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.

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