The Comparable Max

The essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm was one of the great figures of the late Victorian and Edwardian era in London—and then had a surprising Indian summer in America in the early nineteen-sixties, when Edmund Wilson wrote at length in his praise, and the playwright S. N. Behrman serialized a book of conversations with the very elderly Max (his admirers always call him by his first name, a not entirely honorable honor) in this magazine. John Updike and W. H. Auden, too, wrote about him, here and elsewhere. Since then, his reputation, like that of most of his contemporaries, has not so much collapsed like a house of cards as shrunk like a boiled head. It remains sharply chiselled, feature by feature, but on a much smaller scale: still intently animate to those who want him, invisible to those who don’t.

Now N.Y.R.B. Classics, which had previously reprinted “Seven Men,” a collection of stories presented as memoirs, with an introduction by Updike, has published a larger anthology of Beerbohm’s work, with the unfortunately patronizing title “The Prince of Minor Writers.” The anthology, on the whole well chosen, begins with a loving if not terribly insightful introduction by Philip Lopate, whose gifts as a New York-style essayist—a troubled intelligence and a blunt talent for heartfelt statement—are so at odds with Beerbohm’s high masquerading style that we are left without much of a feel for the thing inspected. (At one point, he refers to Beerbohm as “a clotheshorse,” although no term could be more ill suited to a writer whose dandyism is so subtly and purposefully differentiated from the dandyism of an Oscar Wilde or a Reggie Turner, not to mention a Beau Brummel.)

I discovered Beerbohm when I was a teen-ager, stumbling on a collection called “The Incomparable Max.” (The nickname came from Bernard Shaw.) Having since read, I think, pretty much every line he ever published—including his theatre criticism, not represented here, his radio broadcasts, and even his verse—I was for a long time a passionate Maximilian, even making a failed college effort to turn his novel, “Zuleika Dobson,” into a musical comedy, an enterprise at which Wolcott Gibbs and George and Ira Gershwin also failed. As the years have gone by, Beerbohm has remained a beacon, but he has also become something of an exasperation. The question is why a writer of almost Proustian gifts has so much less than Proustian achievements; and the answer may rest in a certain catastrophic form of Englishness, in the cult of the little, the diminutive, and the unambitious, a dread of pretension raised to an aesthetic principle. Beerbohm is as English a writer as there can be—fleeing England as soon as he could for Italy, a very English thing to do, while never in forty years learning more than a few words of Italian, also a very English thing to do. Reading Max, you can sense why Paris, in that last great exhalation of writing before the Great War, remade human consciousness, while London, during the same time, remade only its manners. Dandies, it seems, are dandy; but belles-lettres is better.

Beerbohm’s writing tends to be treated by his critics, and even by his admirers, as being all of a piece; minor implies monotone. But it comes in three very distinct colors. There is a period of Pater- and Wilde-style aestheticism, which made him famous on his emergence from Oxford, in the eighteen-nineties, when, at the age of twenty-four, he cheekily published his collected “Works”—highly mannered and unreal and full of Pateresque turns and a purposeful superficiality, counselling cosmetics for women and symmetrical neckcloths for men. Then, there is the journalism, which he began when, in 1898, mostly for money, he succeeded Shaw as the drama critic of Frank Harris’s Saturday Review—a body of writing far more functional, intelligent, impatient, and, often, ill-mannered than his reputation might suggest, the outstanding instance of the form between Shaw and Tynan.

Max was a fine critic of drama. But even better were his forays into dramatized criticism: close reading set in motion as narrative. This includes the stories in the 1919 “Seven Men,” about the dire effects of reading and storytelling on the human soul, along with occasional essays like “A Clergyman” and “Quia Imperfectum,” the first on Dr. Johnson and Boswell, the second on Goethe and German Romanticism. The parodies in “A Christmas Garland” (1912), generally thought to be the best such collection in English, are also criticism of a kind, less genial and more pointed. The tones tend to reappear as needed: “Zuleika Dobson” (1911) is, with its po-faced climax of mass suicide among the Oxford undergraduates in despair at Zuleika’s beauty, very much in the first, aesthetic manner. His BBC broadcasts from the Second World War are written in the style of his brisk, confiding drama criticism, popular journalism of a high order, simple narratives well related.

