Wednesday 10 October 2012

October Challenge Z - Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Penguin Number 895
Max Beerbohm essayist and caricaturist wrote one novel during his lifetime, 1872 - 1956. The novel was Zuleika Dobson, (also known as an Oxford Love story. It is the story of a beautiful young woman whose very presence causes men to fall over with lust and love.
I chose this book because my friend Karyn of apenguinaweek suggested it would be a good book to read as one of my tasks for my October challenge of reading a book whose title begins with Z. I don't have many books with Z titles on my shelves.  It sounded more interesting to me at the time than Zorro.

Zuleika was written in 1911 so it also meets the Century of Books challenge. Penguin published it on 24th August 1952 in honour of the author's 80th birthday.

I began this book thinking, "Oh boy, this is going to be tedious." Yes there were many parts of it that were but having just read Before the Bombardment this one moved along much quicker so I did get into it quickly. Zuleika is a young woman in Edwardian England, who visits her grandfather, the Warden of Judas at Oxford.

As she stepped off the train; "A hundred eyes were fixed on her, and half as many hearts lost to her. The Warden of Judas himself had mounted on his nose a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction. The throng made way for her. She was at his side. "Grandpapa! she cried, and kissed the old man on either cheek. (Not a youth there but would have bartered fifty years of his future for that salute.)"

Max Beerbohm 1872-1956
She has the ability to turn men to fools with lust, desire and love at first sight.  However when she meets the Duke of Dorset  although he feels the same way,  he hides it and she believing he is not in love with her as the others, falls for him simply because he does not seem to care. This see-sawing of feelings continues upon several subsequent meetings.

The story then becomes quite fantastical in that all of the young men at Oxford fall in love with her, completely in vain and they all decide they must follow the Duke,who has decided he must die for her by calling out Zuleika's name and killing themselves by throwing themselves into the river during the festival of boat races.

One of M. Beerbohm's
Although Penguin books described this story as a romantic love I didn't interpret it much as a true romantic love in any event. It almost becomes a game of  one-upmanship between Zuleika and the Duke and the author, Beerbohm describes the story more as a fantasy.  I found the behaviour of everyone as well as the decisions they make all a bit much and became irritated by it.

I didn't think any of the characters were very likeable or convincing and the humour is quite black. However I did find myself thinking about the characters. I think more so for the 'over the top' story. It is just so unbelievable it became funny.

The description of Zuleika sums her up quite well I think. The duke asks her, "Have any of your lovers ceased to love you?"  'Ah no, no; not in retrospect. I remain their ideal, and all that, of course. They cherish the thought of me. They see the world in terms of me. But I am an inspiration, not an obsession; a glow, not a blight." 

As all of the young men at Oxford jump into the river to drown she barely seems moved by any of it, however I must stop here as I don't want to give away the ending which makes the book worth continuing.

Is it possible to enjoy a book, finish it and then think, "Well that was silly?" I am glad I read it and yes, I did enjoy it.
Another caricature drawn by
Max Beerbohm. The way he used colours
changed as he aged.
In looking up information about the author I was very surprised to learn that this book is listed in the top 100 books people should read as published by the Modern Library.  When I think of how many incredibly great books there are, the fact that this sole novel of Beerbohm's should be amongst the top 100 baffles me. I would love to have heard the reason given for that choice.

The Encyclopaedia Britannia describe Beerbohm as an "English caricaturist, writer, dandy, and wit whose sophisticated drawings and parodies were unique in capturing, usually without malice, whatever was pretentious, affected, or absurd in his famous and fashionable contemporaries. " 

One can certainly see that description in his drawings and very much in his novel. I have not read any of his essays he was also known for but I think that may be quite an interesting task.

Upon further digging through on line searches it sounds like the author's personal life is far more interesting than the book he wrote. His caricatures are great fun, evidently he was an extremely secretive man, with many believing he was a homosexual or asexual, thus hiding his sexuality and much of his personality in his three marriages. His third marriage only weeks before he died. He also supposedly had an interesting if not controversial friendship with Oscar Wilde and other artists of his time.

I think it would be most interesting to read a really comprehensive biography of the man.  From the point of view of learning more about this man, this dandy, I am happy to have read the book that led me to look up more information about him.

Oops ...Travellin' Penguin accidentally bursts
into another caricature.  We both like this one.
Thanks Karyn for your suggestion as it has been fun.  I also enjoyed Karyn's review (here) of this book which I just read after I wrote mine. I don't like reading reviews before I write mine. It is more fun to seek them out after the fact to see what others thought.
I am also happy to have finished goal Z - to read a book I own whose title begins with Z.  However if I do this again I may read Zorro next time. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments. I promise to try very hard to reply to any message left.