By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

6. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 185-246

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)XI-XV
Now comes a shift in narrative. Up to now, the narrator has pretty much stayed out of it, but in Chapter XI he decides to tell his own story, and to talk about his omniscience: why he is privy to so much "that passed between the protagonists at private interviews -- aye, and the exact thoughts and emotions that were in their breasts." This is Beerbohm in a little metafictional joke, of course: jostling the novel-reader's complacent acceptance of the conventions of the genre, which he has already tweaked with his hints as to the outcome of the plot.

Zuleika ("The lady after whom I have named this book") is still alive, the narrator informs us, "and well known to some of you personally, to all of you by repute." The assumption, then, is that his readers already know about "that episode in her life which caused so great a sensation among the newspaper-reading public a few years ago." Beerbohm is, in short, pretending that his novel is really a history and that he is a servant of history's muse: Clio.

Clio, it seems, has grown bored and frustrated with history. "She was particularly struck by a remark of Aristotle's, that tragedy was more philosophic than history, inasmuch as it concerned itself with what might be, while history was concerned with merely what had been." When the novel was invented, she became a devoted reader, "and after the publication of 'Clarissa Harlowe' she spent practically all her time in reading novels." When Hermes told Zeus about "Clio's secret addiction to novel-reading," he decided to use it to woo her. And then "it occurred to her how fine a thing history might be if the historian had the novelist's privileges." She asked Zeus to bring this about. He argued that letting historians have the power of access to the intimate thoughts and actions of historic figures would put too many novelists out of work, but he agreed to let her try it just once.

So when Clio spotted Zuleika boarding the train for Oxford, she whisked the author to Parnassus, where Zeus "stretched his hand over me, and I was indued with the promised gifts. And then, lo! I was on the platform of Oxford station." So throughout the incidents he has been recording in this book he has been able "to float all unseen, to float all unhampered by any corporeal nonsense" through the events he has recorded. Except that after Zuleika dumped the pitcher of water on the Duke, he betrayed Clio's trust and "gave the Duke of Dorset an hour's grace. What were his thoughts in that interval, what words, if any, he uttered in the night, never will be known. For this, Clio has abused me in language less befitting a Muse than a fishwife. I do not care. I would rather be chidden by Clio than by my own sense of delicacy, any day."

Instead of keeping watch on either the Duke or Zuleika, he floats out to his old college to observe its residents, and watches one of them making out his will, leaving everything to Zuleika, another writing a suicide note to his father. And he reflects on the peculiar character of "the Oxford spirit":
Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action. But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday.
The spirit of Oxford is "mysterious, inenubilable." (It means "incapable of being cleared of clouds; inexplicable.") As a consequence, the mass suicide being contemplated by its undergraduates is no threat to it: "Not Oxford was menaced. Come what might, not a stone of Oxford's walls would be loosened, nor a wreath of her vapours would be undone, nor lost a breath of her sacred spirit."

So the narrator floats back to Judas College where, before looking in on the Duke, he visits Noaks's room and finds him lamenting that he's too young to die. "It did not seem to strike him that quite half of the undergraduates who contemplated death -- and contemplated it in a fearless, wholesome, many fashion -- were his juniors." Finally, the narrator sinks through the floor to the Duke's room below and discovers that the Duke has caught a cold. And that he's furious with Zuleika, whom "he must hate with a fathomless hatred." Moreover, the idea of dying for her is odious: "Of all deaths, the bitterest that can befall a man is that he lay down his life to flatter the woman he deems vilest of her sex."

He tries to write in his diary -- amid bouts of sneezing -- but the words fail to come. Suddenly he decides that he won't die after all. That would be the best revenge:
She, she, the hyena woman, would be the fool. No one would have thought of dying for her, had he not set the example. Every one would follow his new example. Yes, he would save Oxford yet. That was his duty. Duty and darling vengeance! And life -- life! 
And he leans out of his window and laughs "outright into the morning; insomuch that the birds in the trees of Trinity, and still more the Emperors over the way, marvelled greatly."

At eight o'clock in the morning, Katie, the landlady's daughter, is sweeping the steps when Zuleika's maid, Mélisande, arrives with a letter for the Duke. Katie, who takes an instant dislike to Mélisande, refuses to take it up to him -- "His Grace is no called before nine o'clock" -- but offers to put it on his breakfast tray, though she closes the door in Mélisande's face. Undeterred, Mélisande drops the letter through the mail slot.

When the Duke reads the letter he finds an apology from Zuleika and a plea for him to come around before lunch with The MacQuern. She has added a P.S. -- "Please burn this." The Duke laughs: "Why there was nothing, not one phrase, to compromise her in the eyes of a coroner's jury!" Then he ponders how to reply: "how to administer her punishment the most poignantly." He considers writing a letter in which he will return the two pearl earrings she has given him, but concludes it would be more fun to watch her expression when he returns them. "Yesterday he had been her puppet, her Jumping-Jack; to-day it was as avenging angel that he would appear before her.

