In Search of the Incomparable Max

I discovered Max Beerbohm as an undergraduate. Rereading his work today has been just as enjoyable

Andrew Gimson

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.
And I wanted very much more to read these books than to write about them. For days I dashed about, finding always something I simply must reread before I undertook the labour of writing. I looked again at Zuleika Dobson, Max’s great fantasy of Oxford life, published in 1911, and at “Enoch Soames”, which is perhaps the funniest story about literary failure ever published, and at his brilliant volume of parodies, A Christmas Garland, published in 1912. It begins with his unsurpassable parody of Henry James, entitled “The Mote in the Middle Distance”, which turns out to be about a small boy gazing on Christmas morning at the stocking at the end of his bed, not that one can make out the subject matter from the opening lines:

It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it? The consciousness of dubiety was, for our friend, not, this morning, quite yet clean-cut enough to outline the figures on what she had called his “horizon,” between which and himself the twilight was indeed of a quality somewhat intimidating.

Max was worried Henry James might be upset about this, but James described the book as “the most intelligent that has been produced in England for many a long day” and when asked by an admirer what he thought about something else, just pointed at Max and said: “Ask that young man, he is in full possession of my innermost thoughts.”

This capacity to be in possession of someone’s innermost thoughts, and to reveal them in pictures as well as words, Max possessed to an extraordinary degree. He said the most perfect caricature is “that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the 
most beautiful manner”.

Not that he always admired his subjects. His greatest aversion was to Rudyard Kipling. The two men met only once, in Baltimore in 1895, while Max was accompanying his half-brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the impresario, on a tour of the United States. “So young to have a style!” Kipling exclaimed. For his part, Max admitted Kipling’s genius, but hated “the smell of blood, beer and baccy” which, he said, exhaled from Kipling’s pages: “The schoolboy, the bully and the brute — these three types have surely never found a more brilliant expression of themselves than in Rudyard Kipling.”

Kipling was so hurt by Max’s caricatures that he refused, 20 years later, to meet David Low, who wanted to draw him. One of the most wounding of these caricatures was published in 1904. It shows the short, vulgar figure of Kipling dancing along with Britannia, who is tall, graceful and not at all enjoying his company. They have swapped hats, so that he is crowned by her helmet, and she is left with his bowler. The caption reads: “Mr Rudyard Kipling takes a bloomin’ day aht, on the Blasted ‘Eath, along with Brittannia, ‘is gurl.”

In extreme old age, Max remarked of Kipling to S.N. Behrman, who published a delightful book called Conversation with Max: “He was a genius, a very great genius, and I felt that he was debasing his genius by what he wrote. And I couldn’t refrain from saying so.” He saw Kipling once in White’s Club, and caught his eye, and wanted to go up to him and try to mend fences: “Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I unbend? Why did I go on persecuting him? And now he is dead and it is too late.”    
I could not imagine putting pen to paper before I had reacquainted myself with “T. Fenning Dodworth”, an essay written in 1922 which can be found at the end of Mainly on the Air, a volume published in 1946 containing six of Max’s radio broadcasts. It begins with the words, “This name is seldom, if ever, on the lips of the man in the street.” Dodworth is a kind of Widmerpool, but less successful: he is held in the highest esteem by expert judges, despite having failed in the most ludicrous manner to achieve any kind of popular success in any field he has touched, including law, politics, journalism and the theatre. During the constitutional convulsions before the First World War, he is in his element, becoming an “ubiquitous” and “mesmeric” commentator. Max goes on:

It was at the outbreak of the War that I feared there might be no more of him. And there was, indeed, less. No longer young, he did not acquire more than a smattering of the military idiom, nor any complete grasp of strategy. But he was ever in close touch with the War Office and with G.H.Q., and was still fairly oracular. Several times in the last year of the conflict, he visited (with temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel) certain sectors of the Western Front and made speeches to the men in the trenches, declaring himself well-satisfied with their morale, and being very caustic about the enemy; but it may be doubted whether he, whose spell had never worked on the man in the street, was fully relished by the men in the trenches. Non omni omnia. Colonel Dodworth was formed for successes of the more exquisite kind. I think the Ministry of Information erred in supposing that his article, “Pax Britannica — And After”, would be of immense use all the world over. But the error was a generous one. The article was translated into thirty-seven foreign languages and fifty-eight foreign dialects. Twelve million copies of it were despatched in a series of special trains to a southern port. The Admiralty, at the last moment, could not supply transport for them, and the local authorities complained of them that they blocked the dock. The matter was referred to the Ministry of Reconstruction, which purchased a wheat-field twenty miles inland and erected on it a large shed of concrete and steel for the the reception of Dodworth’s pamphlets, pending distribution. This shed was nearly finished at the moment when the Armistice was signed, and it was finished soon after. Whether the pamphlets are in it, or just where they are, I do not know. Blame whom you will. I care not. Dodworth had even in the War another of his exquisite successes.

