I didn’t have a great experience with this book, unfortunately, but it will get better now that I’m finally done and I can write about it. It was my own fault, for the most part–it caught me at a bad time I think. It should have been a quick, easy read. It intends to be a sport and a trifle, and doesn’t take itself seriously except where intelligence and style are concerned. There was a long string of nights where I wasn’t interested in looking at it, and another set where I would read a page or two or a chapter and find I had fallen asleep. The book, I must say, has to bear some of the responsibility for this. There’s no doubt that it can be mesmerizing and soporific at times.
I went onto it because it’s an Oxford novel, perhaps the Oxford novel. But that’s a deceptive label, because there’s no realism or story about life in Oxford here. It’s more of a romantic fable that is set in Oxford, and it seems closer to Rasselas or Candide than anything else that comes to mind at the moment. It’s interesting, I suppose, as a modernist text, not far afield from Orlando, and if I had been thinking of it as such I might have fared better. I wanted more to hold on to, real characters and more of a story and less of a meditative elegy, but that’s not the fault of the book, and a problem of my own context and expectations. It doesn’t read especially well as an academic novel, for instance, not by postwar standards.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression, based on my own frailties and misperceptions. The writing is exquisite. The imagination and taste at play are magnificent and impeccable. Description of it calls up perfectly measured analysis, and it’s an entire novel that is written exactly like that, heightened and perfect and witty, a distillation of genius. It’s just not about very much, and about nothing that is real. It’s about everything and nothing at the same time, a myth, a fable, and it has its philosophic heft as well. The writing is astonishing, and the wit and humor are just as good. I read a lot of books and sometimes there is the occasional word I’ve seen only rarely or never before, but in ZD they were sprinkled about carelessly all over the place, and I really wouldn’t mind skimming through it and writing down a list. Though I know I won’t do it, I would learn a lot. Read this book with a pencil and write them down in the back, you won’t be sorry. Saying that Beerbohm is from the school of Oscar Wilde and a progeny of the aesthetic movement covers a good part of the territory here, but this book goes a number of steps further than Dorian Gray (as I vaguely remember it). All I can say is be warned, and bring along your magical realism tool belt, perhaps fitting the read in between Orlando and The Waves somewhere. It matches up well with Orlando, and it’s probably the better book, which counts for something.
So yes, ZD has abundant felicities, and just needs to be approached in the right frame of mind, and properly savored. And on top of that, it has a haunting and dark, prescient side that is the most stunning and powerful part of the book. The story is simple and fabulistic, as a perfect Britisher, the Duke, is dying for love of the compelling and beautiful title character, and the entire youth of Oxford are determined to follow his example and take their own lives for beauty and love. This is one thing in the 19th century, and it plays out the Werther story to its logical finish, but the story of a British mass suicide, and simply the imagining of the death of an entire generation, is quite another thing writing in 1911. Modernism could not be fully conceived, we think, until after the slaughter of WWI, but Max Beerbohm somehow managed to do it and render it as a light, humorous, philosophical spree at the same time. At least I didn’t make the same mistake as I did with my last book, and read ahead to criticism before writing about this book. So now I’ll be curious to discover what others think of it, if people are reading it, and what the general critical perception has been.