I had no preconceived notions of what Zuleika Dobson was going to be like. I didn’t even go into expecting it to be a comedy, because in my mind I kept getting it mixed up with Zlata’s Diary and therefore thought it might be about someone in Eastern Europe. But it actually has nothing to do with Eastern Europe. I kind of wish that it did, though. Roger Ebert’s words about a movie he REALLY didn’t like come to mind: It has to be seen to be believed, but I don’t recommend that.
What to say about this mess that is Zuleika Dobson?
I suppose I should lay out the plot here first. We have Zuleika Dobson, who is very beautiful and makes her living as a conjurer, putting on parlor tricks for rich people in Europe and America. (She’s “less than mediocre” at her profession, but I suppose she gets by on her looks.) At the beginning of the novel, she is coming to stay with her grandfather at Oxford.
Zuleika is notorious for not falling in love with anyone. That is until she sees the Duke of Dorset, a student at Oxford. He is notorious for the same thing. Of course, they fall in love, but only briefly. The day after they meet, Zuleika visits the Duke, but when she learns that he loves her, she isn’t interested anymore. Yeah, the whole thing lasted about 12 hours. The Duke is still smitten of course, and decides to kill himself for love of Zuleika. He tells her of his plan. She is excited that someone would do this for her.
The problem is that all of Oxford is in love with her apparently, and when word gets around that Dorset is going to kill himself for her, all the other males at Oxford decide to do the same.
How does Zuleika respond? Well, she must do something for all these young me who are going to throw themselves in the river for her. So she puts on her conjuring show. How kind of her! When the Duke is walking Zuleika back to her rooms after the show, he tells her that he wants to live, and asks her to release him from his promise to kill himself. Zuleika is disgusted by the suggestion.
And then we get to Chapter 11. Geesh, this book exhausts me.
The Duke has now decided not to kill himself over Zuleika. But then he gets a letter from home about two owls, and apparently that means that he is going to die. So he hasn’t prolonged his life any after all. He knows that no one will believe him if he says, “it’s silly for all of us to kill ourselves over this woman, but I’m going to die today anyway.” He walks around Oxford trying to talk people out of the mass suicide but without any success.
And then we get to this entire subplot, where his landlady’s daughter is in love with him. The morning that he is going to jump in the river, he confronts her about it, and she admits that she loves him. He tells her that he hates Zuleika, and gives Katie a pair of pearl earrings that Zuleika had given him as a trinket. He kisses Katie and then goes to kill himself. All the undergraduates kill themselves by jumping into the river and yelling “Zuleika!”
But it doesn't end there. There was one undergraduate that doesn’t kill himself, though he intended to: Noaks, who lived with Dorset. When Katie, after finding out that everybody has committed suicide, goes to ready Noaks’ and Dorset’s room for their families, she finds Noaks hiding behind a curtain. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he didn’t kill himself over Zuleika, because that would make him a coward. Katie tells him that she loves him, because he didn’t kill himself over Zuleika, who Katie hates because of the situation with Dorset. Noaks, pleased that somebody likes him (he’s kind of a dork) asks her to marry him – well, more like he gives her a ring and says now they are engaged. Before too long Zuleika shows up, and Noaks tries to make excuses to her why he isn’t dead like the rest of them. But now Zuleika loves him precisely because he is the only one left. Katie of course overhears all of this, throws Noaks ring at her, informs Zuleika that Noaks was just chicken and that she knows that Dorset didn’t kill himself over her. This kid Clarence (who I assume is Katie’s brother, though I’m not sure that we’re ever told that) goes to beat up Noaks, but Noaks jumps (or falls) out the window and dies.
Zuleika decides that she is going to enter a convent so that she can’t wreck havoc like that again, but at the last minute, terribly worried that everyone will find out that Dorset didn’t kill himself over her, decides to go to Cambridge, presumably so that she can do the same thing again.
Phew. That took a lot to recount, and it wasn’t a very long book.
Despite its attempts to be a comedy, I found Zuleika Dobson to be terribly unfunny. By Chapter 3 or so, I was wondering what the hell was this thing? Is Beerbohm being serious about this? I really didn’t get at first that he’s being facetious – that it’s supposed to be some sort of satire. If taken seriously, it reminds me of the melodramas I tried to write when I was 12 years old. That’s not a complement, in case you were wondering. This is TERRIBLE! I thought. How the [expletive] did this drivel end up on the Modern Library list? How could ANYONE possibly like this? But as I started to research other bloggers/online reviewers who read Zuleika, I find that they all had over-the-moon praise for it. Orrin, the reviewer at Brothers Judd said, “the revelation of this satirical baroque masterpiece justifies all the wretched dreck I’ve waded through on this list.” The reviewer at 70proof called it “wonderfully clever,” “genuinely funny and significant” and said that its verbosity “only adds to the pleasure.” WHAT???? I’m not entirely sure that I was reading the same novel as they were.
The New York Times, at least gets closer to my feelings. One article there states, “Beerbohm cannot approach real harshness. For a satirist he’s too congenial…The visciousness that makes Juvenal and Jonathan Swift great is beyond his modestly ironic touch.” Perhaps that is what is wrong with it…I don’t know. It feels like there was potential there, but something wasn’t right.
A new revelation has suddenly come to me. I have known girls like Zuleika, and they annoy the piss out of me. These are the girls that fawn over all the men – even ones they do not like – because they cannot stand to be in a room with someone of the opposite sex and not be the complete center of their attention. I had a roommate like this once. I know it comes from a place of insecurity, but it is annoying nonetheless. It’s frustrating when you can’t bring a boy home with you because you know your roommate will be clawing at him all night, and though I mean no disrespect to any males reading this blog, but most men are too stupid to realize what females like this are doing. I didn’t realize until now that perhaps the reason this book frustrated me so much was because Zuleika is TOTALLY like that roommate.
I could be snarky here. And trust me, I want to be. I feel almost compelled to be an ass about people who think this book is worthwhile (William Styron, one of the Modern Library list’s judges called it “a toothless pretender”). But it’s the Christmas season, so maybe I should try to be nice or something. So rather than blast those crazy reviewers who enjoyed this novel, I will leave you with a phrase my grandmother always says when someone enjoys something she doesn’t, and can’t understand why they like it because she thinks it’s stupid, but she wants to be nice: “It’s good we don’t all like the same things.”