‘A.V. Laider’ by Max Beerbohm

Beerbohm, Max 1916

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.

The selection:

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.”

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3 Comments on “‘A.V. Laider’ by Max Beerbohm”

  1. Joel Railsback says:

    I think you have limited the reader to fewer choices than are available if you read the first few pages carefully. The plot twists when Laider denies the truth of his story, that’s true, but the tricky part is how Beerbohm sets us up to believe what we’re told from the beginning.

    The ‘existential debate’ is perhaps not as elevated or abstruse as you say. It takes place in a popular magazine and both men have been entertained by the discussion for a few issues. After the Melbourne Man’s response, the Editor declares he has had enough and calls the whole nonsense off. The Narrator’s view is silly, contradictory and meaningless, expressed in a playful banter reminiscent of Beerbohm’s heyday. (The story was published in 1919.) In other words, it’s more like a modern day talk-show rant than a serious discussion.

    The Melbourne Man’s response is a parody of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn that more or less declares the questions unanswerable (in a way, answering already the question you pose for readers).

    While trudging through the first five pages or so, you should also have noticed the characterization of the Narrator. He scans the letter board but before he notices his own handwriting, he’s created an entire drama acted out by A Very Young Envelope and A Very Old Envelope. When first hearing of Laider, he concocts an entire description and analysis declaring something like, now here’s a clean slate to work with. They haven’t even met yet. The characters in the first tale he spins he calls A.V.Y.E. and A.V.O.E. and in the second, the ‘real person’ he’s describing is called A.V. Laider. Perhaps more questions for the reader.

    And then at the very end of the story there is another tale from A.V. Laider and, according to the narrator, it’s a good one. Seems as if Beerbohm has more than one trick to bring the reader into the debate.

    • bcw56 says:

      Damn, Joel, you’re killing me! I certainly missed the nuances in the opening section, rendering the story’s full scope of satire meaningless to me – which is a poor read on my part. I’ll stand by the post, though – the idea that the tales within the story put the reader in a similarly futile/comical position of sussing out truth. No?

      • Joel Railsback says:

        I’m with you.
        I just wanted to add a few more nuts for the reader to gnaw on. Thanks for the chance for discussion. This is an amazing story. I’m surprised I ran across it. Where did you find it?

        I like the design and tone of your blog, Thanks.

        If there’s no definitive final sorting out of A.V. Laider, perhaps that suggests a group: The 5 Stories You Can’t Make a Final Decision About.

        Connie, a character in Joyce Carol Oates’ story, Where Have You Been, Where Are You Going? poses a similar question. How reliable a narrator is she? What really happens?

        Look for other stories like this.


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