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Beerbohm: The Rigors of Fantasy

Zuleika (pronounced Zuleeka) Dobson was first published in London in 1911. Other editions followed in Britain and America. The book entered the Modern Library early, when the volumes making up that series were still few and smelt of frivolity, sin, and oilcloth—or whatever those simulated limp leather covers were made of. Like South Wind, Zuleika Dobson was obligatory reading for those literary initiates of the Twenties whose program included, on principle, an appreciation alike of the trifler and the titan: Douglas with Dreiser and Dostoevsky, Beerbohm with Prous and Joyce. In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster called Zuleika Dobson “the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time.” “Our time” meant, presumably, the Teens and Twenties. When the Twenties ended, Beerbohm rather faded from one’s consciousness.

After his death, in 1956, came the modest resurrection. Beerbohm lived again in Ellen Moers’s The Dandy, in S. N. Behrman’s Portrait of Max, and, more recently and completely, in David Cecil’s Max, A Biography.1 If he was “easy to forget but delightful to remember,” as I wrote some years ago, he has since proved to be ever harder to forget and more delightful to remember. Rereading Beerbohm one gets caught up in the intricate singularity of his mind, all of a piece yet full of surprises, as one does in Boswell’s Johnson. In Zuleika Dobson his mind is in full flower, a kind of tropical bloom, lurid and elaborate, prickly but not poisonous, except to the foolish.

That his drawings and parodies should survive is no cause for wonder. One look at them, or into them, and his old reputation is immediately re-established: that whim of iron, that cleverness amounting to genius. What is odd is that his stories and essays should turn out to be equally durable. The mandarin of mandarins, Beerbohm wrote with a kind of conscious elegance that has since become generally suspect. This nouveau riche English has for us the fault of advertising to the world the abundance of its verbal resources. The plain declarative sentence is apt to be set off by a dazzle of rhetorical questions and apostrophes to the reader. Ostentatious connectives, from “indeed” to “however that may be,” are de rigueur. No word is repeated if a synonym can possibly be found. The attack on the mandarin style, carried out variously by Mencken, Eliot, and Gertrude Stein, made of repetition a virtue. Into the waste-basket went the book of synonyms. The young Yeats anticipated the new taste for verbal economy when he criticized a sentence about Hamlet in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying: “The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.” Yeats asked Wilde why he had changed “sad” to “melancholy.” “He replied that he wanted a full sound at the close of his sentence, and I thought it no excuse and an example of the vague impressiveness that spoilt his writing for me.”

Beerbohm’s mandarinism often tended to mock itself, subtly or bluntly. After starting a sentence with “indeed” he apologized in parentheses for the “otiose” word. He avoided not only the vaguely impressive but the crudely expressive. A friend wrote to him praising the sentence about the lightning in Zuleika Dobson: “A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky.” Beerbohm replied: “The word ‘slid’ was in the first draft ‘slithered’ which, though more accurate really, looked rather cherché and so was jettisoned.” Thus he profited from the mandarin abundance while, on the whole, avoiding or deriding its excesses.

ONE NOW READS Beerbohm with recognitions beyond the powers of those of us who were literary neophytes in the Twenties. The elegant trifler contributed more than one had supposed to literary history. Beerbohm played an essential if deliberately minor role in the famous “revolution of taste” that took place between, roughly, 1910 and 1922, even though he was never a “modernist” in his own tastes, preferring the poetry of Swinburne and the novels of Trollope, Meredith, and James to Ulysses and The Waste Land. Nevertheless, he discovered before Pound and Eliot did the futility and pathos of the dandy and his lady. As a verbal caricature of the London literary life, Seven Men parallels at several points Pound’s poem on the same subject, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Mauberley includes a verse portrait of Beerbohm under the name of Brennbaum. The portrait is, appropriately, a verse caricature of Beerbohm as dandy:

The sky-like limpid eyes, The circular infant’s face,
The stiffness from spats to collar never relaxing into grace…

Naturally, the famous revolution in taste “went too far.” In doing so, it has given work to critics and biographers ever since. Rehabilitating the major Victorians and in some cases the Edwardians has long been a reputable occupation. Tennyson, Kipling, and Queen Victoria herself have recovered from the clawings of Beerbohm’s velvet glove.

Yet how exhilarating those clawings were at the time. I mean not only such celebrated caricatures as the one of Queen Victoria attending with majestic patience to a shrunken Tennyson reading In Memoriam. More devastating were the drawings that caricatured the political or the literary life in general. There was the bitter series called The Second Childhood of John Bull, chiefly inspired by Beerbohm’s disgust with the Boer War. There was the series called The Young and the Old Self, in which eighteen well-known Edwardians were confronted in the fullness of their age and fame by the specters, gloating or reproachful, of their youthful selves. A real terribilità plays about the latter series. It could scarcely fail to impress the literary initiates of any period, from the Twenties to the Sixties.