Beerbohm was a major caricaturist as well—Bernard Berenson called him, hyperbolically but not ridiculously, “the English Goya.” Though his practice was rooted in the French fin-de-siècle practice of caricature, with its emphasis on elegance and animation, more than on Daumier-like grit and grime, Max gave his caricatures a particularly English kind of narrative flair: the series he did of older authorial selves meeting their younger ones, including Henry James and Arnold Bennett (Old Self: “All gone according to plan.” Younger One: “My plan, you know”), is a high-water mark in the history of literary cartooning.

Though geniality is the mood, malice is the savory ingredient—malice passed through a sieve of manners. Beerbohm is in fact quickly disputatious and highly opinionated, on subjects from Strindberg to the music hall. Watching Sarah Bernhardt perform in French to rapturous audiences provoked him to write a sort of angry exposé, “Hamlet, Princess of Denmark.” (Not atypically for the period, there could often be an unhappy vein of misogyny in Max’s brand of malice.) Criticism, in all its guises, is the leitmotif of his art, the place where he breathes most easily. His two best books, “Seven Men” and “A Christmas Garland,” are exclusively about criticism, about reading with a purpose. All seven of his seven men, himself among them, are writers who have an obsessive relationship with texts. Max’s real subject is the one that, in his years in exile, he lived—the pathos of how passionate readers come to be made up of words, which eventually seem far more real than their lives.

The provocateur Malcolm Muggeridge, back in the Beerbohm-infected sixties, once stirred outrage by insisting that Beerbohm was both Jewish and gay, and in denial about both. This has been strenuously refuted by his biographers, who claim, following on Beerbohm’s own account, that his ancestors, merchants who arrived in England from what is now Lithuania in the mid-nineteenth century (sometimes the background is said to be Dutch), were somehow pure Protestant stock—which is exactly what a Jewish family that didn’t want to admit to it would have said in the period. Certainly, the enclosing tone of Max’s relationship with his mother sounds less Dutch or Lithuanian than Ashkenazi. His best friend, Reggie Turner, came from an assimilated Jewish background, while both of Max’s wives were Jewish—first, the American Florence Kahn, and then Elisabeth Jungmann (though by that point he was essentially marrying his nurse). Ezra Pound, a neighbor in Italy, caricatured him as Jewish, and, though hate is hate, hate at times has eyes to see. And the very buttoned-up front that Max showed the world was typical of the closeted Jews of his time. It was a distinguished theatrical family: his half brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was one of the great actor managers of the day.

As for his homosexuality, the very touching letters he wrote to Florence, around their engagement make it plain that he will remain unable to perform sexually with her: “The other sort of caring is beyond me,” he wrote. “It is a defect in my nature.” Biographers declare him a “natural celibate,” but the tone of his early letters to Oscar Wilde and his circle tends to be casually, if cautiously, “Uranian,” as they called themselves. He writes to Wilde’s intimate Bobbie Ross, for instance, urging him cheerily not to introduce their mutual friend Reggie Turner to “the love that dares not tell its name,” adding, “You are a person of stronger character and it doesn’t affect you the way it would affect him.” The tone is not that of an outsider looking in. Homosexual in his inclinations, but seeing what a mess it could make of life then, he may well have chosen celibacy. And it is certainly Wilde’s example and scandal that hang over all his early work and, in many ways, over his life. Max came to fame within Wilde’s orbit, if not directly under his aegis—“The gods bestowed on Max the secret of perpetual old age,” Wilde said of the young Beerbohm. Max writes about Wilde again and again, returns to him obsessively even as an old man, is still scribbling caricatures of him, and hostile ones, to be sure, at the end of his life. Perhaps only Hemingway in the twenties ever had the kind of attraction-repulsion for a generation of writers that Wilde did for his.

Max never betrayed Wilde, as so many of his friends did, and had the courage, while the scandal was still fresh, to insist that “The Importance of Being Earnest” was the masterpiece it is. But he always blamed Wilde for his own imprisonment, and saw it as a crime, or a tragedy, of hubris. Max wrote, near the end of his life, “I suppose really it was better that Oscar should die. If he had lived to be an old man he would have become unhappy. Those whom the gods, etc. And the gods did love Oscar, with all his faults.” The generosity is typical; so is the shrug of that “etc.”

