Reviewed by Simon
Max Beerbohm’s name is known today, if at all, as the author of Zuleika Dobson – a curious sort of modernised Greek myth, where a preternaturally beautiful woman bewitches all the undergraduates in Oxford. It is told in luscious prose, and is both entirely ridiculous and entirely enjoyable. Well, a dozen years earlier, Beerbohm was still in his 20s when he published More (1899), now reprinted by Michael Walmer in a rather lovely, good quality, striped edition.
The title seems innocuous; the collection is called More because it follows on from the audaciously-titled The Works of Max Beerbohm, published when he was only 24. But ‘More’ also characterises his writing: Beerbohm is nothing if not a maximalist. His prose is frenziedly overblown; his arguments are ludicrous – the whole thing is a self-consciously absurd delight. Well, one hopes it was self-conscious, or Heaven help us all – but we have to believe it was. How else does one explain a chapter (‘An Infamous Brigade’) devoted to chastising fire fighters for extinguishing beautiful fires to save ugly buildings?
I remember, too, that some years ago, on the eve of my departure from Chicago, a certain citizen, who was entertaining me at supper, expressed his great regret that they had not been able to show me one of their fires. And indeed it must be splendid to see those twenty-three storey buildings come crashing down in less time than was required to build them up. In Chicago, extinction is not attempted. Little value is set on bricks and mortar. A fire is enjoyed; then the building is reproduced and burnt down again at leisure. But we, who pull down, year by year, old inns and almshouses, because they are obsolete in usage, despite their prettiness and their tradition, we, in London, suffer to be saved any wharf or warehouse, however beautiful its encircling flames, however hideous it.
His essays are exuberant and his opinions strong. But with views as unlikely as this, it’s difficult to know quite where Beerbohm is serious and where he is in jest – even taking the opinions of 1899 into account. He protests against the unrealistic and oppressive statues at Madame Tussaud’s (‘My visit may have been a “sensation” or an “experience”, or both, but it was not at all nice”), and I am willing to believe he means it; he argues that the lower classes shouldn’t be taught to read, and I am uncertain. Even if he exaggerates, there is a definite snobbery that runs throughout the collection. That does not, of course, alter the quality of the writing – which is never less than assured and witty – but it might make the collection more difficult to warm to.
And how have his topics dated? His thoughts on the vanities of the acting profession seem as true now as ever, but a paean to Ouida will mystify many, while his essay in praise of a cartoonist called ‘A.B.’ meant absolutely nothing to me – at least with Ouida, he could include examples of prose. Perhaps my favourite, since it chimed in with the exasperation I feel as a pedestrian and motorist in Oxford, was his critique of cyclists:
Bicycling was ever the most tedious topic of conversation. It was also the most tedious for of exercise, save walking, known to the human race. It was but a strange, ingenious compound of dullness and danger. On a horse, Fashion would not mind risking her life, but there is a vast difference between a mount that is live and lovable and a mount that is manufactured of even the best steel. The one has fine qualities to be quickened, and swift caprices to be curbed, and is petulant or amenable, timid or too greatly daring, a thing of infinite surprises. The other has but one invariable motion, to whatsoever speed you may choose to regulate it. So soon as you can ride it, you have mastered all its charm, and, unless you be a professional acrobat, you can teach it nothing. It kills some of its riders, and bores the rest.
But it doesn’t particularly matter that Beerbohm isn’t full of the milk of human kindness. He is not an essayist in the mould of, say, Jan Struther – one to whom the heart warms. He is an essayist to admire for his virtuoso skill and delectable prose style; one to keep at a distance, but love all the same.
Can I heartily recommend that – if these passages brought a smile to your lips – you get yourself a copy? It is a joy, and exactly the sort of book that one imagines the 1890s to be filled with. You might not want Beerbohm as a friend, but you might well love him as a writer.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and hasn’t ridden a bicycle for 16 years.
Max Beerbohm, More (Australia, Michael Walmer, 2015), 978-0992523480, paperback, 201pp.
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