Many years ago an Australian author was approached with a view to giving numerous creative-writing lectures. He refused on the grounds that all he could think of to tell literary neophytes was “Go off and read Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ essay.”
Clearly this made an entire lecture series untenable, though the wisdom of his attitude remains obvious. Yet suppose that a young scribbler has already absorbed the basic lessons of anti-totalitarianism in all its forms, has already acquired solid competence as a wordsmith, and has so far transcended America’s Grand Tradition as to achieve a healthy impatience with mere suicidality purporting to be art. Whom could such a tyro contemplate next?
There are obvious 18th-century models worthy of his attention—reading, say, Dr. Johnson’s Life of Richard Savage forms an admirable prophylactic against any tendencies to credit the likes of Dylan Thomas with moral insight—but what about more recent times? Supposing a literary novice wishes to aim not just at lucidity and accuracy, admirable though these are, but also at conveying—without any narrow political agenda—a sense of decorum and, heaven forbid, elegance?
In this connection, perchance, acquaintanceship with Sir Max Beerbohm will—after the manner of a celebrated beer commercial—reach parts others cannot reach.
There is something to be said, in connection with Beerbohm (that lasting tag “the incomparable Max” derives from his friendly enemy Bernard Shaw), for such journalistic bromides as “the best-known author you’ve never heard of.” Something, but not much, since unlike many of his contemporaries—born in 1872, he died in 1956—he has never slipped wholly out of print. (Compare and contrast with his fellow literary knights of that era. Sir Hall Caine, Sir William Watson, Sir Alfred Noyes, Sir Henry Newbolt: do not hold your breath waiting for them to be revived.) Joseph Epstein nevertheless called Beerbohm with justice “the world’s greatest minor writer … if he ever wrote a flawed sentence, I have not come across it.”
Epstein could equally well have begun that last clause with “if he ever drew a flawed caricature.” For Beerbohm, along with very few others—William Blake, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and Mervyn Peake probably complete the list—belongs to the history of English visual art no less than to that of English authorship. The great art historian Bernard Berenson snapped at someone who had charged Beerbohm with sloth: “That is a piggish remark … They [Beerbohm’s drawings] are as good as Goya. Max is the English Goya.”
Detailed analyses of Beerbohm the artist should probably be left to the world’s Berensons, but even those of us who literally cannot draw a recognizable human face must salute an example—now at the Smithsonian—of Beerbohm’s cartooning flair. It emerged in 1910, shortly after Edward VII’s death, and depicts five menacing nouveaux riches associated with that sybaritic monarch’s reign, now invading the court of the virtuous George V and vainly hoping for similar influence there. Obesity prevails among them, perhaps by analogy with Falstaff dancing attendance on the newly crowned Prince Hal. Beerbohm’s deadpan caption: “Are we as welcome as ever?”
Calling Beerbohm apolitical is like calling the Pacific wet. Though coeval with the rise of red-meat empire-builders and of Fabian social workers, Beerbohm advocated no such strenuous world-saving. In a throwaway line from his old age he once described social classes as “so deplorable sociologically, so dear to anyone with eyes in his head.” As this indicates, he represented a conservatism imaginative rather than theoretical. It so detached itself from plans of action as to make Russell Kirk look like Karl Rove.
The Labour Party’s rise inspired in Beerbohm a mild, inchoate fear, but no Labour spokesman ever savaged the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as Beerbohm’s sketches often did. Consider his double portrait of royal mother and son: Queen Victoria immured in plethoric flesh, the future King Edward cowed and disgraced.
But even that seems bland compared with Beerbohm’s murderous depiction of le roi Édouard visiting a French convent and mistaking it for a bordello. To the Mother Superior, who has lined up the nuns in single file, His Majesty barks out, in French, an instruction euphemistically translatable as: “I’ll have the first one on the left, Madame.” As the dramatist S.N. Behrman, interviewing Beerbohm for a series of New Yorker essays, observed: “it was a wonder he had been knighted [in 1939] at all; in fact, I wasn’t sure that his residence in Italy was entirely voluntary.”
But Italy has, or at least had, its merits as an abode for an unambitious English gentleman of leisure with little ready cash. Beerbohm’s thespian half-brother, who changed his surname from Beerbohm to Tree so that audiences would more readily yell his praises—“He had the prescience, don’t you know, to supply a shoutable monosyllable”—died in 1917 leaving almost no money to his relatives. By that stage Max had lived in Rapallo, near Genoa, for seven years; and there he mostly remained, though during both world wars he returned to England. Incapable, despite half a century’s expatriation, of speaking Italian with more than phrase-book skill, and largely uninterested in drawing Italians—Gabriele D’Annunzio excepted—he largely minded his own business, a policy that lesser scribes might profitably emulate.
Still, at Rapallo he played host to luminaries galore, including Somerset Maugham, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Ezra Pound, and Hilaire Belloc. (Beerbohm greeted the astounding news that Belloc had attended a cricket match with the verdict: “I suppose he would have said that the only good wicket-keeper in the history of the game was a Frenchman and a Roman Catholic.”) Most unfortunately for his reputation, he also was host to Malcolm Muggeridge.
