"Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

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Belle
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"Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by Belle » Sat Oct 21, 2017 1:35 pm

Here's a review of a new biography of Oscar Wilde. The review mentions the outstanding Richard Ellman biography of the 1980s, which would be difficult to surpass. Nevertheless, this new book seems promising. I've cut and pasted the review because the site has a paywall.

In 2011 Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, was covered in glass to prevent erosion from all the lipstick kisses pressed on to it. Perhaps only Napoleon’s sarcophagus in Les Invalides can rival Wilde’s tomb in the Parisian mortuary tourism stakes, so you can see why the authorities wanted to intervene.

Rather like Napoleon himself, Wilde’s imprisonment, exile and early death guaranteed a growing posthumous fame. Unlike Napoleon, labelled a “war criminal” by a recent biographer, Wilde is the perfect martyr for our times: an artist imprisoned for his sexuality and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

George Orwell once said “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”. But Wilde was already found guilty by the elite of the British Empire at its height, so perhaps he should be judged innocent first. Certainly the recent biographies and films about Wilde have been a strong case for the defence.

Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years is a more balanced portrait of the writer in his final decade. Nicholas Frankel offers a scholarly and generally level-headed account of Wilde’s civil and criminal trials, his imprisonment, his exile in northern France and Italy, and his final squalid end in Paris.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was a celebrity before he had ever done anything. His mother was a well-known Irish writer, his father a prominent physician. Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde from an early age dreamed of being a ­famous author.

He was known as a dandy and troublemaker at Oxford but, as Frankel points out, he was also a hardworking and rather diligent student, winning the 1878 Newdigate Prize for poetry and graduating with a double first in classics and greats. Wilde wrote that the “bad boy did well in the end” and this was the schemata by which he tried to live for the next 20 years. You could behave badly, even outrageously, as long as you had genius enough to assuage the ruling classes — or so he thought.

Frankel begins his biography proper in the early 1890s. Wilde is at the height of his fame, with three plays running simultaneously in the West End. This Wilde, Frankel observes, was a Dr Jekyll figure, a literary lion with an adoring, beautiful wife and children. His Mr Hyde alter ego trawled the Strand for rent boys. This Wilde displayed a chilly emotional solipsism and arrogance, and when he fell for a handsome but second-rate poet, Lord Alfred Douglas — the Marquess of Queensberry’s son — the fates began to prepare their knives.

Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club that read “To Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite” (sic). Wilde foolishly sued Queensberry for libel and was torn apart during cross-examination by an old friend from Trinity College Dublin, Edward Carson. Queensberry was acquitted and Wilde arrested for sodomy and gross indecency, and ultimately found guilty.

Wilde became prisoner C.3.3. His head was shaved, his books were taken away, he was put in solitary confinement, denied visitors, forced on to “the wheel” and fed only black bread and gruel. He couldn’t eat, suffered chronic diarrhoea, and the authorities were worried he might die on them. Gradual and grudging improvements were eventually made.

The period Frankel particularly wants to unpack is Wilde’s final three years of life following his release. In Richard Ellmann’s acclaimed biography of Wilde this period is given rather short shrift, so Frankel’s book will remain the definitive reference on this era for a long time, particularly on where, when and with whom Wilde spent his final 36 months.

Frankel suggests Wilde was frequently happy in this time. He was free of English prudery, he could be openly gay (and promiscuous) on the Continent and he was starting to write again. He finished the well-received Ballad of Reading Gaol based on his prison experiences and revised his plays for the definitive print editions. Many of the most famous witticisms and aphorisms in these plays were written in this period, and Frankel points out, reasonably, that an utterly ruined and broken man could not have produced such funny and brilliant repartee.

Frankel insists the post-prison years of Wilde’s life were not the tragic downward death spiral that Ellmann, for one, claims them to be. I found this argument not entirely convincing.

Wilde’s letters of this period reveal a man riddled with pain, guilt and humiliation. He was forbidden to see his children and he missed them terribly, and he was further tormented by the proximate deaths of his wife and mother. It is true though that Wilde sometimes seemed to enjoy playing the part of martyr. His almost playful exilic pseudonym was Sebastian (a martyred saint) Melmoth (a wanderer).

