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Beerbohm's Seven Men and the Power of the Press MARTIN MANER Wright State University THE RELATIVE LACK of critical attention paid to Max Beerbohm's masterpiece, Seven Men and Two Others, becomes understandable when one recognizes that the work is an anomaly, a postmodernist fiction written before its time.1 It anticipates the writings of Borges, Barth and Nabokov in such features as its narrative self-consciousness, its doubles and uncanny duplications, and its blurring of the boundary lines between fact and fiction.2 In literary criticism, postmodernism is a vexing term, designating a set of family resemblances rather than a single characteristic; central to most definitions, however, is the quality which Alfred Appel, Jr. has called "involution." The involuted literary work (Pale Fire is perhaps the supreme example) is "self-referential, conscious of its status as a fiction." Further, the characters in involuted fiction, like the protagonists of Raymond Queneau's Les Enfants du Limon or Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames," "often recognize that their authenticity is more than suspect."3 The conventions of realistic fiction are constantly subverted by parody and self-parody in postmodernist writings, and in the mock-reminiscences of Seven Men Beerbohm puts to involuted, subversive use the parodie effects he earlier perfected in A Christmas Garland. Along with reflexive and self-parodic elements which constantly undermine our sense of stability, Beerbohm also displays the postmodernist 's characteristic concern with what Ihab Hassan has referred to as "the Problematics of the Book."4 Indeed, Beerbohm's fascination with print as a medium leads him to play with it and probe it in a way that is more subtle than postmodernist games with "purple ink, . . . double columns, footnotes, marginaha," and other means of disrupting the fixity and linearity of print.5 Therefore, rather than developing an extended comparison between Beerbohm and selected masters of contemporary fiction, I wish to reveal 133 ELT: VOLUME 34:2, 1991 the postmodernist complexity of Seven Men and Two Others more indirectly by examining a single reflexive feature of this work: its concern with the power of the medium of printing to complicate the relationships between the work, the writer and the reader. Even though I recognize that Beerbohm would wince at having phrases like "the problematics of the book" or "postmodernist complexity" applied to him, I shall demonstrate in some detail that not only the objects of Beerbohm's satire but their means as well are suggested by his ambivalent fascination with the medium of print. His ambivalence stemmed partly from the fact that print is both an esthetic and a commercial medium. Because he was a visual artist, Beerbohm was peculiarly demanding about the esthetics of book production . He thought of a book as a unified object and felt that its physical presence should be expressive. Only if it were "appropriately printed and bound" did a book deserve to be called a book:6 "He was also obsessively careful in getting printers to follow his directions about type, margins, title-page, binding, cover, etc."7 His sense of the printed book's "presence" is shown by his insistence that Seven Men, like Zuleika Dobson, should be printed in a format "unlike that of ordinary fiction," and that the type and binding "should be of a kind suitable to a book of essays."8 But at the same time that Beerbohm appreciated the esthetics of print, he associated mass publication with crass materialism; he mocked his own involvement with it and seemed driven to "separate himself, economically and culturally, from his own world of journalism."9 Beerbohm's very first book, puckishly given the valetudinarian title The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), contained a farewell to letters ("Diminuendo")—a farewell he lived up to before he reached the age of forty, for after twelve years as the Saturday Review's drama critic he retired to Italy permanently in 1910. On the one hand, for Beerbohm print as a medium was forever associated with the glamour and prestige of his Yellow Book days, when he and friends like the artist William Rothenstein were being published by John Lane's Bodley Head press. But another more negative set of associations arose from...


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pp. 133-151
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