A Memory of the Nineteen-Nineties
Being a faithful account of the events of the designated day, when the man who had disappeared was expected briefly to return
ONE FORTY-NINE P.M. The gilded clock that looks down on the Round Reading Room at the British Museum has no second hand. But I am watching very closely. I can actually see the minute hand creeping toward the Roman numeral X.
Above, the vast blue plaster dome with its arched windows and skylight is just as it was a hundred years ago, on that terrible day when --
A distant loose-leaf binder clicks shut.
It's 1:53. Soon it will be two o'clock. Then, at last, 2:10, the moment I have been waiting for. To be here, in this spot in London, on this day at ten past two, I have traveled 4,000 miles and planned for thirty-four and a half years.
Thirty-four and a half years ago I was sitting in a nearly empty high school classroom in Philadelphia under the spell of my English teacher and drama coach, D. G. Rosenbaum. I idolized Mr. Rosenbaum (or "Rosey," as we Drama Society brats called him). He had a dark, resonant voice. He had a widow's peak and a moustache and goatee that made him look like Mephistopheles; he hinted that his ancestors were Scottish warlocks. He wore trim black suits, blood-red vests, and pince-nez. He smoked black cigarettes with gold tips, and made them vanish by sleight of hand when the principal was nearby. Rosey knew psychoanalysis. He quoted Aristotle, Kenneth Burke, and Ezra Pound in everyday conversation. He ordered his milkshakes spiked with raw eggs.
That afternoon Rosey was entertaining half a dozen aspiring young actors by reading aloud "Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties," by Max Beerbohm. "Soames" is a sharp sketch of a dull poet Beerbohm encountered in London just before the turn of the century.
He was a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair. He had a thin vague beard -- or rather, he had a chin on which a large number of hairs weakly curled and clustered to cover its retreat.... The young writers of that era -- and I was sure this man was a writer -- strove earnestly to be distinct in aspect. This man had striven unsuccessfully. He wore a soft black hat of clerical kind but of Bohemian intention, and a grey waterproof cape which, perhaps because it was waterproof, failed to be romantic. I decided that "dim" was the mot juste for him.
Soames's poems were equally dim. His most successful book sold only three copies. But his vanity was untarnished. Soames was certain that future generations would recognize his genius.
On the afternoon of June 3, 1897, Beerbohm was talking with Soames in a Soho café when a sinister stranger in a scarlet vest interrupted. The stranger introduced himself as the Devil and made an offer. He would transport Soames a hundred years into the future, to visit the Round Reading Room of the British Museum as it would be in 1997. Here Soames could consult the library's all-knowing catalogue and at last be sure of his place in literary history. The price for such a trip: eternity in Hell. Soames accepted. At ten past two on June 3, 1897, Enoch Soames vanished into the future.
Later that afternoon Soames reappeared in the little café. He looked grim and immediately got drunk. Beerbohm prodded him to recount his trip. Soames said that his arrival in the Reading Room of 1997 had caused a sensation.
"They stared at me,I can tell you.... I think I rather scared them. They moved away whenever I came near. They followed me about at a distance, wherever I went. The men at the round desk in the middle seemed to have a sort of panic...."
Soames had gone straight to the catalogue and had taken out the volume he hoped would contain endless editions, critiques, and annotations of his work. He found none. He searched the library all afternoon, until at last he found one lone mention of his name in a book on English literature of the late nineteenth century.
Enoch Soames, the book said, was an imaginary character in a story by Max Beerbohm.
Just as Soames finished telling Beerbohm about his visit to 1997, the Rosey-esque stranger reappeared and dragged the poor poet away, presumably to Hell. He was never seen again. But, Beerbohm wrote,
You realise that the reading-room into which Soames was projected by the Devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realise, therefore, that on that afternoon, when it comes round, there the self-same crowd will be, and there Soames too will be, punctually.... The fact that people are going to stare at him, and follow him around, and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly visitation....
In other words, anyone in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum at ten past two on June 3, 1997, would be able to verify Beerbohm's memoir, and see an authentic, guaranteed, proven ghost.
When Rosey finished reading us the story, he closed the book, leaned back, and removed his pince-nez. "I wonder," he said, "how many Enoch Soameses will show up."
At the time, I thought he was merely musing. Later I understood. He was giving me a homework assignment.
ONE MINUTE PAST TWO P.M. The Reading Room is laid out like a wheel. The hub is the superintendent's round desk in the middle, ringed by low bookcases containing volumes of the catalogue. The spokes are long desks, upholstered in faded blue leather. At these very desks worked Yeats, Shaw, and Karl Marx. I'm sitting at desk M-1 with a good view of the S section of the catalogue. As I watch, a silver-haired scholar in a rumpled suit pulls out the mold-green tome labeled SNOOD to SOBOS and opens it on top of the bookcase. As he turns the pages, a plumpish, pale woman with glasses and a pageboy haircut timidly steps up and peeks over his shoulder. Soon they're joined by a dark-haired, stocky man, who asks the others, with a heavy accent, "Please, do you speak Spanish?"
I leave my spot at desk M-1 to see what they're looking at.
The entries are pasted into the catalogue on individual yellowed slips. There are eight Soameses -- none christened Enoch -- credited with books about fascism, phonetics, Holy Communion, and goat farming. On the facing catalogue page a new, white slip has been stuck on with tape:
see Beerbohm, Max (3.6.1997).
