(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Zuleika Dobson: or, an Oxford love story (1911)
By Max Beerbohm
Book #41 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Originally published in 1911, Max Beerbohm's novella-sized Zuleika Dobson is in actuality a whimsical magic-realism tale, written long before the term itself was officially invented. It tells the story of our eponymous heroine, a beguiling ingenue so beautiful that she can literally make even statues turn their heads, driven from her chosen profession of governess because of her youthful wards constantly falling in love with her. At the beginning of the book she has decided to visit her grandfather, the Warden (Americans, think "dean") of Judas College at Oxford University; and indeed, this is the main point of the manuscript even existing, is for Beerbohm to look back with great love at his old alma mater, with the majority of this story consisting not of narrative plot but rather funny and knowing descriptions of all the various nooks and crannies found at Oxford, and all the fanciful traditions that are maintained there (secret societies, supper clubs, choral groups) for the sake of historical continuance. In the meanwhile, then, as expected the all-male population of Oxford falls head over heels for Dobson, bringing all activity at the university to a literal halt; but one of these young men, the vain and aristocratic Duke of Dorset, initially spurns Dobson's advances, the first time in her entire life that this has ever happened, which of course makes her fall in love with him. He eventually comes around, however, and in fact falls for her so hard that he decides to commit suicide to prove his love, an idea enthusiastically adopted by the rest of the smitten student body as well; and thus does the book end in spectacularly over-the-top fashion, with the entirety of Oxford killing themselves at the exact same moment, and with Dobson hopping on a train with a wink and a smile as she starts making her way to Cambridge.
The argument for it being a classic:
As far as I can tell, the main argument for this being a classic is not because of the book itself (which even its fans admit is awfully slight and fairly silly), but rather to honor the memory of its author; because for those who don't know, Beerbohm was profoundly better known during his lifetime as a humorous essayist and caricature artist, the man handpicked by George Bernard Shaw to succeed him as theatre critic at the Saturday Review (and who called him "The Incomparable Max" when doing so, a moniker that stuck with him the rest of his life). Although prolific when it came to newspaper articles and reviews of plays, Zuleika Dobson turned out to be the only novel Beerbohm would ever write, and hence the only project of his to even have the possibility of standing the test of time; and that therefore is why we should still read it, his fans seem to argue, in order to keep alive the memory of this hugely popular and influential cultural arbiter, the person who shaped the Edwardian arts perhaps more than any other individual.
The argument against:
Unsurprisingly, this book's critics tend to use the same arguments cited above, just applied in the opposite way: that just because Beerbohm was a popular critic while alive doesn't mean we should falsely trumpet a subpar book simply to honor his memory. And subpar this book is, they argue, a flippant and overwritten fairytale relying on a style of humor that was much better done by his contemporary PG Wodehouse, and political points much better pulled off by his other contemporary EM Forster (
all three of whom, incidentally, were closeted homosexuals during their own lifetimes, or at least if the rumors are to be believed*). Although good for a quick laugh, they argue, this book doesn't even come close to being a generation-spanning classic, and in fact it's kind of ridiculous that it's even being considered for the canon lists in the first place.
Today I fall firmly on the side of this book's critics; because even though I agree that Dobson is amusing in an eye-rolling way, it's hard to understand why this barely-existing wisp of a book is even being considered for classic status to begin with. And that leads me to concluding what I just mentioned, that its fans are in actuality more trying to honor Beerbohm himself than this particular volume; and while that's noble of them to do (and definitely makes me want to read his collected essays, which have also been put out in book form over the years), as a critic myself I simply cannot condone the elevating of a mediocre book to classic status simply so that its author won't be forgotten, which to me seems like the equivalent of a veteran actor receiving an Oscar for a crappy movie as a way of acknowledging the better roles they played when younger, something else in the arts I can't stand. The whole thing says a lot, I think, about the overall weakness of the "Interregnum" period of the arts in which this was published (1900 to 1920, that is, the period between the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism); and although like I said this book is good for a quick Edwardian laugh, I can't in good conscience recommend it to a general audience, or declare it one of the proverbial "books you should read before you die." This should all be kept in mind before tackling it yourself.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Plague, by Albert Camus
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*It's been pointed out to me that rumors regarding these three writers' sexual orientations remain specious at best: that although Forster was definitely gay, for example, a fact which became public knowledge after his death, rumors regarding Beerbohm being the same remain to this day only vague rumors, while the question might not even be applicable in the case of Wodehouse, in that most believe he was rendered impotent as a teen by a serious illness. I think this is a fair thing to point out, which is why I'll be removing the entire sentence altogether when it comes time for the book version of these essays.