Zuleika Dobson

by Max Beerbohm

If you look back on the reviews of some of the other books on the list that I have read thus far—at least as far as the love stories are concerned—you may take note of a familiar refrain. Love stories are timeless. And even though many of the novels on the list are near 100 years old, there are always lessons to be taken away from each tale. I have written more than once in the pages of this Web site how stories from the past give us a window on the many things that have changed in the relating that men & women do with one another...and the many things that have stayed the same. Great literature connects us, weaving present to past through the retelling—even via fiction—of human experience.

I am sorry to report that that trend ends here with Zuleika Dobson. In the book's defense: It is wholly intended to be farcical. In the reader's defense: I don't think it's a farce that has held up with time or even plays well to a modern audience. I don't find this book funny at all. It would make a relatively cute, minor short story. Instead it drags out—predictably—at a snail's pace. It takes a very brief span of time (a couple of days) and stretches that time thin. Satire, by its nature, I have always found must work hard to hit its mark, but not too hard, & must not be labored or uninteresting. I am being harsh, but I just don't find Zuleika Dobson a timeless classic in the least. I don't disbelieve that it's a story that worked ages ago, and at which people like Bertrand Russell & George Bernard Shaw probably howled with laughter. But that was then, this is now, and I'm not laughing.

The book is about a femme fatale who visits Oxford and induces all the undergrads to commit suicide for her. To give you an example of how strongly I feel that the satire doesn't work anymore, I would never assign this book to a high school class for fear they might all start killing themselves (from having taken it seriously). Call it what you will: Maybe Classic Bitch has had a humor-ectomy or something. Maybe men would have a different opinion of this book than I. Maybe Oxford grads would have a different opinion of this book than I. Maybe "you had to be there," and the trouble is that I find myself nowhere in the pages of this book. Maybe I'm just being defensive. But for my part, I have to say: I find Zuleika Dobson kind of mean spirited & boring.