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The Tiny Grandeur of Max Beerbohm

In a nightmare, Max Beerbohm might have come up with the figure of N. John Hall, the man who, over the past number of decades, whether reissuing old books, bringing out a collection, or now publishing the first biography in forty years, has been the English artist and writer’s academic guardian and caretaker. Beerbohm often thought about questions of renown and posterity, how we are remembered or forgotten, and the relationship between someone deserving to be remembered and the rememberer was clearly a sensitive one for him. In some of his most memorable writing, a character named “Max Beerbohm” is a kind of amateur biographer to certain invented subjects, while Beerbohm’s caricatures, his other art, add up to a gigantic biographical portrait of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century England—yet one seen inside out, through completely unauthorized eyes.

In Hall, a professor of English at City University, Beerbohm has been put in the hands of someone who clearly has had a long and intimate familiarity with his man, and who has done a thorough job here in presenting all the relevant information. But Hall has also seemingly picked up aspects of his subject’s temperament and thinking, chiefly his aversion to larger ideas, his desire to keep biography personal and particular, and his if-it-feels-good-to-me-it-is-good creed as a critic, and the result is a centerless, challenge-free, and all too genial account. Hall is continually breaking in with remarks such as “Max is getting at, as they say, poetic truth,” or “If it did not sound too grand I would say,” or “here comes the inner man stuff”—lines which muddy any sense of Beerbohm’s worth; and Hall’s truly extensive quoting of him has a dampening effect, too, because, while done in an understandable spirit of wanting to show off gems of writing, it makes a reader feel that there’s no reason now to go any further with these works.

Beerbohm, who died in 1956 at eighty-four, is admittedly a slippery figure to handle. He was a specialist in supposedly minor art forms—caricature, parody, the essay, and the short story (he also wrote theater criticism and a novel)—and he spoke frankly and repeatedly about his own “little” talent, his “limitations” and modesty, even his “quiet and unexciting” prose. Yet his work is less precisely that of an esteemed petit maître (which he also called himself)—a creator who makes a polished, perfect product out of a limited range of experience—than that of someone whose very theme is the relation between major and minor, power and powerlessness, success and failure, public reputation and the private life. Reading Beerbohm, and looking at his pictures, we clearly know he isn’t Tolstoy or Picasso; but Beerbohm, who handles his material in ingenious, unpredictable ways, subtly embeds a moral force into his seemingly informal observations, and he transforms caricature into an art capable of exquisitely modulated surface textures and the most precise novelistic insights into character. His work at its best is disorienting, like hearing Pavarotti’s voice pour forth from a midget.

The above isn’t necessarily the standard introduction to Max Beerbohm. He is generally described as an Edwardian dandy and wit, and one whose work is fundamentally “delightful” to contemplate. When, in the 1960s, S.N. Behrman brought out his intimate and conversational Portrait of Max, David Cecil issued Max, a formidably detailed biography, and Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, an anthology of centuries of this genre, in which Beerbohm played virtually the starring role, was published, numerous writers had a chance to reassess a figure whose gifts as a humorist and fantasist, a satiric artist, and a social observer had been noted, if not entirely admired, since 1895. That was when, a year after leaving Oxford, Beerbohm brought forth a fully ripened piece of hothouse facetiousness entitled “A Defence of Cosmetics.” By the 1960s, Beerbohm ought to have seemed like a figure of largely historical interest. He himself was saying he was out of step with his time, after all, even before he reached middle age. In 1910, not quite forty, he and his then new wife, Florence Kahn, an actress from Tennessee whose career was not showing signs of taking off, dramatically left London, where he had led a highly social life and been for twelve years a theater critic for the Saturday Review, to live in Italy, in a tiny house near Rapallo, on the coast road.

Except for returns to England during the world wars and for his art exhibitions, the childless Beerbohms lived for the next four decades in an extremely modest domicile, supported by income from his books and pictures. After Florence died in 1951, Beerbohm was looked after by Elisabeth Jungmann, whom he married on his deathbed. Moving to Italy didn’t mean he was a recluse, and he continued to work there (though his energies began failing in the 1920s); but he called himself at one point “an interesting link with the past,” and increasingly he associated himself not only with his own youth in the 1890s but with figures from his childhood and even earlier, whether Swinburne, Meredith, or Rossetti.

