Elegant essays by a self-described dilettante.
Known for “his light ironic touch,” deft parodies and caricatures, and sly observations about literature, art, and, simply, taste, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was among the most prominent English essayists. Though praised as a gifted stylist, he considered himself a minor figure, “what obituary notices call ‘an interesting link with the past.’ ” Editor Lopate (Director, Nonfiction Writing/Columbia Univ.; Portrait Inside My Head, 2013, etc.), however, sees in the precision and cadence of Beerbohm’s prose much to be admired, amply exemplified by the pieces he gathers, representing Beerbohm’s observations of British character and culture from 1896 to 1946. In an essay on the disappointing quality of oratory at the House of Commons, for example, Beerbohm remarks laconically that among 670 men elected by the British public, no one should expect “a very high average of mental capacity.” He recalls his contemporaries: Aubrey Beardsley; the “legendary” Swinburne, “sole kin to the phoenix”; and his older half brother, Herbert, a flamboyant actor. Accompanying him on an American tour, he noted that Herbert loved traveling, “instantly responsive” to “the magic of New York….He was not the kind of tourist who takes a homemade tuning-fork about with him and condemns the discords.” Beerbohm was not as social, never a perfect guest, but “slightly to the churlish side….And, though I always liked to be invited anywhere, I very often preferred to stay at home.” Overcome with envy of another writer, he threw her novel into “the yawning crimson jaws” of a fireplace, frustrated by how slowly it burned. He also comments dryly on hero worship: “It is a wholesome exercise which we ought to all take, now and again. Only, let us not strain ourselves by overdoing it.”
Urbane, witty pieces by a writer worth reviving.