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. 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 …

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