The Wilde scandal was no doubt a trauma. It must have encouraged Max to live behind a series of masks, including a mask of Englishness, and one of diminutive infantilism—he draws himself always with outsize head and small body, like a baby. But the period right after the Wilde scandal saw Max’s prose move beyond exquisitism toward a new forcefulness. His style is sometimes called Latinate or overelaborate, but in truth he tried to make it a vocal, speaking, natural style. He loved writing that sounded like talk. A huge fan of the music halls, he actually wrote a song for a music-hall performer titled “But ’E’ll Never Be the Man ’Is Father Woz,” about the son of a pub owner:

I drops in to see young Ben

In ’is tap-room now an’ then,

And I likes to see ’im gettin’ on becoz

’E’s got pluck and ’e’s got brains,

And ’e takes no end o’ pains,

But—’e’ll never be the man ’is Father woz.

The man who could write a lyric that natural is not a sentence-maker remote from the demotic sounds around him. Indeed, no one is more emphatic about the necessity of making a style out of the sound of spoken English. His love of a natural-sounding prose explains why, when he came back to England in the thirties, getting out of Fascist Italy, he was right at home on the BBC, giving a series of broadcasts that demonstrate how to offer an intelligent radio talk that wins without exhausting its audience.

The trick is that, like Kipling, he understood that the sound of spoken English might be anything but blunt—that spoken English tends to be more circuitous, touched by asides, than the self-consciously simplified kind. There are two kinds of extended sentences: one depends on expanding an idea, the other tries to detail a consciousness. The first is argumentative, the second exquisite. The old-fashioned, Johnsonian kind that packed a book into a sentence was going away, Max knew, but the kind that vibrated a small sensation out to its full potential resonance was still alive—indeed, central to all the avant-garde writing of the period. (Beerbohm learned his long sentences from James—who had learned them from the French, and then taught them back to Proust.) Beerbohm had an unexampled gift for gear-shifting between long and short sentences. He knew that it all depended on voice, as he wrote of Whistler’s writing:

The style never falters. The silhouette of no sentence is ever blurred. Every sentence is ringing with a clear vocal cadence. There after all, in that vocal quality, is the chief test of good writing. Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker.

This new talking style—so remote from the languorous undergraduate writing of the collected “Works”—fills “Seven Men,” a true masterpiece of English prose, where the conventional, ever so slightly stuffy sound of the literary memoir slides magically into the elaborately unreal plots of the storytellers. Each story is a study, almost medieval in its neat balance of temptation and punishment, of a literary sinner. Enoch Soames is a sub-Baudelaire diabolist who manages to travel forward in time to see if he is remembered in the future. (He is, but only as a character in a Beerbohm story.) A. V. Laider is a man unable to stop himself from telling horror stories as though they were truthful anecdotes, confessing to his listeners only to begin again, and somehow renewing their credulity by his repentance. “Savonarola” Brown is a clerk who, by night, writes Shakespearean verse about Renaissance Florentine politics.

The stories are inspired by Henry James’s literary tales—“The Figure in the Carpet,” “The Death of the Lion,” and the like—but surpass them in the range and human sympathy of their character-making. All James’s authors are some version of James, while Beerbohm’s, though of the period, are as varied as they are eternal: the Aspirant, the Mediocrity, or the writer, like Enoch Soames, who believes with all his heart in Daring without ever being able to Dare himself. (Later, he would imitate Bukowski, rather than Baudelaire.) There’s the writer who gives it all away in talk and the writer who can do his work only in complicated rivalry with some other writer, as in the case of Maltby and Braxton, the authors of two whimsical classics of the nineties, always on the scene, and always, to their dismay, bracketed together, like Julian Barnes and Martin Amis in another London time. Beerbohm describes them in a paragraph that shows his mastery of sentence oscillation, the long and polite sentences alternating with the short and candid ones, and also the essential satiric disdain that underlies his wide-eyed tone:

No one seeing the two rivals together, no one meeting them at Mr. Hookworth’s famous luncheon-parties in the Author’s Club, or at Mrs. Foster-Dugdale’s not less famous garden parties in Greville Place, would have supposed off-hand that the pair had a single point in common. Dapper little Maltby—blond, bland diminutive Maltby, with his monocle and gardenia; big black Braxton, with his lanky hair and his square blue jaw and his square sallow forehead. Canary and crow. Maltby had a perpetual chirrup of amusing small talk. Braxton was usually silent, but very well worth listening to whenever he did croak. . . . But the casual observer of Braxton and Maltby at Mrs. Foster-Dugdale’s or elsewhere was wrong in supposing that the two were totally unlike. He overlooked one simple and obvious point. This was that he had met them both at Mrs. Foster-Dugdale’s or elsewhere. Wherever they were invited, there certainly, there punctually, they would be. They were both of them gluttons for the fruits and signs of success.

