Two More Penguins: Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm.

Continuing my exploration of my old English Penguins, I have just read Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale” and Max Beerbohm’s “Seven Men and Two Others”.

I had read “Of Moon and Sixpence” by Maugham some years ago, and enjoyed it.  It’s the basic story of artist Paul Gaugin and his move to the South Pacific.  I have never read “Of Human Bondage”, probably his best known book.  And I must admit not having known anything about “Cakes and Ale”, the third book with which he is identified.  I found it a pleasant enough read, but nothing to write home about.

It’s a book about two writers (perhaps one is based on Thomas Hardy and one based on Hugh Walpole, they say), of a different generation.  The younger man knew the older when they both lived in the same small town and the older writer taught the teen age youngster how to ride a bike (among other things).  They reconnect in London, some time later, when the younger writer is not so young and a sexual relationship develops between him and the wife of the elder, all of which is kept rather secret (as are her various other assignatons.) Years later, after the wife of the older officer disappears and he gets remarried to a very different type of woman and then dies at a ripe old age, the younger man is asked to write his biography.  And this is whether certain other things all come out.  Not the most essential story, but not totally lacking interest.

Now as to Max Beerbohm, his is a name I first heard long ago, but never read anything by him and don’t think many people today do read his work.  “Seven Men and Two Others” is a book of 6 short stories (all of which, like “Cake and Ale” are about writers) and, although I think that they vary in quality, the best ones are quite good. I especially recommend the first story in the book, “Enoch Soames”, and the fifth, “Felix Argallo and Walter Ledgett”.

Beerbohm himself is a character in both of these stories.  Enoch Soames is a poet who is despondent because no one seems to read or appreciate his work.  Beerbohm suggests that great artists are often not appreciated during their lives and that in a hundred years, everyone may know his work.  His comments are overheard by another gentleman who introduces himself as the Devil and makes a Faustian bargain with Soames.  He will send Soames on a time travel trip to the British Library Reading Room one hundred years into the future (which turned out to be June 3, 1997) and allow Soames to see if anyone is reading his work, in return for Soames dedicating his eternity to Satan.  The deal is made, Soames spends 4 hours at the library and discovers that no one is reading his work and that his work is not found in the library’s catalog.  In fact, the only mention of himself that he can find is in a short story written by Beerbohm.  He returns to 1897 and to Beerbohm and asks Beerbohm if he is planning on writing about this embarrassing escapade (which he obviously knows he will).  Beerbohm promises he won’t, as Soames and the Devil vanish into the air.  The rest is history.

Felix Argallo is a Spanish born writer whose success comes after years of struggle all at once, and an extraordinary success it is.  Walter Ledgett, on the other hand, has no success at all and is convinced he never will have.  Max Beerbohm comes up with a plan to restore Ledgett’s lost confidence.  He goes to the house of the much older Argallo and asks him to write out four letters that Beerbohm will dictate.  Each of the letters is addressed to Beerbohm and speaks ecstatically of the work of Ledgett and of Ledgett’s extraordinary personality.  Shortly after writing the letters, Argallo commits suicide.  As Beerbohm knew would happen, a call goes out from Argallo’s publisher for any letters addressed to or from Argallo, so that they can be included in a book to be published in honor and memory of Argallo.  The four letters appear and, one would think, Ledgett’s career would get a big boost.  But there’s a problem.  The letters refer to incidents involving Argallo and Ledgett together that Ledgett has no memory of – he says that they never occurred.  Only after Ledgett is convinced by Beerbohm that he is suffering from the effects of monoutinasamnesia (forgetting one specific thing only) and enviroactivity (forgetting anything at all connected to the matter being forgotten as a result of the monoutinasamnesia) is he willing to accept that the famous and respected Argallo did think that there was something specially about his own work and worth.

Very clever stories – the result of a very clever mind.

2 thoughts on “Two More Penguins: Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm.

  1. I am almost positive that we read “Of Human Bondage” in high school. I think you and I were always in the same English class. I pretty much remember it, or at least some of the story.

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