Monday, March 3, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

 “OSCAR’S BOOKS” by Thomas Wright (first published 2008)

            As I’ve remarked once before on this blog, I am sometimes nonplussed as to why new biographical books are written about people who have already been the subject of a number of biographies. In most cases, “new” biographies of the same person, unless they turn up new, important and hitherto undiscovered material, are simply re-hashes of books that have already been published. Often, indeed, they are simplifications and rip-offs of earlier books. Sometimes all they have to offer that is new, is a little stray gossip that earlier biographies haven’t bothered with.
            An example I’ve already given of this is the number of books that have been written about Oscar Wilde. I am not a Wilde fanatic but, as it happens, I have on my shelves six books about Wilde as well as the man’s own collected works. Two of the books are really memoirs rather than biographies – Anna de Bremont’s Oscar Wilde and His Mother (1914 – presenting Oscar’s Mum as a forbearing and saintly woman who had to put up with much); and Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde (1916 – in which the old pornographer presents himself as Oscar’s friend and as the only person who really understood Oscar). These two books are historical artefacts rather than real biographies. Then there’s Richard Ellmann’s voluminous Oscar Wilde (1987), which, for very good reason, is now regarded as the standard and most reliable biography and is certainly the first book about Wilde you should read. Next to it is Barbara Belford’s briefer Oscar Wilde – A Certain Genius (2000), which really approaches rip-off territory, as it says nothing that Ellmann hadn’t already said first, and better. Finally there is Neil McKenna’s long piece of gay advocacy The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), which concentrates so exclusively on the man’s sex life and the Victorian homosexual underworld that it gets to be a bit of a bore.
By this stage, you will see that I think there is little room for a new book on Oscar Wilde. Wilde is one of those people (like Shakespeare, Dickens, Rimbaud and Franz Kafka) who have been done to death by biographers even if, in Shakespeare’s case, they have little primary material to go on.
Is it really possible for anyone to say anything about Wilde’s life that has not been said before?
Surprisingly, it is, and the proof is Thomas Wright’s delightful book Oscar’s Books, the sixth book about Oscar Wilde which I own. It earns its place on the shelf because it concentrates on one aspect of Wilde’s life that has not been examined in detail before.
In 1895, when he lost his libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury and was convicted for “gross indecency”, Oscar Wilde was faced with two heavy punishments. One was his prison sentence. The other was the loss of his beloved library of over 2000 volumes, which he had spent more that twenty years acquiring.
To cover legal expenses, the books had to be auctioned. As Wilde was being taken to prison, the auctioneers dumped the books on the pavement outside his London residence and sold the lot at knockdown prices to booksellers, scavengers, and sensation-seekers. The scattered library has never been reassembled.
As he reveals in his autobiographical notes, Thomas Wright is a youngish Wilde fanatic who is devoting his life to reconstructing everything Oscar Wilde would have read in his lifetime, everything he would have had on his shelves and everything that could in any way have influenced his writings.
Wright has understood that what a writer habitually reads will have at least as much influence on his work as what happens in the other departments of his life. This was particularly true of a dandyish jackdaw of a writer like Oscar Wilde. As Wright demonstrates amply, there are echoes of Wilde’s wide reading in all the plays, poems, stories and essays Wilde penned. In fact, there is occasionally shameless plagiarism. This gives special point to that famous and much-repeated anecdote about Wilde hearing somebody saying something witty and remarking to a friend “I wish I’d said that”.
You will, Oscar, you will,” his friend at once quipped.
A dedicated Wilde-ophile such as Thomas Wright doesn’t dwell on the thefts, but he can’t avoid noting that much of Wilde’s work (especially the poetry) comes uncomfortably close to pastiche. Art imitating art. It’s hard to read his Newdigate Prize-winning poem Ravenna now with a straight face although, in fairness to Oscar, he did write some surprisingly gutsy sonnets.
Of course, there is a possible major objection to reconstructing a man’s library as Wright does, and then drawing conclusions from the books he gave shelf-space. How do we know how deeply Wilde read all the many books he owned? If you judged me by the books I give shelf-space, you would assume that I was a universal literary genius. But then the sad fact is, I have never read many of the books I own, and have only a passing acquaintance with others. This, I surmise, is true of most of the people I know who inhabit book-lined studies.
Wisely, Wright confines himself to those works which Wilde discussed with friends, referred to in his letters, or scored with his copious marginal comments. And in following this path, Wright strikes gold, showing how much Wilde’s fairy-tales grew out of the Celtic tradition his flamboyant and self-dramatizing mother (who signed herself “Speranza”) bequeathed to him; how much Wilde was influenced by the society novels of Disraeli and the social panoramas of Balzac; how much he pored over all homo-erotic aspects of the ancient Greek classics; and how much Dante meant to him once he was confined to a prison cell. The felon who penned De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol clearly shared enough of his mother’s temperament to see himself as going through his private Inferno.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Oscar’s Books – a feast of erudition and bibliophilic lore. But I would fault Wright on one thing. I think he underestimates the influence of Balzac’s brilliant fantasy tale The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) on Wilde’s less resonant and more imitative The Picture of Dorian Gray. To refresh your memories, in The Wild Ass’s Skin (written about fifty years before Wilde’s novel), people who possess the magic skin fulfil their sensual and worldly desires, but as they do so the skin shrinks and their lives are shortened. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the beautiful young man remains beautiful while he leads a life of debauchery and sin, but the picture that has been painted of him becomes uglier and nastier until he keels over and dies and is revealed to be old, ugly and nasty. In both cases, a magic token takes the physical punishment that the sinner should take. [Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Bottle Imp is a more simplistic variation on this same plot.] Balzac’s novel has a broader social perspective than the Wilde story, which is confined to a somewhat precious social set.
However Wright does confirm that Wilde was Balzac’s number one nineteenth century English-speaking fan. It was Wilde who wrote:
            The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac…. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.”  
            Referring to the hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Wilde added somewhat preciously, “Who would care to go out to meet Tompkins, the friend of one’s boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempre?
            I find it charming that Wilde found he had so much in common with a rampant heterosexual and often hard-headed pragmatist like Balzac, but it does confirm me in my belief that there was also much of the Romantic to Balzac and he could always tell a good story.
            For the record of allusion, by the way, when Wilde famously said that in meeting male prostitutes he was “feasting with panthers” he was in fact quoting from Balzac where Lucien de Rubempre speaks of visiting brothels as “feasting with lions and panthers”. And in a case of life imitating art, Oscar Wilde’s funeral mass was said at the church of St.Germain-des-Pres before he was buried in the Pere Lachaise. In Balzac’s Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes Lucien’s funeral is conducted from the same church and Lucien is buried in the same cemetery – so even after death Oscar Wilde was imitating one of Honore de Balzac’s fictions just as he had imitated The Wild Ass’s Skin.
            Inevitably Thomas Wright’s highly original book can’t help recapitulating at least some of the details of Wilde’s biography that are well known from other sources. Once again, you get to notice what a fair and decent chap was the enlightened prison governor who looked after Wilde in jail. Once again, you get the chance to regret that Wilde had to fall in love with a devious and neurotic little snot like Lord Alfred Douglas.
            But it’s the unfamiliar that counts here, and in Oscar’s Books, Thomas Wright has achieved the unlikely feat of saying something new about somebody who was in danger of being turned into a cliché.

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