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Sir Henry Maximilian “Max” Beerbohm was, like his friend Oscar Wilde, such an acclaimed wit (and essayist, caricaturist, and parodist) that George Bernard Shaw dubbed him “the incomparable Max.” But Beerbohm’s comic masterpiece Zuleika Dobson—one of the Modern Library’s top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century—is the only novel he ever wrote.
Strangely out of print in the United States for years, this crackling farce is nonetheless as piercing and fresh as when it first appeared in 1911: a hilarious dismantling of academia and privilege, and a swashbuckling lampooning of class systems and notions of masculine virtue.
The all-male campus of Oxford—Beerbohm’s alma mater—is a place where aesthetics holds sway above all else, and where witty intellectuals reign. Things haven’t changed for its privileged student body for years . . . until the beguiling music-hall prestidigitator Zuleika Dobson shows up.
The book’s marvelous prose dances along the line between reality and the absurd as students and dons alike fall at Zuleika’s feet, and she cuts a wide swath across the campus—until she encounters one young aristocrat for whom she is astonished to find she has feelings.
As Zuleika, and her creator, zero in on their targets, the book takes some surprising and dark twists on its way to a truly startling ending—an ending so striking that readers will understand why Virginia Woolf said that “Mr. Beerbohm in his way is perfect.”
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Sir Henry Maximilian “Max” Beerbohm (1872–1956) was the youngest of nine children born in London to well-to-do Lithuanian immigrants. As a boy he showed no propensity for writing or artwork, but despite the lack of formal training, upon entering Merton College, Oxford, he quickly became known for his essays and caricatures (and for being a dandy). When The Strand Magazine published thirty-six of his drawings in 1892, his career took off, and he left school without a degree. (Oxford would later give him an honorary degree.) He went to America briefly, to write press releases for his brother’s theatrical company, then returned to England and wrote essays and drew caricatures for his friend Aubrey Beardsley’s The Yellow Book magazine, among other publications. Some of his work around this time concerned the trial of Oscar Wilde, whom he’d befriended while a student. The trial, particularly Wilde’s defense of “the love that dare not speak its name,” moved him greatly. In 1896, he published his first book, a collection of his essays called The Works of Max Beerbohm, and the first of many collections of his caricatures, Caricatures of Twenty-five Gentlemen. Two years later he succeeded George Bernard Shaw as drama critic for the Saturday Review, a position he retained until 1910, when he married American actress Florence Kahn (Evelyn Waugh speculated it was a mariage blanc), and moved to a house overlooking the Mediterranean in Rapallo, Italy. Despite Florence’s death, in 1951, and despite becoming popular in England as a BBC commentator, Beerbohm would remain in Italy until his own death, decades later at age eighty-three, just after marrying his former secretary and companion, Elisabeth Jungmann.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St. Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics and Jane Eyre: A Reader’s Guide to Criticism.
Praise for Zuleika Dobson and Max Beerbohm
“Mr. Beerbohm in his way is perfect . . . He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes . . . He is without doubt the prince of his profession.”
“Beerbohm was a genius of the purest kind. He stands at the summit of his art.”
“Zuleika Dobson is a highly accomplished and superbly written book whose spirit is farcical. It is a great work—the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time . . . So funny and charming, so iridescent yet so profound.”
—E. M. Forster
“Perfectly delightful . . . All style and wit, a pretty fantasy served up in exquisite, ornamented prose.”
“I read Zuleika Dobson with pleasure. It represents the Oxford that the two World Wars have destroyed with a charm that is not likely to be reproduced anywhere in the world for the next thousand years.”
“Of comic novels that have quaffed the elixir of ‘classic’: Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.”
“Among the masked dandies of Edwardian comedy, Max Beerbohm is the most happily armored by a deep and almost innocent love of himself as a work of art.”
—V. S. Pritchett
“In his best stories there is more than a whisper of magic realism—a murmur, however distant, of questions about the nature of reality.”
“Elegantly stylized satire.”
—The New Yorker
“Erudite and lively.”
—The Village Voice
“Graceful, witty, and charming.”
“Max Beerbohm, I dare say (and I believe it has been said before), is the most subtly gifted English essayist since Charles Lamb. It is not surprising that he has (now for many years) been referred to as ‘the incomparable Max,’ for what other contemporary has never once missed fire, never failed to achieve perfection in the field of his choice? Whether in caricature, short story, fable, parody, or essay, he has always been consummate in grace, tact, insouciant airy precision.”
“The greatest of English comic artists.”
—The Times (London)
“A perfect fantasy.”
—The New York Review of Books
“There is no doubt about the cool irony of the style, or the fact that it’s unlike any other book that’s ever been written.”
—The New York Times
“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.”
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