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Zuleika Dobson

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Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson [London; 1911]

I've been a fan of Max Beerbohm's sedulous prose for twenty years, and of British comic fiction as a genre for even longer, so why it took me this long to read his only novel, a celebrated classic of comic fiction, is unaccountable. I can only guess that I like having things in reserve, something to get around to; and while my appetite for information in the abstract is wolfish, taking up specific works (especially if they've acquired any kind of patina in my mental library) is fraught. What if the spell doesn't work?

It works.

I tried to parcel this out, one chapter a night, all week, but over the weekend I fell too deeply in love and just charged through. It's an extraordinary achievement, a work of high irony and filigreed texture, a Wildean fairy-tale set in the world of one of Wilde's society plays but with all of Wilde's wild hope expunged. The entirety of the plot could be contained in an anecdote, and I wouldn't be surprised to find its outline somewhere in the back chapters of Ovid or the Arabian Nights; but while there are absolutely grounds for considering it misogynistic, I prefer to think of it as expressing (with faultlessly unctuous irony) a scholarly, asexual* horror at the violence and egotism of heterosexual passion.

But pulling too hard at the lacy web to extract any themes would be foolish; for all its black humor, Zuleika Dobson is too delicate and balanced for the heavy machinery of analysis, whether Marxist or feminist or any other I'd happily apply to a sturdier text. Granted that the entirety of the late Victorian or Edwardian Oxford world Beerbohm writes about (or imagines, and then writes about) is a criminal enterprise for maintaining wealth and power at the expense of the other 9/10ths of the world, the fact doesn't make it one scintilla less beautiful, or hilarious.

*The first time I can remember seeing the word asexual applied to a person was in a biographical sketch of Max Beerbohm; whose, I can no longer guess.

April 9, 2017