‘The incomparable Max’

Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) is not as well known nowadays as some other major English essayists like Lamb, Hazlitt, Johnson and Orwell, but it is quite significant that George Bernard Shaw called him ‘the incomparable Max’ and Virginia Woolf, like several other contemporaries, also thought very highly of him.

What strikes me as brilliant in this essayist – who was also a caricaturist of some skill – is the voice he projects in his writing. Witty, clever, comic and often idiosyncratic, his style flows easily and in the manner of conversation giving the impression of a naturalness that, I suspect, is sometimes a finely executed construction of a persona.

Consider, for instance, the very short essay, ‘Going Out for a Walk’ (1918), in which Beerbohm writes about that activity which is so often appealing to essayists. The essay begins, wittily:

It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk. I have been taken out for walks; but that is another matter.

Beerbohm is not a fan of walking, it seems. Unlike others who claim that physical activity sharpens their mind, Beerbohm feels that walking interrupts his thinking (I agree, though sometimes it’s good to suspend thinking for an hour or so!), and he would rather stay at home, every time. Thus, he tries, not always successfully, to find excuses to avoid going out for a walk:

It is easy to say simply “No” to an old friend. In the case of a mere acquaintance one wants some excuse. “I wish I could, but”–nothing ever occurs to me except “I have some letters to write.” This formula is unsatisfactory in three ways. (1) It isn’t believed. (2) It compels you to rise from your chair, go to the writing-table, and sit improvising a letter to somebody until the walkmonger (just not daring to call you liar and hypocrite) shall have lumbered out of the room. (3) It won’t operate on Sunday mornings. “There’s no post out till this evening” clinches the matter; and you may as well go quietly.

But what the essay is really worth reading for, in my view, are the last ten lines, in which Beerbohm performs a very clever turn which some of you may appreciate, especially because this is an 1918 essay…


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