MAX BEERBOHM: A Kind of Life

N. John Hall, Author . Yale Univ. $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-300-09705-4

In what may strike readers as an oddly squeamish (not to mention oxymoronic) way to begin a biography, Hall asserts that he will respect his subject's wish that his private life remain a mystery, and he will instead focus only on his public life and his writings and drawings. Yet Hall, a professor of English at CUNY, goes on to say that Beerbohm's gifts as a writer and caricaturist, however celebrated during his life (1872–1956), were ultimately insignificant—"Max does certain small things extraordinarily well, or, in the case of fiction, he makes but a 'small' contribution"—leaving the reader to ponder the need for a biography. But Beerbohm created a witty, ultra-dandified persona whose glittering aura has more than made up for the talent that he lacked. After graduating from Oxford, he set out to befriend the best and the brightest (and sometimes the most controversial) figures of his day, including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, George Bernard Shaw, James Whistler, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Although Hall inexplicably finds "comfort" in staying "out of Max's private life," he occasionally finds himself guiltily (and almost repugnantly) flirting with such personal issues as Beerbohm's rumored homosexuality and his disavowal of his purported Jewishness. In the end, this is a biography about an ingeniously sycophantic man who had a talent for acquiring fabulously interesting, brilliantly creative friends. It is they who come vibrantly alive on the page. 18 b&w and 10 color illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/14/2002
Release date: 10/01/2002
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