"Zuleika Dobson", subtitled "An Oxford Love Story" was written by Max Beerbohm in 1911. Though Beerbohm was a prolific caricaturist and essayist, it is his only novel, and in some ways represents a distillate of his highly idiosyncratic talent.
Zuleika, the dazzling offspring of a curate and a circus-rider (Beerbohm took great trouble to contrive appropriate names for all his characters) is the granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College, Oxford. On her first - and possibly only - visit to the city, during Eights Week, her beauty wreaks havoc among the undergraduates, not least the Duke of Dorset, a youth of (even in 1911) anachronistically godlike perfection. Though the novel has been variously interpreted as a satire on snobbery, the herd instinct, war & so forth, the author has said that he only ever intended it as fantasy; & it is in such a spirit that it ought to be approached.
Though a great part of the novel's charm lies in its evocation of a world now vanished - the pre-Great War Oxford of aesthetes and hearties, Max's own fascination with the demi-monde and the music hall - its great genius, and the greatest delight for the reader, lies in the author's own inimitable narrative voice. Beerbohm, as he tells us in an early aside, has been selected by the muse Clio for the purpose of relating the lovely Zuleika's story as fact, and thereafter we see him wholly (even uneasily) aware of the Olympian task that has been laid upon him, trying to reconcile the appropriate flights of Homeric eloquence with the crashing, inarticulate bathos of Edwardian undergraduate idiom, of which he unerringly manages to seek out and present, with a sort of apologetic helplessness, the worst possible examples. Re-reading "Zuleika Dobson" I suddenly saw for the first time exactly what Donna Tartt means in "The Secret History", when she writes that English is, in some ways, just not suited to Greek translation. But has anyone but Beerbohm ever exploited the disparity to such precise comic effect? And yet "Zuleika Dobson" is a profoundly beautiful piece of art as well. "I am never quite certain," says the author at one point, "whether I be or be not quite a gentleman." And the answer, of course, is that he is not, quite - any more than the wild fauns in Saki's drawing-rooms can be made quite respectable by putting them in starched collars and patent shoes - and for the same reason; that Beerbohm is at heart a Pagan, and that despite a few cursory nods in the text to Heaven, and Hell, and the startling number of Old Judasians who become clergymen, Zuleika Dobson is, au fond, a Pagan book, a book in which beauty and art and youth are not mere worldly gauds but ideals in themselves. And it is because of this intrinsic Paganism that in the end the bathos rises above farce to become something of real pity and art in its own right. If you have been an undergraduate, the chances are that you will have been at least half a young Pagan yourself, and Zuleika Dobson will ravish your heart. I genuinely cannot understand how any reviewer can possibly have awarded it fewer than five stars. I'd give it more, if I could.