Forty years ago, however, in the first serious wave of reassessments of Beerbohm, what was generally heard was that he showed few signs of having dated. While Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, and John Updike, among others, were aware of his shortcomings, the Beerbohm they admired was a cultivated ironist whose prose and perceptions remained singularly supple. Among those attempting to de-fine him at the time, I think only F.W. Dupee, in an essay reprinted in The King of the Cats, suggested that “power” and how it was abused were crucial elements of Beerbohm’s endeavor. N. John Hall, who doesn’t include Dupee’s writings on the subject, seems to agree with Virginia Woolf’s sense of Beerbohm, stated in a 1920 piece on essayists in which she called him “without doubt the prince of his profes-sion.” Beerbohm’s point, she felt, is only to present himself, his own voice, and that he has no larger program. And this notion, on the face of it, makes sense, at least in that to enter Beerbohm’s world is to go off on an almost bewildering number of different small tracks.

In his essays, which were published over the years in five collections—And Even Now, from 1920, is rightly everyone’s favorite—Beerbohm can appear from piece to piece as an Op-Ed-page editorialist musing on the foibles of the moment, or as a stand-up comedian whose forte is dryly expressed preposterous exaggeration. At times he is a poet of everyday life whose mind is set running on the subject of the problem in seeing good friends off on trips, say, or, in the memorable “Ichabod,” on the catastrophe of sending out an old leather hat box to be refurbished and finding, upon its return, that all the labels stuck on it, of the places one had gone to over the years, have been removed.

Beerbohm the detector of the half-truths we live with writes about the warm yet empty relationships that can spring up between perfect strangers when they are staying at the same resort hotel, or about how some of us are innately “hosts,” others “guests.” In one article, he writes as the appreciator of an overlooked talent, while in the next, like the Woody Allen who took the popular book Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex and skewered it in a movie, he picks up a popular self-help guide for letter writing, How Shall I Word It?, and explores some of the earthier possibilities that the strait-laced author left out.

Seven Men, from 1919, is a series of portraits of imaginary persons, the most vivid being about ignored and terminally out-of-luck writers, while A Christmas Garland, which was published in 1912, is a collection of parodies of the literary lights of the day—Henry James, Kipling, Conrad, Shaw, Arnold Bennett, and Hardy among them—each piece having a tangential relationship to Christmas. Beerbohm’s performance here is generally considered the zenith of the parodist’s art. If you know this or that writer, you have the shivery pleasure, reading Beerbohm’s parody, of getting a pitch-perfect impersonation of that author which is also a combination of a tribute to him and an exposure of his fundamental manner. As is generally pointed out, the parodist’s genius can be felt only so long as his or her readers are fairly intimate with what is being parodied, and by this measure the already small audience for A Christmas Garland gets smaller all the time. Yet when I told someone I was writing about Beerbohm, and did he know him, he shot back, with pleasure and pride, “Scruts”—the title (it is a made-up word) of the Bennett parody.

Zuleika Dobson* goes off in seemingly another direction. Beerbohm’s 1911 novel is about an enchanting adventuress who arrives at Oxford one day and immediately proceeds to have a devastating effect on the entire male undergraduate body. Given that practically everything that happens in it can be conveyed in a paragraph or two, a reader comes to feel that what this overlong, but also at times wonderfully silly and occasionally strangely affecting, novel is really about is the dainty and bemused way it is narrated. Beerbohm’ s voice as a writer is largely the same no matter what the occasion (except when he’s mimicking somebody, of course), and it is a voice that grows on one. He can mesmerize readers because, leisurely and punctilious as his prose can seem at first, what he is saying is generally down to earth, and there is an almost physical tension in the way he seems to weigh the effect of his every word.

Woolf was right about Beerbohm as far as she went. His writing is about his particular voice, but this is only half his story. Writing about him only as an essayist, she didn’t see, as Hall doesn’t appear to see, that the seemingly random, disparate note of Beerbohm’s writing takes on a different meaning when it is looked at in relation to his pictures. Beerbohm turned out over two thousand caricatures, sometimes doing certain individuals, such as Shaw, Edward VII, and himself, again and again. His subjects were men (he rarely drew women) whom he knew in some way and who, whether politicians or artists, bankers or actors, royals or rakes, possessed some form of renown. And in taking in these works we face the vast public realm that Beerbohm’s very private voice, as a writer, is responding to. Absorbing this mischievous report on fame, we can better understand the Beerbohm who, as a writer, could be so engaged by ciphers. When we go through this diverse body of work, which runs from straight, orthodox caricatures to caricatures that, complete with finely detailed settings, have essentially morphed into paintings on paper, we are presented, too, with an experimental and urgent Beerbohm who barely exists in his writing.

  1. *

    Yale University Press has just published The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson in paperback.

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