11 April 2012

My Oxford Love Story with Zulieka Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zulieka Dobson: An Oxford Love Story is a fantastic novel, and one of my favourite books of all time. This is a personal history of my discovery of the book.

I was first introduced to Zulieka as an Oxford fresher. For some - perhaps sinister - reason, it was a custom of the residents of Staircase 13* to meet occasionally to read each other bedtime stories. We read "The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde, "The Company of Wolves" by Angela Carter, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and eventually felt we should dip our toes into longer works. I was all for The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but certain members of the group who shall remain unnamed had difficulty waiting between meetings to read onwards.

Someone suggested Zulieka Dobson, it being "the sort of novel godparents give you when you go up to Oxford" and therefore likely we would find a few copies lying about. There were indeed two copies available, a third in the college library, and it had the advantage of being available to read free on Project Gutenberg***, so we adopted it immediately.

The Penguin Modern Classics cover. (Source: which happens to be a rather lovely review of the book.)
And so, on an otherwise unremarkable evening featuring tea spiked with whisky and a bit of light-hearted musicological reading, I was introduced to Zulieka Dobson.

I was hooked from the very first sentence:
That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn board they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.
It's not the sort of first paragraph that would tempt the average slush-pile-mired intern at Curtis Brown to read on, but it had me by the balls. Notice the antiquated use of the semicolon; and the way the second sentence is longer that the average paragraph in a BBC news article.

Although the train station at Oxford has, since 1911 when those words were published, undergone a rather unflattering series of modernisations, Beerbohm's observations on the ridiculousness of not just standing on the shoulders of giants but living in their abandoned houses remain pretty on the mark. The tourists, despite their somewhat fishy knowledge of medieval train station architecture, are the ones who notice the pull of the past; those who belong to it are often entirely unaware of the fact.

This idea of dealing with the remnants of an illustrious history is a major theme of the novel. And of course the Oxford the book describes was killed off soon after Beerbohm wrote it, making the whole novel a sort of nostalgic tribute to itself.****

Zulieka, which is more of an engorged novella than a novel if we're brutally honest, takes place back in the day when intelligence and hard work weren't that important if you were an aristocrat and when women were only allowed within a hundred miles of Carfax for special occasions like balls and boat races. At fusty old Judas College, the arrival of Zuleika Dobson, Edwardian femme fatal extraordinare, causes chaos because the sex starved undergraduates all fall in love with her immediately. It's basically the story of Samantha Brick, but set in Edwardian Oxford.

These painted illustrations by Sir Osbert Lancaster currently hang at the Randolph Hotel’s tea room. Lancaster is an alumnus of Lincoln and gifted signed prints to the Rectory, which is where I first encountered them. (Source.)
The majestically overdone purple prose and flights of magical realist fancy that festoon the novel are a delight to read. They're also acceptable, to my literary-creative-writing-trained mind, because they are satirical of the Edwardian novel. In fact, think it was my encounter with Zulieka that first turned my head away from the "pure" writing style school as figure-headed by Hemmingway.

Finding it sexist, old fashioned, and self indulgent, many of my Staircase 22 chums found is impossible to finish the book. They're completely right, of course, but there is something impossibly appealing about Beerbohm which I don’t think will die any time soon.

As Bertrand Russell was sensible enough to put it:
I read Zulieka Dobson with pleasure. It represents the Oxford that the two World Wars have destroyed with a charm that is not likely to be reproduced anywhere in the world for the next thousand years.


* Lincoln College's accommodation is arranged to the medieval staircase system rather than in the Victorian corridor style. Rumour had it that Staircase 13 was where Prince William stayed when he was in Oxford for interviews, thus explaining why SC13 has a more advanced security system than the other staircases. Sadly, I once asked the Rector** if this was true and he told me Prince William didn't even apply to Lincoln.

** The Rector being the head academic and general leader of men at Lincoln. The title presumably is a remnant of the days when Lincoln was a religious institution.

*** Project Gutenberg is so wonderful I cry a little whenever I mention it.

**** Beerbohm seems to have been found of meta-textual circular logic, as anyone sensible would be. In the short story “Enoch Soames” fromSeven Men, Enoch makes a pact with the Devil to travel forward in time and read about his literary legacy. Sadly the only mention of himself he can find is a dictionary article about a short story by Max Beerbohm:
in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames"—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im!

