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The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson OR AN OXFORD LOVE STORY by Max Beerbohm, illustrated by the author, introduction by N. John Hall (Yale University: $19.95; 350 pp.)

October 20, 1985|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a frequent contributor to The Book Review. and

"Ido not like to read a novel in an illustrated edition." So declared Max Beerbohm, whom Prof. John Hall mischievously quotes in the introduction to this delightfully illustrated edition of Beerbohm's only full-length novel. Like many another reader, Beerbohm found that illustrations interfered with the writer's attempt to portray--and the reader's ability to imagine--what the characters look like. But Beerbohm's own illustrations to "Zuleika Dobson," the vast bulk of which are published here for the first time, are clearly an exception to this rule.

Memorably dubbed "the incomparable Max" by G. B. Shaw ("Compare me," Beerbohm later urged a prospective biographer. ". . . Tend rather to underrate me--so that those who don't care for my work shall not be incensed, and those who do shall rally round me."), commended by Rebecca West as the "last civilized man," Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was equally renowned as a caricaturist and an essayist. Satire was the keynote of his drawings and writings alike, but Beerbohm's brand of satire was at the far end of the spectrum from Juvenalian invective. It was a satire based on love: affectionate, teasing and whimsical in its mockery.

Indeed, as years went by and Beerbohm grew less and less productive, he liked to claim that age had mellowed even the modest amount of youthful asperity that had animated his art. Whatever the reason, Beerbohm is still best remembered as a figure of the 1890s. He was a friend and associate of Oscar Wilde, Reggie Turner, Aubrey Beardsley, and William Rothenstein, a contributor to the famous Yellow Book, and later, theater critic for the Saturday Review.

In 1910, Beerbohm gave up a sparkling social life in London for the more economical charms of expatriate life in Italy and the more domestic pleasures of his marriage to the actress Florence Kahn.

Written over a period of 13 years and published in 1911, "Zuleika Dobson" evokes the heady atmosphere of Beerbohm's alma mater: Oxford in the 1890s. Its plot, simple to the point of parody, concerns the catastrophic effects of the glamorous conjurer Zuleika Dobson on the male undergraduates, who, inspired by the example of their most distinguished classmate, the Duke of Dorset, resolve to commit mass suicide on account of their unrequited love for the lady.

The hilariously high-flown dialogues between Zuleika and the Duke might have come straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. So too, the absurdity of lovers who love only when spurned ("Patience") and the vaguely menacing hint of tragedy ("The Mikado"). But Beerbohm, more intent on producing a dramatic effect, offers no Gilbertian last-minute reprieve.

On reading--and praising--the book, Beerbohm's old friend Reggie Turner complained that he found some of the characters too "real" not to take their sufferings seriously. And, indeed, one cannot but wonder at the profligacy with which Beerbohm hurls these fictional undergraduates into the river Isis. (Was this the excess of high spirits that led a later generation straight into the folly of World War I? To find oneself asking such a question indicates that Beerbohm's jeu d'esprit does not quite stand the test of time.)

But if "Zuleika Dobson" is too frivolous to be certified as "canonical," it is clearly a perennially revivable minor classic, uniquely redolent of a particular time and place. Its best parts are its notoriously tangential digressions, many of which inspired Beerbohm's most fetching watercolors: A full-blown diva dragging her accompanist into the limelight to share in the applause springs from the narrator's observation of Zuleika graciously acknowledging the assistance of a hapless undergraduate at her conjuring performance for her smitten Oxford audience. And, from the Duke's musings on the fate of dandies who outlive their youthful elegance comes a cameo of a fat, gray-haired, bespectacled Lord Byron entitled "But for Missolonghi." Real and imaginary figures are depicted with the same degree of vividness. So, to any reader in danger of suffering Reggie Turner's reaction, the 82 illustrations in this edition will serve as constant and enchanting reminders that this is, after all, a story about caricatures, not characters.

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