Letters to Max Beerbohm by Siegfried Sassoon

Max B Siegfriend SOne of the nicest bookish finds is when you discover that two authors you like kept a correspondence. Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett; William Maxwell and Eudora Welty; Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. When people you like independently turn out to have connections, it’s like discovering two of your friends actually went to uni together. So imagine my happiness when I found a book of letters between Siegfried Sassoon and Max Beerbohm!

Granted, I haven’t actually read anything by Sassoon, but I grew very fond of him when I read another book of unexpected connections – Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, about Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier, but featuring a fair dose of Sassoon.

The full title of this collection, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, is Letters to Max Beerbohm & A Few Answers (1986). There are few answers not because they’ve been lost, but because Beerbohm was famously bad at writing them. His friends seem to have been pretty tolerant about this, and his letters (when he does write them) are friendly, fluid, and charming – but Sassoon bears the lion’s share of this exchange. Even this doesn’t quite make up enough for a book, and Hart-Davis has rifled through Sassoon’s diaries for more information to set the scene. (Hart-Davis’ footnotes are also occasionally rather amusing – for instance, he describes Sibyl Colefax as ‘relentless society hostess’.)

Who comes off the page? I got the impression that Sassoon was much younger than Beerbohm – each letter is soaked with a sort of affectionate awe. It turns out that, for the bulk of their correspondence (in the 1930s), Beerbohm was in his 60s and Sassoon was in his late 40s and early 50s. A difference, yes, but not as much a one as comes across.

They both write letters that speak of deep friendship (and a curious resentment of Yeats). They are witty, thoughtful, and show a closeness and respect that you wouldn’t be able to get except through reading a book of this sort. They also have sketches and jottings by Siegfried, which are great fun, as well as verse that he throws into the letters – presumably fairly off the cuff.

The diary entries are well chosen, giving context to their friendship, and the mix of diary and letters works well. I enjoyed this description of their friendship, from Sassoon:

Conversing with Max, everything turns to entertainment and delectable humour and evocation of the past. […] Not a thousandth part can be recorded. But I feel that these talks with Max permanently enrich my mind, and no doubt much of it will recur spontaneously in future memories; he is like travelling abroad – one feels the benefit afterwards.

Well, we have certainly benefit afterwards. This is a slight book, and I certainly wish they had written to each other more prolifically. If they had, this might have been up there with the William Maxwell/Sylvia Townsend Warner collection of letters (The Element of Lavishness) as one of the great literary correspondences. As it is, it is a brief and brilliant gem that will enhance an appreciation of either Sassoon or Beerbohm.

More by Max Beerbohm

More by Max BeerbohmMax Beerbohm books are like buses: you wait years to read one, and then you read… well, I suppose ‘three’ would end this saying properly, but I’ve only read two. I bought another, if that helps you. Anyway, I loved More by Beerbohm, reprinted by Michael Walmer and reviewed in Shiny New Books. Full review here, but here is how it starts…

Max Beerbohm’s name is known today, if at all, as the author of Zuleika Dobson – a curious sort of modernised Greek myth, where a preternaturally beautiful woman bewitches all the undergraduates in Oxford. It is told in luscious prose, and is both entirely ridiculous and entirely enjoyable. Well, a dozen years earlier, Beerbohm was still in his 20s when he published More (1899), now reprinted by Michael Walmer in a rather lovely, good quality, striped edition.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zuleika DobsonAKA a very weird book indeed. Over the years quite a few people have asked me if I’ve read Zuleika Dobson (1911), since it is often seen as the quintessential Oxford novel (after Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, but with the advantage of actually being in Oxford for the whole thing). Well, I hadn’t – and now I have. And what a strange little book it is. This review, incidentally, will have quite a few spoilers – because it’s difficult to write about otherwise, and because they’re probably pretty well known, and some covers give them away. I certainly knew most of the plot before I read it, and it didn’t much matter.

So, what happens? Zuleika opens the novel by turning up to Oxford; she is the niece of the Warden of Judas College (which, incidentally, does not exist – here’s a fun Wikipedia list of fictional colleges) and is there on a visit. Despite being ‘not strictly beautiful’, she is certainly beguiling. And beguile she does. Literally every man she meets (blood relatives excepted) falls in love with her on sight. It’s tiring.

Chief among these admirers – though initially the least disposed to reveal it – is the Duke of Dorset. He is diffident and buttoned-up, and doesn’t appear to be in love with her at first – which sparks off her love for him. Only when he reveals that (but of course) he does adore her does her love fade. It’s all very silly, but isn’t intended to be taken at all seriously. How can one take seriously a novel where nobody behaves with the slightest rationality?

It gets worse. And this is where the spoilers come in. The Duke swears he will die for her, if she does not love him. The idea spreads. And, as rowers race down the Cherwell or Isis or whatever that stretch of the Thames is called (after 11 years I still can’t remember), almost every single undergraduate in Oxford drowns himself for love of Zuleika.

Does she feel guilt about this mass suicide? She does not. Indeed, she remonstrates with the sole undergraduate who chickened out of the thing – in one of the most wonderfully composed insults that I can recall reading:

“You,” flashed Zuleika, “As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved today by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge.”

What makes such a bizarre and surreal novel enjoyable? It certainly isn’t any spark of realism. Indeed,it is closest to a Greek myth. Zeus and Clio are introduced halfway through, but even before this it feels like mythology – in people’s heightened reactions, unlikely actions, and superlative traits. Zuleika is essentially a goddess of beauty – albeit one with occasional feet of clay, and a rather unpleasant character. But it was a moment of genius to make her an amateur (and terrible) magician. Some glorious moments of comedy come from that.

Most importantly, though, Beerbohm writes like a dream. He can turn a sentence beautifully, in the way of people like Oscar Wilde or Saki (whatever else these gents’ works have in common). The prose is a delight to read, but it does open to the accusation: is it all sparkle and no substance? Perhaps, but I don’t mind that, if the sparkle is done brilliantly. Zuleika Dobson is often described as a satire, but I couldn’t work out what it could possibly be a satire of. A satire must have a grounding in truth, and I couldn’t spot it here – unless it is that love makes people do stupid things.

But it doesn’t matter. I doubt a novel like this could exist outside of, say, 1890-1914. It is absolutely of its time. But I never think anything is ‘dated’ – I never know what people mean by that term; a discussion for another day, perhaps – and this curiosity is still great fun to read. Just don’t go looking for a moral.