a kind of life
N John Hall
Yale University Press
IT WAS not a life crowded with incident. The dramatic fates of other artists of the 1890s - drink, drugs, sexual scandal, disgrace, early death - did not fall to Max Beerbohm. A writer and an artist at a time when decadence might have seemed a moral imperative for a creative life, he lived in blameless domesticity with his mother and sister in Upper Berkeley Street. Only on his marriage at 37 did he move to the villa at Rapallo on the Ligurian coast, where he lived modestly for the rest of his long life.
Despite this deplorable lack of courtesy to his biographer, Beerbohm deserves attention; though he always insisted on the smallness of his talents, he now appears one of the major artists of the period, surpassed only by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (both were his friends).
His was a precocious talent. On leaving Oxford, Max flourished in the Wilde circle. In 1892 his caricatures began to appear in The Strand Magazine; his early essays were soon published, most notably in The Yellow Book. By 1896, after Wilde's fall, Max had published his first book of essays and a collection of drawings. At 24 he was now famous and successful. Until his self-exile to Italy in 1910, he lived in the rich world of London literary society, dining out most nights, reviewing plays for the Saturday Review (in succession to Shaw), writing and drawing at leisure. These years became the capital on which he drew for the remainder of his career.
Though Max had begun writing under the influence of Wilde, he soon created an inimitable voice. His prose is famous for its wit. Mastery of tone and perfect ear made him the greatest parodist in the language; but the greatest pleasure is himself, or rather our sense of a conscious …