Thursday, January 19, 2012

Part II -- Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

Today we conclude our review of Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright
In short, Wilde is too large a personality, too large a mind for us to get our hands around comfortably.  Just when we think we’ve cut him down to a manageable size – oh yes, the man who loved not wisely nor well enough – some other aspect of Wilde comes to pull away the veil through which we see the distorted image.  Just when we think of Wilde’s life as a great tragedy, he laughs at us; and when we think of his deep and rich vein of comedy, he makes us weep at the equally rich and deep agonies of life.  (Languishing in prison, Wilde was asked by a guard about then-popular novelist Marie Corelli.  And Wilde, a man at that time in hell, said from behind his prison bars, “Now I don’t think I’ve got anything to say against her moral character, but from the way she writes, she ought to be in here.”)
We keep returning to Wilde, but none of our recreations rings entirely true.  The movies have been particularly unkind to Wilde.  Robert Morley, a gifted actor within his own range, was never more than a walking aphorism in Oscar Wilde (1960), and Peter Finch and Stephen Fry (in 1960s’ Trials of Oscar Wilde and 1997’s Wilde, respectively) both have a martyred look, as if Wilde’s life was all tragedy and no comedy.  And the Wilde of Nikolas Grace in Salome’s Last Dance (1988) was … not the Wilde of history or myth.  None of these actors manage to convince as a man of genius, though Vincent Price, in Diversions of Delights, has come, perhaps, closest to the Wilde of fact and legend, and Edward Hibbert was also excellent as the replacement Wilde in Gross Indecency.
Wilde has now turned up in a series of detective novels of varying qualities by Gyles Brandreth, the latest of which is Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile.  These books are amusing time-wasters, rich with little details of Victoriana, but Wilde running around pretending to be Sherlock Holmes is something of a misconception.  And Neil McKenna's 2003 biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is an insult both to Wilde and to anyone engaged in real biographical research.  I have never seen a “biography” use the words “perhaps” and “possibly” with such wilde abandon.  Indeed, many of McKenna’s assertions (and McKenna makes a bunch them) start as off-hand jokes made by Wilde morph into bizarre and convoluted theories of Wilde’s sexual practices.  This is rather like the Life of Wilde authorized by The National Enquirer … and about as authoritative, too.
However, every now and then a new book on Wilde comes along that manages to both capture the real, multiform Wilde, and also radically redefine how we think about him.  And Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright, is such a book.
Built of Books (published as Oscar’s Books in the UK) is a visionary type of literary biography: a look at Wilde’s life as measured by the books he had read.  As such, it is not obsessively concerned with the factual incidents of Wilde’s external life.  (For that, I recommend Richard Ellmann’s masterful Oscar Wilde.)  Instead, what Wright attempts to do is immerse himself in Wilde’s reading and, by so doing, enter into the great man’s mind itself.  Few biographies dare intrude upon the subject’s internal life; Wright attempts to recreate it.  It is a daring and audacious plan, one that in lesser hands could only end is disaster or ridicule.  Instead, Wright manages to magically resurrect Wilde and map the myriad and poetic byways of his mind.  In more than 30 years of reading about Wilde, I have never come across so original, so accessible and so successful a book.  Here is Oscar Wilde, brought back to life.
Wright takes us through Wilde’s upbringing – largely resting on the oral tradition of Irish folklore.  Wright posits that this is the wellspring of Wilde’s particularly musical language, and his gifts as a talker, as well.  He takes us by the hand and leads us through Wilde’s years at university, outlining the Hellenism that was one of the tent poles of his philosophy, as well as introducing us to the aestheticism that grew out of this hothouse atmosphere.
Later chapters take us through Wilde’s personal Tite Street library, his prison reading lists (and book bills), and the books he bought while roaming the Continent following his disgrace.  Wright had the enviable honor of examining many of Wilde’s personal volumes, and makes deductions about the physical act of Wilde reading (usually while drinking wine or sometimes actually nibbling on the pages themselves).  He also traces Wilde’s thinking based on various marginalia and from inscriptions in presentation copies to friends and lovers.
Like most great biographies, Built of Books was the result of a personal quest.  Like many who worship at the Alter of Oscar, it started for Wright with a boyhood reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  His interest in Wilde and the intellectual life of Victorian England grew, and, over time, he became obsessed by the man and his reading.  As he writes, Wilde would be my Virgilian guide to the circles of world literature; his life and art the thread with which I would navigate the labyrinth of the history of ideas.  I hoped, too, that he would be a sort of Socratic mentor, who would help me give birth to a new self.  He vowed to read every book that Wilde had read, as well, and eventually ended up in Wilde’s alma mater, Magdalen.  Candidly, Wright notes in the final chapter that he was not intellectually up to the task.  Having produced a list of volumes that I was certain Wilde had read (or at least owned), I was forced to confront the even more depressing truth that, intellectually, I was simply not up to the task of comprehending them all … It is ironic that Wilde characterized his own period as an “age of the over-worked and the under-educated;” an age in which people were “so industrious that they become absolutely stupid” and where thought was “degraded by its constant association with practice.”  What would he say if he came back to visit the philistine, workaholic, mortgage-enslaved England of our day?
Wright recognizes that Wilde was that rarity – a dandy with a sense of humor – and writes with sly wit, himself.  His book is peppered with little asides that gladden the heart.  When writing about an impassioned fan letter Wilde received from a young man, he writes: [Wilkinson] was also very appreciative of Wilde’s suggestion regarding his reading.  “I shall always,” he wrote, “be grateful to you if you trouble to recommend me particular poetry to read; I am thankful to say that I play neither football nor cricket, so I am really comparatively at leisure.”  It is a shame that the pair were destined never to meet, because Wilkinson sounds exactly Wilde’s type.
Like others, Wright was introduced into the furnace of Wilde’s art and intellect through The Picture of Dorian Gray, and has come out of it a different man.  He more than repays that debt by breathing life into Wilde once more with Built of Books, the most remarkable, enjoyable and revitalizing act of literary alchemy I’ve read in many years.


david thompson said...

I wonder if you are familiar with W. Graham Robertson's memoirs 'Time Was'? He was a friend of Wilde's and has many interesting anecdotes about him, what comes across most apart from his obvious wit and humour is his kindness, 'among his many entities he was a gentleman'. The book is also full of stories about people such as Burne-Jones, Whistler Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt who were all close friends of Robertson. Sadly it is a wonderful record of a culture now vanished but I highly recommend it for aesthetes struggling gallantly to keep the flame alive.

James Abbott said...

Yes -- I am very familiar with that book, and many, many thanks for bringing it up. Like you, I highly recommend it. Robertson provides a delightful picture of the time. There is a wonderful painting of Robertson by Sargent that always brought to my mind Dorian Gray. I’m sure you’re familiar with it!