In Search of the Incomparable Max
From Disraeli to Baldwin: "Prime Ministers in my day and mostly tremendous luminaries in theirs"
In a moment of folly, I suggested writing a piece about Max Beerbohm. The invention of email enables me to trace the exact terms in which I put the idea to the editor: "I thought that at some point I might ask if you would like me to reread Max Beerbohm, an idol of my undergraduate years, and see whether his jokes, his drawings and parodies, his impertinence, his dandyism and his rejection of the spirit of the age inspire the same veneration now as they did then."
The answer requires a single word. Yes. A few moments with Max's caricatures and essays were enough to rekindle all my old feelings. His rudeness produced the same incredulous joy as when I first came across him almost 40 years ago. G.K. Chesterton said the young Max — the Max of the 1890s, friend of Will Rothenstein, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde — "exhibited the cheek of a guttersnipe in the garb of a dandy". The Yellow Book, to whose first issue in April 1894 the 21-year-old Max contributed an essay called "A Defence of Cosmetics", was every bit as much of an affront to Victorian values as the satire boom of the early 1960s was to Fifties notions of respectability.
The world is inclined to think of Max (if it thinks of him at all) as an elegant and mannered figure from the past: an image to which he played up by calling his first volume of essays, published in 1896, The Works of Max Beerbohm. Wilde said the gods had bestowed on Max "the gift of perpetual old age". But Max also saw things with a subversive truthfulness. His early drawings of Wilde — done before the downfall — make him look like a corrupt dowager. And here are some notes he made about Wilde:
Luxury — gold-tipped matches — hair curled — Assyrian — wax statue — huge rings — fat white hands — not soigné — feather bed — pointed fingers — ample scarf — Louis Quinze cane — vast malmaison — cat-like tread — heavy shoulders — enormous dowager — or schoolboy — way of laughing with hand over mouth — stroking chin — looking up sideways — jollity overdone — But real vitality — . . . Effeminate, but vitality of 20 men. magnetism — authority — Deeper than repute or wit — Hypnotic.
Although I saw at once that Max was every bit as much of a genius as I had remembered, a few moments did not suffice to re-acquaint myself with his work. I had somehow come to imagine, after neglecting him for many years, that he was not very productive. After all, he retired to Italy in 1910, and lived there, except during the two World Wars, until his death in 1956, without doing all that much. He is so light, and so disinclined to be portentous, that I had forgotten he drew 2,000 caricatures and published a dozen volumes of prose.
In my student days, I would never enter a secondhand bookshop without seeing whether, next to some forgotten work by Arnold Bennett, some forgotten work by Max Beerbohm could be found. When I put my books by and about Max together, I found I had over 20 volumes.