I cannot read this without laughing aloud. The one unfortunate touch in it is the repetition of the word “exquisite”: the sort of word to which Max’s biographer, Lord David Cecil, had no objection, but to which Kingsley Amis, no admirer of Cecil, was capable of taking violent exception. I recall an unhappy exchange at a Spectator lunch during which I was not only foolish enough to reveal to Amis my admiration of Beerbohm, but to use the word “exquisite” when trying to justify this bizarre enthusiasm.
But it is no good trying to suggest that Max became unpopular in the age of the Angry Young Men. In most respects, Max had never been popular in the first place. He himself suggested he had a public of 1,500 in England and 1,000 in America. He was praised to the skies by an elite and ignored by almost everyone else. Max did not think much of democracy, and democracy did not think much of him. He began his essay on “The Humour of the Public” by pointing out that “perhaps the most effective means of disparaging an enemy” is to lay stress upon his many fine qualities, “and then to say what a pity it is that he has no sense of humour”. Having enlarged upon mankind’s belief in the general humorousness of the human race, and remarked that no one ever boasts of not having a sense of humour, Max goes on to postulate that the public’s sense of humour may be regarded roughly as one collective sense.
By the public he means the vast number of human beings who are in the lowest grade of intelligence. It is thus recruited from the upper, middle and lower classes. To this “primitive and untutored public”, Max says, “humour is a harshly definite affair . . . Violence and obviousness are . . . the essential factors.” He proceeds to select from music hall and comic paper “certain ever-recurring themes” of public entertainment, which include mothers-in-law, hen-pecked husbands, various kinds of foreigner, extreme fatness, extreme thinness, baldness, sea-sickness, stuttering, and shooting the moon (meaning to leave a lodging house without paying the bill). These were not Max’s themes, except that in his drawings the figures are often very fat or very thin.
Max himself described with characteristic clarity the feeling of not wanting to write. In 1898 he succeeded George Bernard Shaw as theatre critic of the Saturday Review: Shaw in his valedictory piece had dubbed him “the incomparable Max”. For 12 years, Max composed an article a week, before in his own valedictory piece admitting:

I do not recall that I have once sat down eager to write, or that I have once written with ease and delight. But the cause of this lack was not in the nature of my theme. It was in myself. Writing has always been uphill work to me, mainly because I am cursed with an acute literary conscience. To seem to write with ease and delight is one of the duties which a writer owes to his readers, to his art. And to contrive that effect requires very great skill and care: it is a matter of technique, a matter of construction partly, and partly of choice of words and cadences. There may be — I have never met one — writers who enjoy the act of writing; but without that technique their enjoyment will not be manifest. I may often have failed in my articles here, to disguise labour. But the effort to disguise it has always been loyally made. And thus it is that Thursday, the day chosen by me (as being the latest possible one) for writing my article, has for twelve years been regarded by me as the least pleasant day of the week.

These are the words of a craftsman who allowed nothing shoddy to leave his workshop. The quality of his work is so high that I still cannot account for its neglect. I have several of his caricatures on my walls, but hardly anyone ever pauses to look at them. When Nick Garland, long the Telegraph‘s political cartoonist, examined them with close delight, I was taken aback. Yet so far as I know, the visitors to my house are not a particularly philistine lot. Some of them are no doubt distracted by my children, or my laugh. Max himself has distracted me from writing this essay. At least I have managed to quote a considerable number of his own words. It is late, and I find myself surrounded by the wreckage of his books. I am aware that I have said nothing about his dandyism, or about his enchanting glimpses of politicians such as Gladstone and Lord Randolph Churchill, or of poets such as Matthew Arnold and the Rossettis. I have failed to develop any kind of Beerbohm theory. But I hope I have said enough to show that he can still give great pleasure, and is essentially sane. 

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