As I return to my seat, I notice other spectators lounging watchfully in the neighborhood of the catalogue: A slim woman in a pale-green suit. An angular man, about fifty, casually holding a tiny camera. A tall, smirking, aesthetic Teddy boy, with a rainbow-hued vest under his Edwardian jacket and a spray of white snowdrops in his buttonhole.
Standing next to my desk is an attractive woman of about fifty in a raincoat. "Where are you from?" I ask in my library whisper.
"Malibu," she says. Her name is Sally, and she writes mystery novels. Is she here just for this event? "Yes. I've thought about it for thirty-five years. And I just felt I should be here to see if he shows up."
The slim woman in the pale-green suit is standing behind me. I ask her where she's from. "Cambridge. We're supposed to be very serious at Cambridge. But don't tell anyone: I taped the slip in the catalogue."
Sally from Malibu touches my arm. "I think he's here. Look." She points to a birdlike dandy with pale-pink windowpane-check trousers, a burgundy vest, and a gold watch fob. His beard is neatly trimmed and his moustache is waxed hard enough to slash a pillow to ribbons.
"That can't be Soames," I say. "He's not 'dim' at all. Look how healthy his beard is. And he's not wearing the black hat and the waterproof cape." I look at the clock. "Besides," I say, "it's only six after two."
"Oh, you're right," Sally says with a sigh.
TEN PAST TWO P.M. About a dozen pilgrims are waiting, loosely encircling the catalogue bookcase on which the SNOOD volume lies open. The librarians at the round desk in the middle look out at the siege uneasily.
From my right I hear "There he is!"
Not thirty feet from the catalogue a man in a gray Inverness cape and a black clerical hat is making his way toward us.
Someone whispers, "Where did he come from?"
"He's perfect!" gasps the aesthete with the boutonniere.
And, really, he is. The wide-brimmed beaver hat is threadbare. The cape is mud-stained. The man under the cape appears to be in his late twenties, with a large head, long neck, and sloping shoulders. He is pale save for scattered inflammations on his skin, and his mouse-brown hair droops down his neck. To his chin and his upper lip clings thin, lusterless fuzz. His eyes are wide-set, hooded, and sad.
He goes directly to the catalogue and gazes for a long time at the gap where the SNOOD volume belongs. He pulls out the volume to the left and looks through it, puzzled. Then he notices SNOOD lying open on top of the bookcase and leafs through it.
We would be impolite to stare at a living person as we gawk right now at this Enoch Soames. But surely this is not a mere living person. He is either the specter of a nineteenth-century poet on his way to damnation or an actor putting the finishing touches on a great literary magic trick. Not to stare would be rude.
The dome echoes with the far-off thud of books mingling with whispers and little bursts of out-of-place laughter: "I want to touch his cape to see if it's waterproof!" "Look: his hand's not even trembling." "My, he's very professional."
"Soames" is undistracted from his mission. He goes to the center desk and inquires. We cannot hear his request, but we all know it. He is asking if there are other catalogues he should look in. The librarian shakes his head, and Soames, bewildered, returns to the SNOOD volume and checks it again. The angular man with the camera leans forward and takes a snapshot. Soames does not flinch.
The crowd parts as he moves away from the catalogue. Whether he be actor or specter, to touch him would be sacrilege.
Sally from Malibu edges in close beside me. "For some reason," she says, "I'm having to fight tears."
TWO THIRTY-ONE P.M. The curious have joined the faithful, and the crowd has doubled. Soames has just taken out a volume of the Dictionary of and is seated at one of the long desks next to a student who is making notes from some books on Kafka. The student senses a presence and looks up to see an anguished man in 1890s rainwear. The student looks back at his Kafka, and copies out a few words. Then he glances up toward the catalogue. Fifty people are staring at him. He returns to his books. A minute later he looks up again. He is surrounded. The student slams closed his Kafka and stalks away, leaving his stack of notes behind.
Soames rises gloomily and returns his book to the shelf. A bearded librarian approaches him and says something we cannot hear. Soames nods and then glides along the wall. We lose sight of him.
Suddenly someone whispers, "He's gone!"
And he is -- there's not a trace of him anywhere.
"I didn't see him leave!"
"He didn't go out the door. I was watching it."
The aesthete with the flower in his lapel leans toward me. "Ha! It's a conjuring trick, isn't it?" he says, grinning.
The bearded librarian addresses the group. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you are visitors, it's time to leave now. There's nothing more to see here; shall we be moving along, then?"
As the spectators file out, an old man in a gray cardigan turns to me. Random stubs of white hair poke out of his face, and a wild gleam flashes in his eye.
FIFTY-FIVE PAST TWO P.M. Soames is gone. The crowd is gone. The bearded librarian has regained his composure and returned to work. I am sitting at desk M-1. Very far away a telephone rings. I shall never sit in this great domed room again. By November all the books will be in the library's new quarters, a modern air-conditioned monolith across town. The move was originally scheduled for around 1980, but was delayed by nearly two decades of construction problems. So in spite of the British Museum's best efforts, the Round Reading Room is here for Soames's centennial, just as Beerbohm said it would be. It's a small miracle, really -- like the appearance of the new "Soames" slip in the catalogue. Like the visit of the man in the gray waterproof cape. D. G. "Rosey" Rosenbaum didn't come to the Reading Room; he no longer corrects homework assignments. He was buried seven years ago, dressed in a smart charcoal suit, with a blood-red vest and his pince-nez, a rose in his lapel. The mourners said there was a sly smile on his face.
Teller is the shorter, quieter half of the noir comedy magic team Penn & Teller.
Illustration by Pierre Le-Tan
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; A Memory of the Nineteen-Nineties; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 48-53.