In 1952 Muggeridge visited Rapallo hoping to charm his way into Sir Max’s good graces and, for whatever reason, failing dismally. Reading between the lines of his recollection, the likelihood is that he was rebuffed less by the ever courteous Beerbohm than by the second Lady Beerbohm, née Elisabeth Jungmann: a former secretary to the aged dramatist Gerhard Hauptmann and an implacable Hausfrau of Silesian-Jewish origins, one who pretty much owed her survival after 1933 to her Tough Mudder temperament. (Her own mother had perished en route to Auschwitz.)
Nine years after Beerbohm’s death, Muggeridge took his vengeance in a New York Review of Books feuilleton (November 25, 1965). Not only did Muggeridge treat Sir Max’s widow with gleeful contempt—“Obviously, she specialized in caring for elderly, frail men-of-letters, and I rather earmarked her in my mind for [T.S.] Eliot after Beerbohm”—but he constructed, with that glibness so natural to him, a grand conspiracy theory according to which the twice-married Gentile Beerbohm—of mixed Dutch, German and Lithuanian blood—was both Jewish and homosexual.
It should be stressed that Muggeridge’s mind, in the days before he reinvented himself as Saint Mugg, remained marked on all social and carnal issues by the most mephitic conventionality. Every possible psychobabbling and Homintern speculation is accordingly pressed, with monomaniacal ardor, into Muggeridgian service. A typical instance of Mugg-speak:
The only interest in the matter is why Beerbohm should have been so insistent upon not being a Jew. Doubtless the explanation was his passion to merge into the English upper-class social landscape. … The worst thing we do to well-off Jews in England is to make them as stupid, snobbish, and philistine as the well-off natives. This is our version of Dachau. It took a Disraeli to break into the English upper-classes on his own terms, and triumph over them. … Behind Beerbohm’s façade of a Yellow Book aesthete there lurked a frightened rabbi.
When the stage and movie director Garson Kanin—himself Jewish—stumbled upon this, he contented himself with the remarkably mild observation: “It strikes me that even Muggeridge’s tone has within it something of the attitude he is apparently criticizing.”
But on the homosexual issue Muggeridge excelled himself, after the manner of those flat-earthers who argue that the very absence of data to substantiate their assertions proves in itself the veracity of such assertions. No one ever supposed Beerbohm to have been homosexual; ergo, he must have been homosexual. QED. Preach it, Mugg: “Beerbohm’s homosexuality is obvious even in Lord David Cecil’s biography, despite a categorical denial that Beerbohm was homosexual at all. His actress passions—for Cissy Loftus, Grace Canover (Kilseen), Constance Collier; all prototypes for his Zuleika Dobson—are quite unconvincing.”
Leave aside the fact that, on Beerbohm’s own admission, none of the above passions served as a prototype for the protagonist of his best known novel, Zuleika Dobson—whose model, insofar as she had one, was a lass whose name Beerbohm kept secret but who died early of tuberculosis. Note the effortless confidence with which Muggeridge—no doubt acting on his own reflexive equation (pre-Mother Teresa) of women with hunks of meat—automatically ascribes to homoerotic impulses any vaguely exalted view of females on his target’s part.
Uncharitable souls might hereabouts interpolate observations as to the innate longevity of Muggeridge’s prose compared with Beerbohm’s. How scandalized Muggeridge the autodidactic sexologist must have felt when he encountered Sir Max’s one-sentence ridicule of Freud: “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?”
In contrast to most minor writers, Beerbohm never resembles a Johnny One-Note. His parodistic gift, manifested from youth, shines through A Christmas Garland (1912), with its brilliant mimicry of Shaw, Belloc, Chesterton, Kipling, Henry James, and umpteen others. Then there is Seven Men (1919), the short-story collection that surely reaches its zenith in its portrayal of Savonarola Brown, the world’s worst playwright, with his appalling iambic pentameters. Another New Yorker habitué, Wolcott Gibbs, insisted that after encountering Savonarola Brown’s imitation Shakespeare he found it impossible to enjoy genuine Shakespeare.
Perhaps most durable of all are the essays: some in hardback collections, some requiring assiduous research in magazines’ back numbers to obtain, all marked by a faultless ear. Wit, the macabre, the hauntingly tragic: Beerbohm mastered all three. (One of his most felicitous and somber epigrams runs: “Death cancels all engagements.”) Try this for size—it dates from 1918, when its creator, back in England, did his civilian best to keep the home fires burning. The style is beautiful but never self-consciously portentous:
Primitive and essential things have great power to touch the heart of the beholder. I mean such things as a man ploughing a field, or sowing or reaping; a girl filling a pitcher from a spring; a young mother with her child; a fisherman mending his nets; a light from a lonely hut on a dark night. … These words are written in war time and in England. There are, I hear, ‘lighting restrictions’ even on the far Riviera di Levante. I take it that the Golden Drugget is not outspread … across the high dark coast-road between Rapallo and Zoagli. But the lonely wayside inn is still there, doubtless; and its narrow door will again stand open, giving out for wayfarers its old span of brightness into darkness, when peace comes.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.