Sunday, March 07, 2021

Zuleika Dobson (1911)

British caricaturist and drama critic Max Beerbohm's only novel might be the weirdest title on the whole Modern Library list. It's farce—only farce—yet capable of a certain high pitch of inspiration. I laughed out loud in one place and chuckled often remembering it later, let's put it that way. There is Zuleika Dobson, an orphan, now grown up into her early 20s. She has willed herself into celebrity, "though not strictly beautiful," and makes her living as a somewhat mediocre stage magician—the revelation of her abject lack of talent is where I LOL'd. Having achieved celebrity, she travels to Oxford to meet her grandfather, who accepts her now that she is famous as opposed to an unfortunate orphan. Then there is the Duke of Dorset, a young man attending Oxford. He falls in love with her instantly, as do all undergraduates everywhere. At first Zuleika loves the Duke. Then she doesn't. The Duke remains constant and they seesaw away like this. But the stakes are high. The Duke says he will kill himself if she won't have him, and when she won't have him she insists he keep his promise. He does so, as a murky matter of honor, along with hundreds of other undergraduates in emulation and sympathy, drowning themselves in the river at some kind of boating regatta. I see I've given it all away but I suspect it doesn't matter. If you ever read it I suspect you will see it all coming too, though I was surprised that the mass suicides actually went off. But then they had to, by the logic of the story. All this fin de siècle business feels like ancient history now, because it is. Still, it was a period that in many ways invented the modern celebrity and all its media-saturated features so it bears interest. Beerbohm is also an entertaining writer. Zuleika Dobson is more entertaining than insightful, but it certainly has many things right about celebrity, and incidentally how aristocracy gets muddled into it too. Modern reprisals of a kind may be found in Max Shulman novels and the movie Damsels in Distress. But Zuleika Dobson was intended mostly, I think, to be a slightly snobbish parody of romance literature. That's fair enough—all genre literature arguably deserves the sending up. In a way Beerbohm may have lucked into his prescience—I'm not sure the element of celebrity wasn't intended more simply as a convenient farcical plot element. But he makes good use of it. Worth a peek, maybe. It's definitely odd.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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