Monday, November 04, 2019

Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm's is not a name with which I was familiar. But over the past few weeks, I've read what is perhaps his most lasting work: his one and only novel, Zuleika Dobson

Published in 1911, this is a playful, if imperfect, treatment of grandiose themes: of love, first and foremost, but of sacrifice and idolatry, too. All of these are not cast, however, within the context of war or conflict. Instead, they're presented as an "Oxford love story," as the tale of the irresistible Zuleika Dobson. 

It won't be revealing too much to say that Dobson takes Oxford by storm and leaves in her wake a trail of emotional injury. The question is what this storm implies about the nature of love toward the end of aristocratic England. Equally, there are questions about beauty, and whether it can overcome -- even in a place like Oxford -- a lack of intellectual substance. 

While these themes are not inherently modern, their presentation is: Beerbohm is surprisingly experimental in his narrative, playing with omniscience, for instance, in the manner of a Greek tragedy. At the same time, there's a wit here that enjoys itself, that flirts, even, with the more modern concept of irony. These qualities emerged, thirty years later, in the work of Evelyn Waugh, and it's clear the authors shared a connection. 

I wouldn't argue that Zuleika Dobson is an exceptional novel: there's too much inconsistency for me, and a tendency to construct characters as types -- as opposed to as individuals. I think, though, that this was deliberate, and that, as much as Beerbohm was writing a love story, he was also offering a critique: of intellectualism, certainly, but of hypocrisy and narcissism, too. This is a paean to Oxford, but also a subtle condemnation. 


  1. Don't miss his essays -- really his crowning glory and greatest art form. He is as Shaw named him, "the Incomparable Max."

  2. I read this novel this summer and consider it to be the first ever example of black humor as we know it to be in a novel.

  3. Thanks for the tip, David. I'll check those out.

    And appreciate the comment, Christopher. You're definitely onto something; that's an interesting way to think about the novel.

  4. He also, in Zuleika, wrote one of the funniest sentences ever: "Last of all leapt Mr. Trent-Garby, who, catching his foot in the ruined flower box, fell headlong, and was, I regret to say, killed."

  5. Ha. This is what I'm talking about!