Sunday, December 07, 2014

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson


Opening Passage:

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 that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.

Summary: Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story introduces us to the stunningly beautiful granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College, who is arriving for a visit during the bump-races between the colleges. Zuleika (rhymes with seeker, not with hiker) is a professional magician -- or, rather, she is someone who has stage magic as a profession and is successful in it, since we quickly discover that almost her entire repertoire consists of amateur tricks. It is her beauty, not her skill, that has led her to pack international theaters and play before Princes and Dukes; for Zuleika Dobson has the advantage over other magicians that every man falls in love with her the moment he sees her. It is also a personal problem. While she has an ordinary vanity, and thus likes the attention, nonetheless having endless numbers of men falling head over heels in love with her has left her with a firm conviction that a man who falls in love with her is not worth loving. It is with great excitement, then, that she meets John Albert Edward Claude Orde Angus Tankerton (pronounced Tacton) Tanville-Tankerton (pronounced Tavvle-Tacton), the Duke of Dorset, Oxford's pride and joy, who is wealthy, noble, extraordinarily handsome, fluent in all modern languages, and talented in painting and piano. He is also a narcissist used to unmarried women throwing themselves at him. But, alas, even the Duke is not actually immune to her charms, and thus is touched off a chain of events that will destroy the entire Oxford student body.

The work is constantly farcical, but avoids being wearying by ranging from light-hearted to mock-heroic to very dark and morbid. It has a great many in-jokes about Oxford; most of them can be caught fairly easy, but I found I caught some things only because of a summer spent in Oxford in college, and I imagine that it would be most hilarious of all for an actual Oxford undergraduate. The edition I read had an excellent short introduction by Douglas Cleverdon that laid out the key elements it helps to know about Eights Week and Beerbohm himself.

Favorite Passage:

"You have never dipped into the Greek pastoral poets, nor sampled the Elizabethan sonneteers?"

"No, never. You will think me lamentably crude: my experience of life has been drawn from life itself."

"Yet often you talk as though you had read rather much. Your way of speech has what is called 'the literary flavour'."

"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. Of life, though, my experience has been very wide. Brief? But I suppose the soul of man during the past two or three years has been much as it was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and of—whoever it was that reigned over the Greek pastures. And I daresay the modern poets are making the same old silly distortions. But forgive me," she added gently, "perhaps you yourself are a poet?"

Recommendation: Quite amusing and occasionally hilarious. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. MrsDarwin10:25 PM

    This fortnight has been one of the most hectic in recent memory, but we did read the first two chapters aloud here. The children were, for the most part, amused --we had peals of laughter over Zuleika's library, with both its volumes -- and the story touched off a deal of amateur magic-making. But everyone objected that Zuleika was far too vain, and Julia pinpointed early on the plot: as the Duke rode past with nary a backward glance at Zuleika, she said, with scorn, "I bet he falls in love with her later." (Julia is a woman of fashion and feels eminently qualified to pass judgment on other women of fashion.)

    Alas, I haven't been able to finish it myself, but I'm about due for a bit of down time, and I would like to spend it with Beerbohm and his unfortunate trick of literary flavor.


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