Zuleika Dobson is a book that caught me slightly wrong-footed, and I’m not certain that I ever really recovered through my reading of it. I’m not sure if I could classify this book as ‘magical realism’ since I’ve always avoided that genre, which is not really a genre, but is really just a method of writing which pretends to be imaginative but is only just pretentious and needlessly abstruse. It is written for, and presumably by, people who turn their noses up at SF and Fantasy but still find their souls lacking of it. It is the small beer, the alco-pop of genre fiction.
If I haven’t lost you with that last paragraph, I will say that Zuleika Dobson is undoubtedly clever and well written. But still, that cleverness smacks of pretension and it may just be that I don’t know enough about, or sufficiently appreciate, Classic Greek drama, that I could only pick up small clues and inferences to ancient tragedy that would have made more sense of the whole matter. As it was, the plot, characterizations, and resolution were all lost on me. The only thing that wasn’t lost on me were the descriptions and impressionism of Oxford, which was comfortingly faithful even through the lens of one hundred years.
The plot deals with the beautiful and much-famed Zuleika Dobson arriving at Oxford to visit her rather estranged uncle. She lived as an orphan and found world fame through being a stage magician, which is odd because Beerbohm often stresses that she is not more beautiful than any other character, her act is practically infantile and was stolen from someone who bought it as a kit. And yet all the youths of Oxford are willing to die for her. The other main character, the Duke of Dorset, has more to recommend him as a person, but he allows himself to be wholly commanded by the fates, or non-specific Grecian gods, or Beerbohm himself, and so has very little will or agency in the plot.
There is also a strong misogyny running through the book. The Duke is strong, faithful, stoic, passionate, and is the pattern of manhood which all others judge themselves against. Zuleika is mercurial, mischievous, fickle, proud, and demanding of sacrifice and attention.
Overall impression: amusing in parts, ultimately disappointing.