The six stories detail literature as an addiction, rather than as a vocation: all the hero-sufferers would be saner and happier if they had never caught the literary bug. None of them will truly succeed as writers, but none can quite be cured of writing. In this way, they belong to the same world of feeling as “A Christmas Garland,” the Christmas-themed book of parodies Beerbohm published in 1912. There, too, literary style is treated as a kind of seizure, one that takes entire control of a once sane man. Although only a few of those parodied are still much read, the parodies supply their object. Just by reading Beerbohm’s parody of Arnold Bennett’s North of England novels, you understand that Bennett was earnest and awkward, and tried too hard to be cosmic.

Though the tone is superficially amiable, Max’s real disgust with literary falseness is felt on every page. The old saw is that parody is essentially appreciative, really a form of flattery. But good parody is an assault, and wounding. A parody is flattering inasmuch as it assumes a density of style that is capable of being imitated. But a parody also posits that a writer can be reduced to a string of tics and mannerisms—that the writer’s style is a code that can be cracked. A writer sees the tics and mannerisms as things under his control, while the parodist suggests that they have taken control of him. And so when Beerbohm has Chesterton confess, “Love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a windbag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven,” he is stepping past Chesterton’s own voice to turn him into a ventriloquist’s puppet, offering a verdict on the ventriloquist. It is not a hanging judgment; but the judgment hangs. Max keeps the charm of his manner in constant tension with the malice of his attitudes. He openly confessed to hating Kipling, while recognizing his genius, and his parody of Kipling is a brutal picture of imperial hysteria at a squirrelly high pitch. (“ ‘Frog’s-march him!’ I shrieked, dancing. ‘For the love of heaven, frog’s-march him!’ ” he has Kipling cry out as Santa is arrested by a policeman and dragged to the station.)

The one exception, the one entirely affectionate parody in the book, may be the best parody in English—the one of Henry James, called “The Mote in the Middle Distance.” It is an absurdly extended description of a small boy looking at his Christmas stocking on Christmas morning while his still smaller sister sleeps. Yet the full, circuitous, late-Jamesian manner, given to a child, works, because children are actually “Jamesian,” helpless creatures of observational nuance: all they have is their scruples and second thoughts to make them human. We get impatient with the grownups in, say, “The Golden Bowl,” because they are grown people who ought to be able to act. Kids can’t act, really. They can only muse. Grownups stuff Christmas stockings. Children observe them:

Thus the exact repetition, at the foot of Eva’s bed, of the shape pendulous at the foot of his was hardly enough to account for the fixity with which he envisaged it and for which he was to find, some years later, a motive in the (as it turned out) hardly generous fear that Eva had already made the great investigation “on her own.” Her very regular breathing presently reassured him that, if she had peeped into “her” stocking, she must have done so in sleep. . . . She really was—he had often told her that she really was—magnificent; and her magnificence was never more obvious than in the pause that elapsed before she all of a sudden remarked, “They so very indubitably are, you know!”

Beerbohm’s best writing is a form of criticism of other people’s; his gift for the observation of manners is small next to his gift for the understanding of how writing engraves itself on our brains. “Note that I am not incomparable,” he said once to Behrman, protesting the “incomparable” label. “Compare me.” If we do, we find that, among the great English essayists, he is the one whose genius depends least on the apprehension of immediate experience and most on what happens when we read. Everything good he writes is about how books, after building us up for life, let us down once we’re in it.