Despite gleams of happiness here and there, a brief reunion with Alfred Douglas, and money for a new play (that he appears never to have begun), Wilde’s final year was unbearably seedy, shabby and physically agonising. An untreated prison fall had left him with an abscess of the ear which made him susceptible to a virulent form of meningitis that finally killed him.

Without money or a creative outlet, Wilde got drunk in cafes during the day and sought the company of cheap male prostitutes at night. Former friends were shocked to find themselves approached in Paris by a filthy, toothless man claiming to be Oscar Wilde who would beg them for “even a little money”. On realising it was in fact Wilde, they would give him everything they had and hurry away.

Wilde’s funeral was a semi-farcical affair, with Douglas leaping into the grave and a pitifully small turnout. As evidenced by the pilgrim trail in Pere Lachaise, Wilde is now a gay icon and hero. But he was cynical about his own cynicism and this fragile, emotional man’s last days were anything but a triumph, despite the somewhat misleading title of Frankel’s compelling book.

Adrian McKinty is a Belfast-born, Melbourne-based novelist and critic.

Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years
By Nicholas Frankel

Harvard University Press, 264pp, $64.99

jbuck919
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 21, 2017 11:22 pm

Since this is a music board, I will take the liberty of posting what is probably well known to most members. Strauss's opera Salome has a libretto which is a translation of a play by Wilde, which he wrote in French (thereby being the Irish predecessor of Samuel Beckett in having that ability).

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Belle
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by Belle » Sun Oct 22, 2017 12:13 am

It's one of my favourite works by Strauss and I read Wilde's play in English some decades ago. That last devastating line from the Tetrarch - "kill that woman" and those dramatic chords from Strauss denoting that killing....one of the great opera endings!!

This new book about Wilde looks interesting. Having read and loved the Ellmann biography years ago (he actually died just before it was published) I find the Oscar Wilde story absolutely compelling. And I visited his grave when I was in Paris a few years ago.

John F
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by John F » Sun Oct 22, 2017 1:46 am

I worked with Richard Ellmann (and Robert O'Clair) on the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and got to know him a little bit. He suffered from what's called Lou Gehrig's Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and it was something of a heroic effort to finish that and the Wilde biography.

While he still could, Ellmann lectured on aspects of Wilde's life, and I went to one of them. As I remember, it focused on the Marquess of Queensberry, who Ellmann said wasn't a simple brute - he was a complicated brute. His name is associated with the rules of boxing which he codified, making it a sport of regulated violence. His second marriage was annulled, the grounds for which would have been that it had not been consummated. Then his son turned out to be homosexual. Ellmann observed that Queensberry might well have felt that life was hitting him below the belt. :mrgreen: I wish this had gotten into the Wilde biography, but it didn't.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by Belle » Sun Oct 22, 2017 2:43 am

I absolutely adored that Ellmann biography and at the time I belonged in a little amateur theatre company in a regional area outside Sydney. Talking about the book enthusiastically resulted in a couple of my confreres going out and buying it and one discussed it with me afterwards. I'm hoping my memory serves me right in this regard, but I do remember a local lawyer loving the book and sharing his interest with me.

So, it is very affecting to see you refer to your personal knowledge of its author in that way. It's been a long time since I read it but occasionally I'll go back over the more amusing parts of the writing; for example, where Wilde is on his deathbed and talks about the wallpaper - "my wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death; one of us must go"! And there were magnificently written, poetic passages in much of Ellmann's writing and the effect it had was to endear me to the subject of the work. His background research on Robert Ross, Pater and Riskin and that cohort of 'aesthetes' was tremendously interesting. And Wilde's notions of 'the beautiful boy' of Greek culture opened up a new avenue of thinking for me.

The Marquess of Queensberry was a dreadful brute and I always felt that his obsession with his son's sexuality and relationship with Wilde only thinly veiled other pathologies. But that may be too simplistic and he may have simply been a man of his time; a hypocritical prude.

Biography is my preferred genre (alongside critical/scholarly musical writing and contemporary society/politics), and a good biographer is worth his/her weight in gold.

What do you think about another biography of Wilde? Are you up for it?

