defined as a number larger than zero but smaller than any number you care to think of. And, in 20th-century English literature, Max Beerbohm, "the incomparable Max", as Shaw nicknamed him, might be defined as a writer whose work was larger than zero but smaller than that of any significant writer you care to think of.

It would certainly be difficult to cite a man of letters who worked on a tinier canvas, or whose range was narrower or deliberately more cramping. If he was incomparable, it was because there was no one even remotely similar to whom he could be compared. A dandified Edwardian in both his literary and vestimentary style, Max opted out of this century's socio-literary history by exiling himself to Rapallo and probably would have been horrified at the notion of surviving into the next. If he's destined to fade altogether, it's surely what he would have wished for himself.

Though, for such a precious perfectionist, he was curiously prolific, a lot of his writings - his essays, broadcasts, theatre reviews, even the superb parodies of A Christmas Garland (forgotten because most of the objects of his mimicry have long since ceased to be household names) - are already gathering dust in forlornly unfrequented library stacks. His drawings, the graphic equivalents of the prose parodies, have been squirrelled away by private collectors and are now hard to see. (The Ashmolean, though, has a fine collection.) His sole extended work of fiction, the Oxford squib Zuleika Dobson, was a period piece even when he wrote it.

If any one of Beerbohm's works is likely to endure, it's his collection of short stories, Seven Men. Or, rather, the best-known of the seven, "Enoch Soames". Its protagonist, a minor Symbolist poet, sells his soul in order to be granted advance knowledge of posterity's judgement of his poetry and is aghast to discover that the only reference to him in the British Library's catalogue is, precisely, as the hero of Beerbohm's tale.

That, in a sense, is equally the story of Beerbohm's life - or death. If he, too, had made a pact with the devil, and were to haunt the British Library in the year 3000, say, he might well discover that the only reference to him is as the author of "Enoch Soames".

GILBERT ADAIR

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