Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Oscar Wilde Discovers America, by Louis Edwards (2003)

We have in previous months looked at contemporary novels featuring poet, playwright and aesthete Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) as a fictional character. 

Wilde has now turned up in a series of detective novels of varying quality by Gyles Brandreth, the latest of which is Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal.  These books are amusing time-wasters, rich with little details of Victoriana, but Wilde traipsing around pretending to be Sherlock Holmes is something of a misconception.  Also popular were Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde, by Russell A. Brown, and The West End Horror, by Nicholas Meyer, both of which had Wilde meeting the Baker Street detective himself.

Though these books are non-serious entertainments, Wilde does show up in other, more adult fictions, as well.  He is the center of Peter Ackroyd’s most adroit novel to date, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), which includes a fascinating closing chapter written in the voice of Wilde’s (imagined by Ackroyd) valet, Maurice.

A similar literary conceit was employed by Louis Edwards (born 1962) in his excruciating novel, Oscar Wilde Discovers America, first published in 2003.  Though the mysteries mentioned above are by no means serious literature, they are in almost every way infinitely superior to this misconceived, ham-fisted and poorly written novel.

Oscar Wilde Discovers America is mostly about the valet who accompanied Wilde in 1882 on this coast-to-coast American lecture tour.  (This is based on an actual event and a very real individual, though the valet’s name and identity have been lost to history.)  The valet is named Traquair in the novel, and he is the privileged son of New York City servants.  Traquair is a recent college graduate and with the help of his father, and the banker his father works for, Traquair lands a job looking after the celebrated Irish poet. 

Traquair is African-American, a great admirer of Wilde’s work (though, historically, there was not much work at this time for anyone to admire), and eager to learn about life from a master.  Wilde, of course, is captivated by the plain wisdom of his servant, and learns much from him, as well.  Yes – it’s The Help with green carnations.

Well, as would be the case with a premise so loaded with political correctness, Wilde takes to calling his servant Tra (sigh) and steals some of the young man’s epigrams as his own.  Sharing cocktails with Tra, Wilde even imagines a new form of music that is largely improvisatory and connected to non-European rhythms.  Yes … Oscar Wilde imagines jazz.

Of course Wilde falls in love with Tra, and they consummate their relationship before Wilde returns to England and Tra to his life in the US.  And despite the fact that Tra will love many women in the future (the novel is told in flashback), he will always remember the power of Oscar’s kiss.

Don’t look at me – I didn’t write it. 

Edwards’ novel is alternately tedious and uninvolving, with long, exasperating passages where his tin ear tries to reproduce the cadence of 19th century prose.  Here’s an example of what Edwards serves up – a particularly apt example considering the author’s limitations:

“Oh, that’s enough about my book,” Mr. Davis said.  “Tell me, do you foresee yourself documenting your Aesthetic Movement in any way?”

“Daily,” Oscar said.  “I foresee my life itself being the documentation of my movement.  If my biographer is adequate, he will note this fact.  But biographers, in their enthusiasm to re-create life, bear a great resemblance to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and their creations are just as monstrous.  And I don’t think a talent so rich as mine should be wasted on the tediousness of writing an autobiography – an endeavor which, of course, modesty precludes.”

“You might change your mind about that point should you live as long as I,” Mr. Davis said.  “One might think that when an old man lies down upon his bed at the end of one of his many long days, all he would want to do is rest.  But what you will learn is that at some point simply to rest becomes too much like death.  In the relentless retreat that is old age, an old man looks for pauses.  He spends entire mornings and entire afternoons and evenings searching his mind for remote islands of memory, for familiar by exotic distractions.  He reflects incessantly upon a past illustrious or inglorious.  One way or another he writes his autobiography.  That is what I do now over there in my little library when the mood strikes me, which is often.  I must admit that there is a temptation to grant oneself perhaps more importance than one is due, to lend to oneself a representative quality, to attempt to take on all the meaning of one’s people.  This may be my personal predicament only, but I’m not so sure.  I would wager that a poor, destitute soul who dies a lonely death in a dark hole someplace feels bearing upon his spirit the weight of the entire Confederacy of the Wretched.”

There are pages of this stuff (287, to be exact), and Your Correspondent has waded through it so you wouldn’t have to.  Oscar Wilde may have discovered America, but this book has been merely … detected.

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