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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review September 1921


page 21


It is the happy lot of Mr. Beerbohm that he has discovered the secret of making friends. Satirical without being supercilious, idyllic without being farcical, he reveals under his suave wit a heart that is singularly human and a desire to take into his confidence those who care to study his work, making them appreciate what he appreciates because it has its humorous side—and its. beautiful. Like Stevenson, be believes that literature is an attempt to look upon the state of mankind with a largeness of view that enables us to rise from a consideration of the living to a definition of life. Before me as I write is Will Rothenste in's drawing of him. The Keen eyes and the high intellectual brow denote the writer who is too refined to let pass any trace of unevenness in the quality of his output or to wish to become anything less than the literary Beau Brummell of his day.

In 1896, "the incomparable Max," as Bernard Shaw dubbed him, published a thin volume of essays, and stated that he would write no more, but "More" followed, "Yet Again," "And Even Now," while "Seven Men" and "The Christmas Garland" fulfil all the promise displayed in "The Defence of Cosmetics" which as an Oxford undergraduate he dangled through the medium of the first number of "The Yellow Book" in the puzzled Faces of the aesthetes of the nineties, and for which he later atoned by publishing that perfect parable, "The Happy Hypocrite." Yet whatever stings he received from the critics, gathered like hornets about him, were well deserved: it was no nervous, shy youth who said, "To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine . . . and I look to Professor Gardiner and to the Bishop of Oxford."

In this same mischievous mood, he conceived "Zuleika Dobson," a fantastic novel of dainty cadences, quaint conceits and perfumed figures that prance lightly from page to page and utter sentences of flippant and bubbling raillery. The whole conception of the young and handsome Duke of Dorset, brilliant in classics, unrivalled in every form of sport and master of three arts, gradually preparing to drown himself for his love of Zuleika—is immensely whimsical, even to the ominous telegram that two black owls had perched on the battlements, remained there through the night and, hooting at dawn, had flown away no one knew whither. But in "The Christmas Garland" we have a number of parodies gathered together in a book that stands in a class by itself. While Squire is a splendid imitator of his subject's method and Seaman of their matter, Beerbohm penetrates further, into their very thoughts. However Achillean they may appear, he detects the concealed weak spot, and without malice pricks it gently with the point of his wit. "Mine is so good."said Henry James, "that now, whenever I write, I have the uneasy feeling of parodying myself." To my mind, the Meredithian caricature "Euphemia Clashthought" and the showing-up of Arnold Bennett are the outstanding gems in this bright clustre, although it is really hard to pick and choose. Each is a triumph in itself. Nor is it any easier to decide to which of the six characters page 22 of "Seven Men" the palm should be awarded. What an ingenious bunch! Enoch Soames, the tall, cadaverous, publicity-at-any-cost poet; James Pethel, the gambler of life and death; Maltby and Braxton with their transient masterpieces; A. V. Laider, the English Maunchausen, who read in the hands of his companions not only their imminent fate but also his inability to prevent it by pulling the communication-cord and thus stopping the train. Last in the volume, not least, comes "Savonarola" Brown, the writer of blank-verse tragedy, from the stage directions of which I make one brief extract:

Enter Michael Angelo. Andrea del Sarto appears for a moment at a window. Pippa passes. Brothers of the Misercordia go by, singing a requiem for Francesca da Rimini. Enter Boccaccio. Benevenuto Cellini, and many others, making remarks highly characteristic of themselves but searcely audible through the terrific thunderstorm that now bursts over Florence and is at its loudest and darkest crisis as the Curtain falls.

Of these, whom shall I select for special praise? The seventh, I think, the subtle jester, the author himself, in whose last book, "Even Now," we have a series of essays extending over a period of years. The individual note is everywhere apparent, the old tricks of style recur "dip with me," for an example, into some other autobiography), but he has grown more mature in thought, more mellow in tone, and touches more often under the surface of laughter on the hidden spring of tears.

Levity mingles with gravity, pity with sympathy, charm with insouciance. In "William and Mary" we rise from a consideration of the living to a definition of life it self. We dispute neither the veracity nor the artistry of the two portraits. These and the etchings of Goethe, Swinburne and Johnson first amuse us and then leave us surprised and wondering, for the delicacy of Mr. Beer-bohm's craft is like the "inro," those little Japanese nests of boxes, of fantastic shapes and colours, that held in their many compartments strange pills and powders and were exquisitely lacquered in the era of Kwanshosai, nearly two hundred years ago.

Wilfrid Leicester.