Max Beerbohm tells several stories in which six men appear as well as him. His stories are filled with humorous irony. They start off in a realistic manner but soon swerve into unreality, in the fascinating manner of many Spanish novels and many stories by the Noble Prize Winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon. He portrays himself as an interested simple man in the stories who encounters very significant people.
In his first tale, Enoch Soames, he is surprised that Soames, now gone, was not included among the great writers of the period. Soames thought of himself as a great artist, even though only three of his books were sold. He also considered himself a Catholic Diabolist. While speaking with Beerbohm, the two are approached by the devil who had overheard the man wondering what posterity will think of him. The devil offers to transport him a hundred years into the future to a library in exchange for his soul. Beerbohm tries to dissuade him from taking the offer, but he does so.
In another tale, Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton, there is a competition between two authors. Both are very successful with their first book but failures with their second. One so despises the other that when he was invited to an important home and the hostess wanted to invite his competitor, he made a remark that stopped her from doing so. Although the other man was not invited and although he was not present, the first man sees him repeatedly at the hostess’ home. This results in him changing his life.
In the third tale, Savonarola, a man decides to devote his life to writing a play about Savonarola. He spends nine years on his play but dies before he can finish the last act. Beerbohm quotes the entire play, which disappoints him, and tells us that although he tried for eight years to find someone to finish the play and stage it, he could find no one, and he himself could not do it.
Max Beerbohm creates memorable character studies of people he knew in the British theater world around 1900. Perhaps some of these people are imaginary.
'Enoch Soames' is probably the best pact-with-the-devil story ever written; 'Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton' is perhaps the best ghost story ever written, certainly the best involving bicycles; and 'Savonarola Brown' is the funniest and most accurate parody of a pseudo-Shakespeare play ever attempted...
This book was metafictional and postmodern before 'metafiction' and 'postmodernism' were even workable concepts. A delight and a privilege to read.