A dandy book, written and illustrated by the `incomparable Max'

The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story, by Max Beerbohm. With 80 illustrations by the author. New Haven: Yale University Press. 350 pp. $19.95 IS this new edition of ``Zuleika Dobson'' more than a delightful oddity for the book lover who has read everything else?

Make no mistake, it is delightful, it is odd. As a copy of the author's own copy, it's of interest to collectors. But since the author is Max Beerbohm, and the copy is ``profusely and meticulously illustrated'' by one of the great caricaturists (Max himself), this edition of ``Zuleika Dobson'' is sure to delight the general reader.

Max Beerbohm -- Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (1872-1956) -- was expert in both arts, drawing and writing. And as a member of London's smart set that included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, Max had plenty of opportunity to observe the life of the dandy. He himself was something of a dandy while ``Zuleika Dobson,'' his only novel, was germinating. Twelve years later, in October 1910, it was published -- just a few months after he had left London with his new wife, an American actress, to live in Italy .

Zuleika Dobson is the name of a beautiful and independent young girl visiting Oxford University as the guest of the warden of one of the undergraduate colleges. There she meets the Duke of Dorset, hitherto a proud, celibate dandy, who falls terribly in love with her. Zuleika has been making her living as a traveling show girl -- a magician, actually -- but she scorns the Duke when he becomes affectionate. In despair, the Duke arranges to drown himself in the river on racing day and persuades the entire undergraduate population to drown with him for love of Zuleika.

The absurdity of this tale is obvious. Beerbohm, whose major stories have been accepted as prose masterpieces, elaborated the absurdity with the extremely clever watercolors that adorn the margins and several full pages of this Yale edition, a book with a fitting sense of style.

The aesthete is known for style. In Beerbohm's case, style is a complex subject, really a problem worth thinking about. Beerbohm once said that ``style should be oscillant.'' In ``Zuleika Dobson,'' as in later prose, Beerbohm the parodist has marvelous fun with a wide range of style. The oscillation is not only a matter of verbal style, but also a matter of tone. As Beerbohm's great friend Reginald Turner complained, some of the characters in the absurd tragedy of the Duke and Miss Dobson are too

affecting. Max answered that ``the discordant human note'' might ironically be just the thing to ``make its survival more sure.'' The rococo pearl has human grit at the core.

``Zuleika Dobson'' is a meditation on the dandy: Art and reality are the electric poles of experience. The death of the Duke by drowning indicates the triumph of reality. In strangely eloquent but highly artificial prose, Max describes the horrific scene in which the undergraduates of Oxford drown in front of family and girlfriends assembled on the banks. And this is followed by an image, all too like those we've just witnessed. It is that of adorable Zuleika almost completely submerged in a hot bath, h er dark hair floating on the water:

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted. Not Ophelia in the brook could have seemed more at peace. . . . Gently to and fro her tresses drifted on the water, or under the water went ever ravelling and unravelling. Nothing else of her stirred. . . . A few minutes before eight o'clock she was fully ready to go down to dinner, with even more than the usual glow of health, and hungry beyond her wont.

It had been quite a day!

Some say that Beerbohm went on to greater things. ``Seven Men and Two Others'' (available in paperback from Oxford University Press) is made of tougher timber with a finer grain, yet it still shines. ``Max's art is so exquisite,'' biographer Lord David Cecil has written, apropos of ``Seven Men,'' ``his sense of form and words so felicitous as to make his comedy not only varied and entertaining but also a thing of beauty.''

Just as Zuleika survives the Duke, Beerbohm survived the aesthetes. For Max, the death of the dandy was not the death of beauty. Max's aesthetic vision is more durable than, say, that of his friend Oscar Wilde, the leader of the aesthetes.

Though Beerbohm never betrayed his friendship with Wilde, even in the heat of Wilde's trial for homosexuality, at the same time he tried to protect Wilde's innocent, weak friends from him.

Beerbohm always tried, for friendship's sake, to separate Wilde's art from his character. It was difficult. The dandy acts and dresses as if life is one big party. A pure aesthete, he wears a mask in defiance of reality. But art and reality can't be separated that way. Beerbohm believed that aesthetic masks were either good or bad: putting on a mask, even for the sake of writing a poem from the aesthetic point of view, is an ethical decision, he believed. On the other hand, as he told a friend, ``If you

live up to a good mask long enough, don't you know, perhaps it will become first nature to you instead of second or third.''

For literary theory, the idea of a good mask is troubling. Beerbohm's aestheticism has been called moral aestheticism, and it's true that Max was different. In 1898, when he succeeded George Bernard Shaw as theater critic for Saturday Review, Shaw announced him with the now-famous phrase, ``the incomparable Max.'' But Beerbohm was as far from Shaw, the political and social reformer, as he was from his friend Oscar Wilde. Just as he criticized pure, empty aestheticism, so he fought against using art as a polemical vehicle for the political and social causes advocated by the author. Shaw's opinions, like Wilde's professed lack of them, led him to behave badly toward others.

The reappearance of ``Zuleika Dobson'' has provoked at least one full-length reappraisal, that of Joseph Epstein in The New Criterion. Perhaps, though, only the general reader can relax enough to see what good fun it is. True, there is much more to Max than this one novel, and the Yale facsimile edition of Max's personal copy, with its 80 bewitching illustrations, will make many want to find out more about ``the incomparable Max.'' For the big picture, one should not go too long without reading, or rere ading, David Cecil's incomparable biography of ``the incomparable Max.'' It's called just ``Max,'' and it's available in paperback from Atheneum.

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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