Yes, I’m still working my way through #ProjectNames reviews, and am likely to do so for a while longer! Conversation With Max is a 1960 book by S.N. Behrman, and if that name sounds familiar then you might have come across Duveen, which was reprinted a few years ago and which I reviewed for Shiny New Books. That was a biography of a bizarre art dealer, and this is a memoir of a friendship with Max Beerbohm – so Behrman is nothing if not eclectic.
Beerbohm is chiefly remembered today for his satirical novel Zuleika Dobson, about a woman so beautiful that all the undergraduates in Oxford drown themselves. I’ve read a couple volumes of his essays and have many more, but I don’t think I really understood what a cultural figure Beerbohm was in the early twentieth century – or at least according to Behrman.
The structure of Conversation With Max belies the singular ‘conversation’, in that Behrman returns several times to Beerbohm’s house – to hear stories of his long writing career and his life. The former apparently started when he wrote an impassioned piece about make-up in an Oxford undergraduate magazine, which seems as unlikely a start to a writing career as any.
I have a soft spot for memoirs of writers that come from a specific and subjective angle – whether that be H.G. Wells from the perspective of his children’s governness, Walter de la Mare from someone who went to tea, or Ivy Compton-Burnett through the lens of her secretary. (Yes, those are all real examples of books I have actually read.) Behrman perhaps forges his own connection, as a fan and journalist, but there is a definite sense of sitting in Beerbohm’s home, hearing his stories, and being in the presence of a biographer who is happily overstating the importance of a single cultural figure. He is not pretending to be objective. Here’s the opening:
The hero of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye judges authors by the simple test of whether he has an impulse, after reading something, to call the author up. It seems to me that all my life I have felt like calling up Max Beerbohm. I first made Max’s acquaintance, one might say, in the Public Library on Elm Street, in Worcester, Massachusetts, when I was a boy, and I later deepened it in the Widener Library, at Harvard, so that long before the Maximilian Society was organized by his devotees on his seventieth birthday, in London, I was already a Maximilian. When, as a young man making my first visit to Italy, I looked out the window of my compartment on the Paris-Rome Express and caught a flashing sight of the station sign “RAPALLO” (the Paris-Rome Express does not stop in Rapallo unless you arrange it beforehand), I felt a quick affinity for the place because I knew that Max Beerbohm lived there. I felt like getting off, but the train was going much too fast. On subsequent trips to Rome, I always looked for the flicker of that evocative station sign. That I would one day actually get off at Rapallo for a prearranged meeting with its renowned inhabitant never remotely occurred to me. But life is seething with improbabilities, and so, in the summer of 1952, it came about.
(The book also seems to have appeared as a series of articles – the first is available online, if this opening has caught your attention.)
At the time, Beerbohm was known as much for his drawn caricatures as his writing. It’s hard to recognise the impact that individual caricatures could have, in this era where every public figure is open to ridicule or affectionate mockery at any moment of any day. I suppose, also, that the sphere of intellectual life was smaller and more insular. Whether or not you are interested in Beerbohm’s output in art and literature, there is a lot to enjoy in the way Conversation With Max presents one artist/writer’s life through nostalgia and anecdote.
And that’s what made this book special to me. Not so much the individual examples chosen, but that a book of this sort exists – affectionate, leisurely, and somehow revealing the life of a writer more intimately than the most tell-all biography. Because, by the end, we also feel like we have been invited into Beerbohm’s home, and have become his friend.