As he leaves he meets on the doorstep a telegraph boy. The message says, "Deeply regret inform your grace last night two black owls came and perched on battlements." Though he had been resolved not to die, the omen changes his mind. He sends a reply: "Prepare vault for funeral Monday."
He could not, he told himself, face Zuleika now. As artist, he saw that there was irony enough left over to make the meeting a fine one. As theologian, he did not hold her responsible for his destiny. But as a man, after what she had done to him last night, and before what he had to do for her to-day, he would not go out of his way to meet her.
He considers going straight to the river and taking care of what had to be done. "No, that would be like running away." But then he sees "a female figure coming quickly round the corner." He takes it to be Zuleika, and walks away rapidly. When she quickens her pace, he begins to run, until he slips on a piece of orange peel -- the gods had placed it there to trip up the Master of Balliol -- and falls. The woman, who catches up with him, turns out to be Mélisande with another letter from Zuleika. He tears it up unread and sends Mélisande away.

He goes into a chemist shop where his wounds are tended to. He speculates "that the gods had intended the accident to be fatal, and that only by his own skill and lightness in falling had he escaped the ignominy of dying in full flight from a lady's-maid." And then he becomes aware that he has a cold, and wonders, "had he escaped a violent death only to succumb to 'natural causes'?" The chemist mixes up a cold remedy and tells him he should take a teaspoonful every two hours. It makes him feel so much better that he asks if it would be more effective if he took two teaspoonfuls every hour. The chemist cautions him not to do so. "The Duke yielded. He fancied, indeed, that the gods had meant him to die of an overdose." Then he has another brush with death: a speeding butcher's cart, and "smiled a sardonic smile" at this delivery from his fate.

On the street he encounters Oover and "remembered the awful resolve of Oover, and of all young Oxford." He begins to think of it as his mission to dissuade these others from killing themselves, but when he tries to persuade Oover of "the loss that your death would be to America and to Oxford," the Rhodes Scholar is having none of it.
"America can turn out millions just like me, and Oxford can have as many of them as she can hold. On the other hand, how many of you can be turned out, as per sample, in England? Yet you choose to destroy yourself.... And you're right, Sir. Love transcends all." 
He suggests to Oover that he might have changed his mind about killing himself, but Oover says it would prove that "all those yarns I used to hear about the British aristocracy were true, after all. I should aver that you were not a white man." When challenged, the Duke is forced to admit that he is planning to die today, but Oover doesn't have time for further details: "It's just turning eleven o'clock, and I've a lecture. While life lasts, I'm bound to respect Rhodes' intentions." And he hurries off.

The Duke ponders the irony of his situation.
If he could say "Behold, I take back my word. I spurn Miss Dobson, and embrace life," it was possible that his example would suffice. But now that he could only say "Behold, I spurn Miss Dobson, and will not die for her, but I am going to commit suicide, all the same," it was clear that his words would carry very little force.... He must die in the manner that he had blazoned forth. And he must do it with a good grace, none knowing h was not glad; else the action lost all dignity. 
He encounters "an average undergraduate," whom because of his averageness he addresses as Smith, even though the young man says it's not his name. "'Generically it is,' replied the Duke. 'You are Smith to all intents and purposes." And he tries to engage "Smith" in a Socratic dialogue about suicide, until the young man finally just walks away. The Duke "remembered that even Socrates, for all the popular charm of his mock-modesty and his true geniality, had ceased after a while to be tolerable.... The Duke recoiled from what he took to be another pitfall. He almost smelt hemlock."

After more attempts to persuade, even to bribe, undergraduates into not killing themselves, "He found himself in the precincts of Magdalen, preaching from the little open-air pulpit there an impassioned sermon on the sacredness of human life, and referring to Zuleika in terms which John Knox would have hesitated to utter." But the crowd seems so hostile to his sermon that he worries that this is "yet another trap laid for him by the gods" and that "he might be dragged down, overwhelmed by number, torn limb from limb."

He meets The MacQuern, "with a large but inexpensive bunch of flowers," and tells him he won't be joining him for lunch, but that as far as he knew Zuleika still planned to be there. Then he realizes that he's hungry and goes to the Junta to order some sandwiches. Then, seeing the portrait of Nellie O'Mora, he decides to order a glass of port instead, forgetting about the sandwiches. But he feels the medicine bottle in his pocket, realizes that he is fifteen minutes overdue for his dosage, and calls for a wineglass and a teaspoon, fearing that his failure to take his medicine promptly might prove fatal: "'Every two hours' -- the directions were explicit. Had he delivered himself into the gods' hands?" He measures the medicine into the wineglass and toasts Nellie O'Mora, making amends for his previous lapse from tradition.
He realized, however, that to Zuleika he owed the tenderness he now felt for Miss O'Mora. It was Zuleika that had cured him of his aseity. [i.e., independent existence, like God's]  She it was that had made his heart a warm and negotiable thing.... Now he knew that the secret, the open secret, of happiness was in mutual love -- a state that needed not the fillip of death. And he had to die without having ever lived.... Death would lose much of its sting for him if there were somewhere in the world just one woman, however lowly, whose heart would be broken by his dying. 
And then he remembers that Zuleika had told him his landlady's daughter was in love with him. "Here, possibly, was a maiden to mourn him." So he decides to take his lunch in his room. But there he is met by "Zuleika Dobson at his feet, at his knees, clasping him to her, sobbing, laughing, sobbing."

No comments:

Post a Comment