Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
Zuleika Dobson was first published in 1911 and is a parody of social life during the Edwardian Era. Max Beerbohm eloquently puts into prose the equivalent of what he drew in his famous artistic caricatures. The result is grossly exaggerated characters in an absurd tale of tragic love. And be prepared for an outrageously grotesque ending.
Zuleika Dobson has to be the most wicked woman in the history of English literature. She is young, wealthy, and drop-dead gorgeous. She knows it, she exploits it, and she takes it for granted. And with good reason. She’s a goddess amongst mortal men.
Zuleika is a famous traveling magician and the world is her stage. She has entertained the New York elite, celebrities, the royalty of Europe, and the Tsar. As the story begins, she is making a short visit to her grandfather who is the Warden of Judas College in Oxford. Within 24 hours of her arrival the entire campus is in an uproar. Oxford’s prize student, the young Duke of Dorset, has declared his love for Zuleika and proposed marriage. And upon a humiliating rejection he has vowed to kill himself. Never mind that within the second 24 hours he comes to his senses and realizes she is a superficial fool. He has made the chivalrous vow… and like a gallant knight of yore, he must follow through. The atrocity is Zuleika gleefully helping him stage the event. She wants drama. She wants the Duke to scream out “ZULEIKA” in his final moment to let the entire world know he died for her. I don’t want to reveal the entire plot but will say that it gets worse… much worse.
However, don’t fret. The story is no more emotional than an old fashioned fairytale or a Greek myth. As Zuleika gets her first tour of the college campus, she passes by a row of pedestaled marble busts of the Roman Emperors. With a touch of magical realism, the marble Emperors are so disturbed when they see Zuleika it is later reported there were “great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors.” In fact, part of the story is told by a messenger of Clio, one of the nine muses of Greek myth. You will encounter ghosts, black owls that appear to report a coming death, and pearls that mysteriously change color. Beerbohm weaves this unique spellbinding tale into something that is both entertaining and humorous in spite of it’s tragic ending. But if it were not number 59 on the Modern Library list of 100 greatest English novels (an intellectual nudge to read Zuleika Dobson), it would probably fade into obscurity.
Rated 3 Stars February 2013
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