Nov 212002

Colby Cosh claims today that P.G. Wodehouse is a greater minor writer than Max Beerbohm, thereby betraying a profound misunderstanding of the principles of minor writerdom. Wodehouse was, to begin with, prolific, while Beerbohm tossed off the occasional slim volume in what he gave the impression was his spare time. The affectation of amateurism is indispensable to minor status. Advantage Beerbohm!

Beerbohm also maintained a sideline in caricature, although perhaps his true sideline was writing, one could never be sure. Wodehouse was a writer strictly. Advantage Beerbohm once again! Beerbohm, at Oxford, won the prize for Latin verse, an almost inconceivably minor activity even in 1890; Wodehouse spent his time at Dulwich (Dulwich!) at boxing and cricket. You make the call.

A Christmas Garland demonstrates Beerbohm’s mastery of parody, the most minor of all prose forms. (Henry James, whom Beerbohm parodied in “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” was once asked his opinion on some matter. He pointed out Beerbohm across the room and said, “Ask that young man. He is privy to all my innermost thoughts.”) And finally I put into evidence this description, from Zuleika Dobson, of the heroine:

Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been. An anarchy of small curls was her chevelure, a dark upland of misrule, every hair asserting its rights over a not discreditable brow. For the rest, her features were not at all original. They seemed to have been derived rather from a gallimaufry of familiar models. From Madame la Marquise de Saint-Ouen came the shapely tilt of her nose. The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid’s bow, lacquered scarlet and strung with the littlest pearls. No apple-tree, no wall of peaches, had not been robbed, nor any Tyrian rose-garden, for the glory of Miss Dobson’s cheeks. Her neck was imitation-marble. Her hands and feet were of very mean proportions. She had no waist to speak of.

If Wodehouse ever wrote anything so dainty, so perfectly structured yet seemingly offhanded, so thoroughly minor, then bring it on.

(Update: Good review, in The New Criterion, of the same biography that got Colby off on this to begin with.)

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