Wednesday 24 August 2022

'In a small way, rather remarkable...'

A couple of weeks ago, it was Philip Larkin's centenary – and back in April Kingsley Amis's – and today comes the sesquicentenary of Max Beerbohm, born in Kensington on this day in 1872. His father was a Lithuanian-born grain merchant, his mother the sister of his father's first wife, and it was long surmised that Beerbohm must have Jewish blood (Ezra Pound refers to this, in typically charming philosemitic manner, in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley') – but, having looked into the matter, Max told a biographer: 'I should be delighted to know that we Beerbohms have that very admirable and engaging thing, Jewish blood. But there seems no reason for supposing that we have. Our family records go back as far as 1668, and there is nothing in them compatible with Judaism.' He also said: 'That my talent is rather like Jewish talent I admit readily... But, being in fact a Gentile, I am, in a small way, rather remarkable, and wish to remain so.' 
  The young Max received his early education at a day school run by a Mr Wilkinson, who gave him the only drawing lessons he ever had, and 'gave me my love of Latin and thereby enabled me to write English'. After Charterhouse it was Oxford, where he got to know, among many others, Oscar Wilde and William Rothenstein, who introduced him to Aubrey Beardsley and the Yellow Book circle. He was soon launched, too, as a writer, caricaturist and dandy. 'I was a modest, good-humoured boy,' he recalled. 'It was Oxford that made me insufferable.' In reality, he was the least insufferable of writers – a breed not known for their conspicuous sufferability. Indeed he is one of the few writers with whom I would, I think, have been happy to spend some time (who are the others? Keats, Chekhov, Beckett, Fernando Pessoa, Dr Johnson if I was feeling strong enough, Oscar Wilde ditto). Talking of Oscar, to mark this anniversary I'm going to link back to something I wrote some years ago about one of Beerbohm's lesser known but very remarkable creations, 'A Peep into the Past'. Here's the link...
  (The portrait of the young Max above is by his friend, the Dieppe-based painter Jacques-Emile Blanche.)

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