Monday, October 13, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 
“ZULEIKA DOBSON – or An Oxford Love Story” by Max Beerbohm (first published 1911)

I wonder how many readers would miss the tone that is being struck in the very opening paragraph of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson? The paragraph reads thus:
That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn boards they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of the antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.”
Yes, it is indeed setting a scene, telling us where the story is laid and letting us await anxiously the entry of the novel’s eponymous character. But it is also written with a distinct air of mockery. “Grey eternal walls” of a railway station, indeed! Clearly this is a parody of bad guidebook prose, just as is “the last enchantments of the Middle Age”. The author is at once telling us that he is aware of, but is not taken in by, the tourist’s “dreaming spires” version of Oxford, and his novel is going to send it up something rotten.
And it does.
Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was nearly 40 when he wrote Zuleika Dobson, and therefore most of two decades on from his own time as an Oxford undergraduate. He was already established as the essayist, bellelettrist and caricaturist that he would remain for the rest of his life, and this was his only novel. In it, he dissected in disdainful ironic prose, wild farce, hyperbole and baroque flights of fancy the whole dandyish, posing and self-dramatising ethos of the Oxford undergraduate. He also, I believe, discreetly thumbed his nose at decadents (Oscar Wilde and his circle) who had been his contemporaries.
Surely you can see such nose-thumbing in the very name he has chosen for his heroine. The oxymoron of it. “Zuleika” all that is wonderful from fable and Eastern romance. “Dobson”, the homely English surname only a whisker away from “Dobbin”.
“Clunk!” declares the title of this novel.
Or “Pray do not take what I am writing too seriously.”
Beerbohm’s tale goes thus.
Unbelievably beautiful Zuleika Dobson, music-hall conjuror and granddaughter of the warden of Judas College, comes to Oxford with her flighty French maid Melisande. At once all the undergraduates fall madly in love with her. But she seems to be attracted only to the young Duke of Dorset, aristocrat, dandy, aesthete, owner of many mansions, president and chief member of the exclusive student club the Junta, and brilliant speaker in the House of Lords even though he is still only an Oxford undergraduate. He falls in love with her too, much as it wounds his amour propre to feel such a vulgar emotion as love. Love, after all, is what the housemaid Katie feels for him, and she is not of his order of humanity, surely? Be that as it may, the young duke is smitten with gorgeous, enticing, haughty, and regrettably empty-headed Zuleika. Alas!  He discovers that her game is to attract devoted admirers and worshippers, but not to actually love anybody in return. What she wants is the public acknowledgement of her allure, the joy of being cynosure and subject of envious gossip, but not the messy complications of a real relationship with another human being. When the Duke of Dorset understands this at last, he cautions other undergraduates, who pant with love for Zuleika: “Miss Dobson scorns me. She scorns me simply because I love her. All who love her she scorns. To see her is to love her. Therefore shut your eyes to her. Strictly exclude her from your horizon. Ignore her.” (Chapter 6)
The duke decides to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Isis, fully garbed in his lordly robes, as a public statement of his unrequited love for Zuleika. In the novel’s most famous line he declares (Chapter 7) “Death cancels all engagements”. Unfortunately, before he can consummate his plan, the hordes of undergraduates who also adore Zuleika decide to do the same thing. It becomes quite the fashion to commit suicide for unrequited love of Zuleika.
One notes in all this that the duke is as much a figure of fantasy as Zuleika is. In Chapter 5 he tries, absurdly, to woo Zuleika by telling her of all his aristocratic titles and of his vast manorial holdings. In Chapter 9 he plays Chopin so exquisitely that the ghosts of Chopin and of George Sand appear to him, and indeed George Sand pants to mate with him. From his reported appearance in the House of Lords, we already know that he is a Younger Pitt in the bud.
All this is the point we reach midway through this novel. But here, gentle reader, I will terminate my synopsis. As you are aware by now, my ethic is never to give away the ultimate plot twists of a newly-published novel, judging that an author has the right to expect readers to enjoy at least some of his/her surprises. Usually, however, I do not hesitate to synopsise to the bitter end novels that have been around from a long time, like the century-old Zuleika Dobson. But in this case I refrain from so doing as, by an extraordinary literary legerdemain, Max Beerbohm suddenly changes both the tone and the narrative voice of his novel at about midway point, and if Zuleika Dobson sounds at all like your glass of absinthe, then I do not wish to spoil it for you. From being the detached third-person author, Beerbohm suddenly intervenes in the first person, telling us of his intimate relationship with Clio the Muse of History, and therefore of his ability to be omniscient and understand the motives of the gods. The satire becomes more lordly and detached. The sly jibes and japes and irony and elaborate baroque prose continue, but the novel turns oddly melancholy, being largely an anatomy of the mentality of the duke, with Zuleika (at least until the last few pages) merely the pretext for his states of mind.
I can, however, throw some sugared plums at you.
I love this early description of the Duke of Dorset, where the anatomy of a dandy is presaged:
It was imperative that he should banish her from his mind, quickly. He must not dilute his own soul’s essence. He must not surrender to any passion his dandihood. The dandy must be celibate, cloistral; is, indeed, but a monk with mirror for beads and breviary – an anchorite mortifying his soul that his body might be perfect.” (Chapter 3)
A mirror for beads and breviary “? “That his body might be perfect”? Now what is this self-regard but the epitome of the milieu of Robbie and Bosie and Oscar?
I note with a polite chuckle the exquisite condescension of the duke on his first conversation with Zuleika, when he proposes to her and she hesitates and calls him a “snob”. Says the duke:
 Do not fear that I, if you were to wed me, should demand a metamoryhosis of your present self. I should take you as you are, gladly. I should encourage you to be exactly as you are – a radiant and irresistible member of the upper middle-class, with a certain freedom of manner acquired through a life of peculiar liberty.” And he offers to build her an “out-house” next to his largest mansion in which she can perform her conjuring tricks. (Chapter 5)
Be it noted that an author who can casually use such a term as “metamoryhosis” will not hesitate, elsewhere in his text, to also use such terms as “disseizin” and “aposiopesis” and “ataraxy” and “virguncules”, and if you tell me that you understand these without looking up a dictionary then I tell you in reply that you are a cad, a bounder and most probably a liar.
            Yet even as Beerbohm is ridiculing the duke in the most sophisticated way, one does wonder if the duke does not sometimes become a mouthpiece for the author’s own prejudices. In the presence of an American Rhodes Scholar, wittily called Mr Oover, the Duke reflects thus:
To all Rhodes Scholars, indeed, his courtesy was invariable. He went out of his way to cultivate them. And this he did more as a favour to Lord Milner than of his own caprice. He found these Scholars, good fellows though they were, rather oppressive. They had not – how could they have? – the undergraduate’s virtue of taking Oxford as a matter of course. The Germans loved it too little, the Colonials too much. The Americans were, to a sensitive observer, the most troublesome – as being the most troubled – of the whole lot. The Duke was not one of those Englishmen who fling, or care to hear flung, cheap sneers at America. Whenever any one in his presence said that America was not large in area, he would firmly maintain that it was. He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford. They were so awfully afraid of having their strenuous native characters undermined by their delight in the place.” (Chapter 8)
Ah me! When I read this, I dimly remember my adolescent reading of Compton MacKenzie’s near contemporaneous “dreaming spires” version of Oxford in his novel Sinister Street (1913-14), wherein the priggish hero spends many pages worried at how the tone of Oxford will be lowered by the admission of these barbarous colonials. A less ironical Beerbohm would have frankly admitted that he shared the duke’s views.
Much later, however, there is this disabused view of the general weariness and uselessness of Oxford:
Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the willpower, the power of action. But in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday.” (Chapter 12)
As my final throwing of a sugared plum, may I note how oddly affecting is the scene – just before midway – where Zuleika at last gets to perform her amateurish conjuring tricks before an Oxford audience? Beerbohm, having played with us and nudged us and winked at us, gives us a scene in which there is a real tension between the undergraduates’ continued worshipful ogling of the beautiful girl, and their frank realization that her talent is a pitifully small thing. Similar in effect – and similarly melancholy – is the later scene where the Master of a College and his subordinates go through all the rituals of holding a banquet in their banqueting hall even though the hall is empty of students.
            Now for a few miscellaneous matters to conclude. Max Beerbohm writes so whimsically that he frequently breaks the fourth wall and goes all self-referential, commenting on his own style. Sometimes the effect can be quite arch, as in this exchange
 between the Duke and Zuleika:
Duke: “Yet often you talk as though you had read rather much. Your way of speech has what is called ‘the literary flavour’
Zuleika: “Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at dinner somewhere. I can’t break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book.” (Chapter 7)
            Later, however, there is a much better example, when the author “corrects” himself in order to skewer a cliché:
The moon, like a gardenia in the night’s button-hole – but no! why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else – usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance?... The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavour to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn.” (Chapter 9)
For aught I know, instances such as these may have led an academic nitwit somewhere to write a thesis telling us that Zuleika Dobson is really a precursor of postmodernism in its playfulness, changes of tone and self-references. In reply I shout “Bah, humbug!” before adding “Oh fie!” Such merry dandyish tricks were around when Laurence Sterne was a lad, not to mention clubman Thackeray.
Further miscellaneous matter: The novel’s ambiguity about sexuality. Well, yes, there is the fact that Beerbohm, for most of his life married childlessly and apparently peacefully to an actress, seems to have been a non-active homosexual who preferred domestic celibacy. Reading in Zuleika Dobson of the glamorous aristocratic Duke of Devon, admired by male and female, one can’t help thinking of other such pre-First World War Oxbridge glamour boys, admired by male and female, as Rupert Brooke (Cambridge – and a commoner of course). Is it really the duke upon whom Beerbohm is expending his innermost fantasies, especially as the eponymous heroine is such a wind-up doll and seen externally only?
And another thing: Somewhat chilling, isn’t it, that three years before the First World War, albeit in comical vein, Beerbohm depicts hordes of Oxford lads idealistically and willingly rushing to embrace their own death?
And yet another thing: The novel has been commented on as a precursor of the “cult of celebrity” in the age of the mass media, wherein a glamorous person of no talent become “news”. But personally I don’t think this is the main point. Personally I think…. Oh enough, enough!! Your eyes are now weary from reading this stuff. Take it from me that Zuleika Dobson is a delightful soufflé, light as a feather, and needs no further exegesis than that.

1 comment:

  1. Recently I read a translation of the Spanish novelist, Javier Marias' "All Saints". Marias was briefly a lecturer at Oxford in Spanish literature and his novels reveal that he had a thorough knowledge of English literature, as well as of American and British movies and popular culture. "All Saints" may be a variation of 'the university novel" but with the first person narrator's obsession with an Oxford colleague's wife, particularly in the farcical scene of a college dinner,I wondered whether the erudite Marias was making a nod to "Zuleika Dobson"