Max Beerbohm’s Letters to Reggie Turner
Considering that Max Beerbohm resolutely refused to put pen to paper, either to write or draw, in the last decades of his life, the growth of his reputation during those years was quite remarkable. As with E. M. Forster, his fame waxed with every book he did not write. Round the Mediterranean coast from Rapallo, where Beerbohm lived, lies Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, where another English writer, Somerset Maugham, as diligent as Beerbohm was indolent, lives out his last days. His reputation, he may wryly reflect, unlike Beerbohm’s dwindled as volume succeeded volume and edition edition, until, by the time Of Human Bondage touched the million mark, there was no critic so lowly of brow as to pay him homage.
I remember once at luncheon at Maugham’s Villa Mauresque (a good deal more stately, it goes without saying, than the Rapallo establishment) someone remarking that I. S. Eliot had made himself responsible for raising a small sum to buy Beerbohm a wireless-set. Our host looked fussed, and his stutter became more compulsive. There was something preposterous, as he seemed to feel, about the whole project—Eliot, a wireless-set, Beerbohm’s penury! No poet bothered his head about whether or not he, Maugham, had a wireless-set; least of all Eliot. It was Sir Max, but not Sir Somerset. Life is so very unjust. After all, Cakes and Ale is an incomparably better piece of writing than anything Beerbohm did, or could have done. Yet no ponderous Behrman arrived at Cap Ferrat to produce one of those interminably detailed New Yorker series, afterwards published as a fat volume, on life at the Villa Mauresque.
Beerbohm never was a popular writer, and remained to the end of his life in relatively straitened financial circumstances. His books had a small but steady sale in a collected edition, and, of course, the drawings in their originals were deservedly much sought after, though a project I once vaguely put up to Beerbohm’s publisher for a portfolio of reproductions was not considered feasible. His only contact with the larger public outside his relatively restricted circle of devotees was through radio. During the 1939-45 war years, when he was perforce settled in England, he gave some talks in the form of personal reminiscences. Probably no one has ever used radio in this particular genre to better effect. The voice, faltering a little, was precise and kindly, the style elegant, with an agreeably old-fashioned flavor, particularly appreciated in that time of overblown Churchillian rhetoric, boys’ paper Montgomery slang, and—one of the war’s more lamentable consequences—Forces humor. I had occasion to listen to a tape of one of the talks—on George Moore—and found it excellent. Beerbohm, I may add, resolutely refused to have anything to do with television. An American crew once actually arrived in Rapallo, and tried to lure him in front of the cameras. No persuasion, financial or other, would induce him to yield. All he had to …