4 April 2012

Review: The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes by Chuck Zerby

I think the best way to capture this book's sense of humour, which underlies not only the book's execution but is conception as well, is through quotation. First, here is a snippet from an article I found elsewhere on the Internet:
At a recent event at the Jeffrey Amherst Book Shop in Amherst, Mass., Zerby charmed his audience by reading from the book standing up, then sitting down whenever he came to a footnote. "We completely sold out at the event, and we've had to reorder and we've sold those out," said manager and book buyer Marie Dunoford. 
Secondly, here is a snippet from the book itself:
A full-scale assault on the dignity of the footnotes was mounted in the United States [by] The New Yorker, whose urbane and unscholarly humorists were apparently hoping at that time [the 1969s] to gain respectability by pretending to be literary. [Zerby, 113-4]
Later, in an asterixed footnote on page 117:
We should note, however, the strange case of one of the New Yorker's most esteemed writer: J. D. Salinger. Franney and Zooey, his interlocking stories, first appeared in the magazine; a few pages into "Zooey" a footnote, of all things, pushes its way into the narrative, in fact sprawling across the bottom of two pages. [...] By no means do I wish to suggest that the embarrassment explains even in part Salinger's subsequent years of seclusion in New Hampshire.
Zerby's style is inspirational. Not content to simply put forward his argument, which I will come to presently, he adorns it with in-depth historical contextualisation, literary criticism ranging from the frivolous to the insightful, and lots of humour. "Why give one example when you could give eight?" may well be his dictum. 

Predictably, he uses plenty of footnotes. 331 of them, in fact.

In The Devil's Details, Zerby puts forward an argument for the continued dramatic use of the footnote. Publishers and scholars, although once heroes of the footnoting world, are presented alongside New Yorker journalists as the villains of the history of annotation, who use their positions of power to deride the footnote when they should in fact be utilising it in abundance. One by one, each of these plain-text freaks is shown to be a hypocrite, stupid, malicious, frivolous, or plain fusty. Meanwhile the analyses of footnotes in prose, poetry and scholarship ranging from the sixteenth-century Bishop's Bible through to Martin Amis's 2000 autobiography show a myriad of ways in which the footnote can add to both the enjoyment and elucidation of a text.

An especially memorable passage is Zerby's dramatisation of the creation of the very first footnote, an account detailed enough to stretch for some 20 pages. I'm sure we are all familiar enough with Henry VIII's 1538 call for Bibles "in the english tonge", but how many of us remember his caveat to exclude "any annotations in the margyn"? [Zerby, 22]

Well Zerby remembers, and he proceeds via detailed analysis of the economics of the printing business, Tudor criminology, and the technicalities of print production to describe how this dictate inspired a man called Richard Jugge to put annotations on page bottoms instead. (The story is much more complex that this. I can only recommend you find a copy of The Devil's Details and read it in full.)

This is not an academic book. Rather, it is a humorous book for academics. Or perhaps an academic book for humorists? The upshot is that there is a minimum of original research, and the argument presented is not always nuanced enough to appear seriously meant.

It's most persuasive logic, which remains tacit throughout, is simply "Here's a load of cool stuff you can do with footnotes. You should totes use footnotes and then you can be cool too."

Personally, I find this devastatingly persuasive.

You should read this book, not for a serious argument about the history and continued use of footnotes, but for the the range of footnote-themed lit crit provided, and for the humorous, annotative, scholarly aesthetic which permeates its core. For anyone interested in writing fiction or poetry (or poetic fiction, or fictional poetry) this is an excellent inspirational scrapbook and reference.

I was so pleased to read a book so exactly and confidently written in scholarly-fart-jokes tone I've been experimenting with recently. One of the reasons I started this blog, although I confess I didn't mention it to anyone at the time, is that I wanted to explore different types of reader-led writing for a specifically literary audience. Well Zerby's book really is, as tedious beginner reviewers so often say, a masterclass in academic-tinged comic non fiction.

As for the continued use of footnotes: is that even in doubt? He says, quite blithely using no footnotes for an entire post.