John F
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by John F » Sun Oct 22, 2017 6:31 am

Not really. I feel I know enough about Wilde, and generally I'm not much into biographies except for information about a career I care about, not for snooping into the subject's private life. Haven't actually read Ellmann's Wilde cover to cover; I might not have bought it except for my connection with the author.

He told me, incidentally, that he had been contacted by Tom Stoppard who was then writing "Travesties." One of the play's characters is James Joyce, and Stoppard wanted to check some factual details with the authority. I believe Dick was rather pleased at being involved with the creation of a Stoppard play, however tangentially. He thought it worth mentioning anyway.

Speaking of plays and Wilde, David Hare wrote one about Wilde, Act 1 being his last hour at the Cadogan Hotel before being arrested, with Act 2 set in Italy after his release from prison. Its title is "The Judas Kiss," and in the New York production Wilde was played by Liam Neeson. I mention it partly because we're on the subject and partly because I see in Wikipedia that the play has had two Australian productions, one in Sydney at the Belvoir St Theatre and the other in Melbourne. Did you see it?

And then there's this poem by John Betjeman, which Ellmann and O'Clair included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry - of course. It might possibly have been the inspiration for Hare's play.

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel (1937)

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAIN CLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by Belle » Sun Oct 22, 2017 3:07 pm

Yes, I've seen "The Judas Kiss" performed in Sydney. A teaching friend who knew everybody in the theatre took me to see it and it was the bravura performance of a lifetime, I have to say. The stage was occupied by one man virtually for 3 hours and the dialogue that had to be memorized was staggering. I hadn't heard of the actor before but afterwards we all went for coffee and I congratulated him on his astonishing feat of memory and his performance. That was nearly 20 years ago and shortly after his return from overseas. The actor died 4 years ago, after he'd gone on to become one of this nation's most celebrated thespians. "The Judas Kiss" was a magnificent play and this was its star performer in Australia, whom I most definitely would put alongside Geoffrey Rush in talent:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bille_Brown

I'm serious, this performance just stunned everybody. I'll never forget it!!

The poem you've included is very moving. There's something fundamental in our souls, I think, that when we see a supremely talented and significant person brought low - for whatever reason - we tend to think of that often as a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. So it is for me with Oscar Wilde.

jbuck919
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Oct 22, 2017 5:20 pm

John F wrote:
Sun Oct 22, 2017 1:46 am
I worked with Richard Ellmann (and Robert O'Clair) on the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and got to know him a little bit. He suffered from what's called Lou Gehrig's Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and it was something of a heroic effort to finish that and the Wilde biography.

While he still could, Ellmann lectured on aspects of Wilde's life, and I went to one of them. As I remember, it focused on the Marquess of Queensberry, who Ellmann said wasn't a simple brute - he was a complicated brute. His name is associated with the rules of boxing which he codified, making it a sport of regulated violence. His second marriage was annulled, the grounds for which would have been that it had not been consummated. Then his son turned out to be homosexual. Ellmann observed that Queensberry might well have felt that life was hitting him below the belt. :mrgreen: I wish this had gotten into the Wilde biography, but it didn't.
First, what a horrible, piteous disease. One cannot read about it and that not be the first reaction.

Forget the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. A strong case can be made that Oscar Wilde's own wit and stubbornness did him in. He could have gotten out of a prison sentence simply by being a witty liar on the witness stand. Instead, he went the full way for his worthless lover, and his prison sentence was one of hard labor, nothing a great writer (or nowadays anyone else) should have had to endure. He never recovered, and evaporated in a room in which he commented about the pattern on the wallpaper.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by John F » Mon Oct 23, 2017 4:58 am

Look, I was passing along Dick Ellmann's joke with the punchline (yes, I said that on purpose) about hitting below the belt. Apparently you didn't get it.
John Francis

jbuck919
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Re: "Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years"

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Oct 23, 2017 6:11 pm

John F wrote:
Mon Oct 23, 2017 4:58 am
Look, I was passing along Dick Ellmann's joke with the punchline (yes, I said that on purpose) about hitting below the belt. Apparently you didn't get it.
Of course I got it. I just ignored it.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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