Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Max Beerbohm (1872-1956)

Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (to give him his full name) brought to perfection a number of different minor talents as a writer and artist. He first attracted attention as an essayist and reviewer soon after he left Oxford, and through this got to know all the cultural leaders the 1890s. He always seemed to be most at home in this decade: the age of Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and the English Decadents. He portrayed the leading figures of the time in a series of splendid little caricatures, in which he tried always to link physical appearance with character and outlook. He wrote a number of highly individual short stories. He was exceptionally gifted at parody, publishing very funny imitations of such writers as Kipling, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, though he particularly relished parodying the later work of Henry James (he once said that Henry James’s style fell dynastically into three reigns: James the First, James the Second and the Old Pretender!). He always preferred to produce delicate, jewel-like miniatures, with every detail perfect, rather than attempt any major project. After 1910 he lived almost all the rest of his life in Italy, but on his brief returns to Britain he became a popular radio broadcaster, giving reminiscences of the times and people he had known. He was knighted in 1939.

Two caricatures by Max Beerbohm:-

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas


Aubrey Beardsley

He is likely to be remembered best for two works. His only novel, “Zuleika Dobson” (published 1911), is a fantasy about Oxford: not of course Oxford as it ever actually existed, but Oxford as we think it ought to have been. It tells of how Zuleika, the grand-daughter of the Warden of Judas College (!) visits the city and causes chaos as all the undergraduates fall hopelessly in love with her; especially the multi-talented young Duke of Dorset. Beerbohm is quite merciless with his characters, all of whom are monsters of egoism, incapable of the least degree of empathy with their fellow-creatures.

But best of all is his collection of short stories, “Seven Men” (published 1919, but later reissued with the addition of an extra story). Each story tells of Beerbohm’s meetings with imaginary but typical personalities of the 1890s. First comes “Enoch Soames”; an unsuccessful decadent poet who, distressed by his failure to attract any attention but convinced his brilliance would be recognised by later generations, offers to sell his soul to the Devil for a chance to visit the British Museum Reading Room in a hundred years’ time and see all the books which would have been written about him - an offer which brings unexpected results. “A. V. Laider” tells of a weak-willed fortune-teller, and leads to speculation about the inevitability of Fate. “James Pethel” is a man addicted to the thrill of gambling and risk-taking - the trouble is, he invariably wins, and therefore remains dissatisfied. There are two stories about the relationships between pairs of contemporary writers: “Maltby and Braxton” are two young novelists, each of whom writes a single best-seller, enjoys brief fame, then sinks into obscurity: “Argallo and Ledgett” (the story added later) are a reclusive genius contrasted with a highly-paid hack. Finally we have “Savonarola Brown”, an amateur playwright who spends years trying to write a tragedy set in Renaissance Florence, and finally dies, leaving Beerbohm himself to attempt to finish the play for him. Although the stories appear light-hearted, there is in fact a note of melancholy running through each of them.

Max Beerbohm will always be something of a minority taste, but equally he has always had his admirers, ever since early in his career George Bernard Shaw hailed him as “The Incomparable Max!”

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