Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.
An exquisite Edwardian oddity – a sort of magic-realist proto-campus-novel about paranoid sexual fantasy, as related by Beau Brummel or Oscar Wilde.
Our eponymous heroine is a personification of feminine desirability – ‘the toast of two hemispheres’, she has already, before the novel begins, ‘ranged in triumphal nomady’ around the capitals of Europe; Paris falls prostrate at her feet, Madrid throws a vast bullfight in her honour, the Grand Duke of Petersburg falls in love with her, and the Pope launches an ineffective Bull against her influence. Now, laden with innumerable jewels and dresses, she arrives in Oxford, where her powers seem to reach new heights. Soon, every undergraduate in the city is so obsessed with her that they all resolve to commit suicide in her name.
Zuleika herself is a strangely insubstantial creature, described at one point as ‘a vagrom breeze, warm and delicate, and in league with death’. She cares for nobody. At first, thinking that arch-dandy the Duke of Dorset is impervious to her charms, she falls violently in love with him; but when she discovers that he, too, is crazy for her, she goes off him at once. When men fight over her, instead of intervening she steps back, eyes dilating. The old truism about how over-interest is unattractive here finds unusually strong expression.
‘As soon as I grew used to the thought that they were going to die for me, I simply couldn't stand them. Poor boys! it was as much as I could do not to tell them I wished them dead already.’
There have been arguments over the polarity of Max Beerbohm's sexuality; I have to say, this would seem an unusual novel to write if you didn't have at least some interest in women, although certainly Zuleika Dobson represents a rather nervous and overawed (if very funny) view of them. Then again, perhaps he was gay as a window and the whole mass suicide thing is meant to be a satire on heterosexual relationships.
Either way, what makes this book such a total joy to read is Beerbohm's ornate, precise prose style, which allows him a mastery of various comic effects – irony, bathos, conversational wit. Objectionable characters are dismissed casually as being ‘odious with the worst abominations of perfumery’ (a phrase to steal), or in the case of one unfortunate individual,
looking like nothing as much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan.
Beerbohm can employ beautiful throwaway references to – for instance – ‘the ascending susurrus of a silk skirt’, but he can also launch into these gravely portentous ejaculations that I found unaccountably hilarious:
Aye, by all minerals we are mocked. Vegetables, yearly deciduous, are far more sympathetic.
Having spent all of my twenties compiling vast notebooks of vocabulary from my reading, it is rare now that a book teaches me any new words, but this one sent me gleefully to the dictionary to check such beauties as opetide or disseizin, and left me relishing such coinages as omnisubjugant, virguncule and commorients. Here is a writer with panache, and wit, and superb technical control – and, probably, some issues, but all the more reason to read him and enjoy him. How devastating that this was his only novel: it's a weird, unmissable delight.