Before the First World War, Beerbohm and Florence had already retreated to Rapallo, on the Italian coast, and the self-exile became part of his legend. He said that he had gone because he knew too many people in London too well—“How many people were there in London? Eight million? Nine million? Well, I knew them all”—or because he “wanted to be alone with Florence,” which can’t have been good for her, as she seems to have been a nervous type who might have benefitted from less isolation. His motives are perhaps less mysterious than they might seem: most English writers dream of escaping to Italy—many of his heroes, from Byron to Browning, had done it. The claustrophobia that afflicts a metropolitan writer when he comes to be known by the metropolis is real. London life was too much with him, then and later. And exile was, in the crude American sense, a good career move, made by a man who was certainly always aware when others made such moves—sensing, without being censorious, how skillfully Goethe fell in love with the right woman at the right time, or how well Byron had done by “shaking the dust of England off his shoes.” Max’s little day was passing, and couldn’t be lengthened by repetition. The smart thing was to subside, and once again become a rumor, an elegant whisper, as he had first been at Oxford.

He had remarkably good relations with the next great group of English aesthete intellectuals, the Bloomsburies. He took up the cause and the case of Lytton Strachey early and passionately; “Eminent Victorians” was a book that Max could have written, and that shows his hidden-dagger hand in every sentence. He became friends with Virginia Woolf. Yet Woolf felt that she belonged to a different literary era, even though Max was hardly older than Keynes. The aftershock of the Wilde trials had long passed, but Wilde himself looked embarrassing, vulgar; and the winds from France, which Max had on the whole resisted, swept away the posh, playful green-carnation aesthetes. Max was a modern writer, but he could never be a modernist, even in spirit. The modernists accepted a higher degree of difficulty. He believed in ease.

Throughout the later years, he seemed bent, sporadically, on trying his hand at a masterpiece, at some larger work. There is talk of a long, Proustian-seeming narrative, to be called “The Mirror of the Past,” and a couple of Rapallo-era pieces are beautiful exercises in memory: “William and Mary,” a story of an Ibsen- and Morris-loving couple, and “The Golden Drugget,” a meditative essay recalling Max’s first years in Italy. But they remain tantalizing fragments, unrealized in any longer form. Beerbohm himself shrugged off the demands that he try something big. “Some people are born to lift heavy weights,” he said. “Some are born to juggle golden balls.” Auden, with more irascibility than one might expect, pointed out that this was a poisonous doctrine—the idea is to juggle golden balls that weigh something. Declining to try, out of a false sense of decorum, was, in Auden’s view, the real English vice.

Proust had to outgrow the habits of diminutiveness, without sacrificing a love of nuance and detail, to become himself. He confronted his own Jewishness, and his own homosexuality, with both decorum and candor. Yes, of course, nobody’s Proust, but those of us who admire Beerbohm see that something Proustian was not entirely out of his reach as a writer, and wish that he had lived within a literary culture more inclined to make him try. One of the funny, but doom-laden, elements in “A Christmas Garland” is the mockery of Galsworthy’s and Bennett’s loquaciousness, which carried within it the seeds of the idea that anything big and long is blowsy.

Auden said that Beerbohm resembled Thurber, but he more resembles another Anglo-Jewish Anglophile, S. J. Perelman. A master parodist, a dandy, Perelman, too, produced a body of writing that is almost entirely a record of things read. Even when he travels, the subject is the sad discrepancy between what the books said it would be like and what it is like. Perelman himself turns sour over time, because he also exhausted his subject, the infatuations of early reading, without being able to replenish it with the stimulations of daily life. (Indeed, Perelman once listed, to a friend, three of his favorite books as Zola’s “Au Bonheur des Dames,” the Goncourt brothers’ journals, and “Seven Men.”) And, like Beerbohm, when the time came for him to write a big book, he couldn’t. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t raise his game as that he couldn’t change it. Perelman’s tongue had got so used to a rococo elaboration that he couldn’t write straight even when he tried, a knuckleball pitcher—to borrow an image—whose arm is so twisted he can’t throw a fastball when he wants to. Beerbohm had found so many ways to be modest that when he had to try and be major he couldn’t.

Still, there is no such thing as a minor writer, because—there is really no such thing as a major writer. As Max wrote, considering Whistler, even Shakespeare occupies shockingly little of our attention—shocking, that is, for those of us who are trying to occupy it, too. (Boswell, one of Max’s favorites, said the same thing about Voltaire: no one had ever been more talked of, and look how little, really, Voltaire was talked of.) This means that bigness is a mirage, but it also means that smallness is a kind of illusion, too. Anyone who is read at all is more or less the same size. People who love reading will always love reading Max, because he mocked so wisely, and read so well. ♦