WITH THE FOOLISH in mind, Max Beerbohm added to the 1946 edition of Zuleika Dobson a warning against interpretation. His remarks recall Mark Twain’s admonitory address to the readers of Huckleberry Finn. Critics have generally disregarded Mark Twain’s threats, sometimes with terrible results. Taking our chances, we may dismiss Beerbohm’s warning, too. It is only part of the “act,” the very stagey act that Zuleika Dobson is throughout. If first-rate humorists are never to be taken too seriously, they are to be taken least seriously when they are most at pains to warn us against taking them seriously at all.

Beerbohm maintains that his book is “just a fantasy.” No satirical or other serious comment is intended. But this is impossible in the nature of his genre as he names it here. “Fantasy” must have something which to fantasticate, and what can that something be except “reality” or some aspect of it? “Fantasy” is the rather jejune term for a kind of narrative that was uncommon in Western Europe before the eighteenth century. Nobody, I suppose, would call The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene and The Pilgrim’s Progress “fantasies.” They are allegories in which the events and characters, however implausible themselves, correspond to principles of morality or religious dogma which had a real existence for their authors. Fantasy seems to have had a complicated relation, first to the decline of faith in the reality or efficacy of those principles, and second to the advance of “realism” as a literary mode. Fantasy brings into comic question the nature of belief itself. There was the celebrated case of the Irish bishop who is alleged to have remarked of Gulliver’s Travels on its first appearance, “This book is full of improbable lies, and for my part I hardly believe a word of it.” The great fantasies extend from Gulliver’s Travels to the Alice books to the serio-comic writings of Franz Kafka. The great fantasies embrace not only certain aspects of reality but just about all of it, even in some instances God and the gods. The authors make it their business to fantasticate the realities so thoroughly that, presto!, they come to look fantastic themselves.

Their business? Surely good fantasists are the most business-like of writers. They go about their creative operations as methodically and with as straight a face as the Lilliputians go about taking inventory of Gulliver’s pockets. Nor does Gulliver feel surprise, least of all amusement, at their efforts. He is only annoyed by the invasion of his privacy. As with Gulliver, so with the other protagonists of comic fantasy. They are themselves quite humorless. A grin from Gulliver would spoil the show. A wink from Candide or Alice or Joseph K. or Zuleika Dobson would bring down in rubble the cunningly constructed world of unreal reality they inhabit. A total sobriety of tone is the law of laws for fantastic comedy.

FOR SOME TWELVE years (1898-1910) Max Beerbohm wrote a weekly theater article for the Saturday Review of London. He was thus exposed to a good deal of trashy fantasy in dramatic as well as narrative form. Even the ballet came to bore him. Much of what he saw or read in this vein seems to have been delinquent in essentially the same way that much of what is today called “Black Humor” is delinquent. It broke the law of laws: it failed to take itself seriously enough. What he saw or read was not willfully wacky as the worst Black Humor is at present. For the Kafkan revolution in fantasy, of which Black Humor is the sometimes depressing offspring—depressing in its mechanical frenzies—belonged to the far future. Thus the action of fantasy was not as yet generated in the disturbed psyche, where anything goes. Nor had history itself as yet reached the extremity of mad inventiveness which today leaves the average fantasist far behind and breathing hard.

It was simple waggishness that afflicted fantasy during Beerbohm’s London years. An air of holiday high jinks, of forced festivity, hung about it. Preeminent of its kind and in its time was, of course, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie’s play was beloved by many and derided by a few, doubtless for the same reason: It gave the frankest possible expression to the prevailing vogue for half-hearted escapism. Reviewing Peter Pan on its first appearance, in 1905, Beerbohm noted that Barrie had always incarnated the prevailing “child-worship” of the period but that in Peter Pan he had outdone himself. Barrie was there seen “in his quiddity undiluted—the child in a state of nature, unabashed—the child, as it were, in its bath, splashing, and crowing as it splashes.” Puck’s doings were “credible and orderly” compared to “the riot of inconsequence and of exquisite futility” that made up Peter Pan’s doings.

Nor was Beerbohm an infallible master of fantasy. An early example, The Happy Hypocrite (1898), has the interest for us of commemorating a significant moment in his development. As J. G. Riewald has shown, the youthful author of The Happy Hypocrite was imitating The Picture of Dorian Gray while at the same time trying to free himself from Wilde’s influence. The Happy Hypocrite, in which a devilish dandy is transformed—not without irony on the author’s part—into a loving husband, shows Beerbohm asserting his will to innocence and survival against Wilde’s presumed will to the opposite fate. An amalgam of the parable and the fairy tale, The Happy Hypocrite is nevertheless a strained performance. So is a much later story, The Dreadful Dragon of Hay Hill (1928). This seems to have been written to order by “The Incomparable Max”—the title early bestowed, or perhaps foisted, on Beerbohm by a rival wit, Shaw—rather than by Beerbohm himself. By “Beerbohm himself” I mean the Beerbohm in whom the public and the private man, the insider and the outsider, the precocious child and the preternaturally youthful ancient oddly combined to form his intricate singularity of mind.

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    For the remarks that follow I am much indebted to these books as well as to J. G. Riewald’s Sir Max Beerbohm, Man and Writer.

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