A.V. Laider by Max Beerbohm, 1916
The magic trick:
Bringing the existential debate of the characters onto the reader through some clever plot twists
A.V. Laider and the narrator engage in debate early in the story over the nature of truth, belief, and free will. Now, if there’s anything more tiresome than arguing such things it’s reading about someone else’s argument over such things. But that’s what Beerbohm gives us for the first five or so pages.
Thankfully, he transitions to A.V. Laider’s two narratives. The first is a spellbinding account involving palmistry, a train, and, possibly, murder. The second consists of Laider’s comments about the first narrative.
Not only are these tales far more entertaining than the existential debate that kicks off the piece, they also allow Beerbohm to manipulate the reader into engaging into the very same existential debate. The story ends, and we are left asking ourselves, “Which story do we believe? Both? Is belief truth? What is knowledge?”
The debate may be tiresome, but there’s no denying the story has its way with the reader. And that’s quite a trick on Beerbohm’s part.
He smiled at my pleasure, and I, at the risk of re-entanglement in metaphysics, claimed him as standing shoulder to shoulder with me against “A Melbourne Man.” This claim he gently disputed. “You may think me very prosaic,” he said, “but I can’t believe without evidence.”
“Well, I’m equally prosaic and equally at a disadvantage: I can’t take my own belief as evidence, and I’ve no other evidence to go on.”