Paquita Maria Sanchez's Reviews > Oscar Wilde: A Study

Oscar Wilde by Stuart Mason
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Feb 26, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: truthiness

Even André Gide got weak in the knees for Oscar Wilde. This "study," originally composed in French by Gide and translated to include a series of illuminating footnotes by Stuart Mason, is not really a study at all, but a eulogy, an effigy, a sentimental reflection on three contrasting phases and faces of Wilde: flamboyant celebrity and charismatic conversationalist Oscar Wilde, near-catatonic yet prolific and almost zen prison inmate C33, and impoverished, embittered societal castaway Sebastian Melmoth, a man wrecked by humanity's mob cruelties and bigotries perhaps even more than his own impulsive behaviors and debaucherous appetites. His funeral procession, a scant group of 7, carried him to his first resting place in the Cimetière de Bagneux under his birth-given name after an unanticipated death from cerebral meningitis in 1900. As circumstance would not allow Gide to attend the service, he opted to compose this ode instead.

Oscar Wilde was one of those too-big-for-life sorts, too insatiable, vexingly challenging to those he encountered, and yet curiously magnetic. Gide relates several conversations from his early interactions with Wilde, consisting of a silent and awe-stricken Gide nodding along to Wilde's incipient philosophies of life and the creative process as relayed via metaphor, specifically through the twisting and retelling of various myths and fables. Wilde's entire conversational style being that of a storyteller, a dreamer, and a philosopher of both the arts and human nature, and Wilde himself being a person desirous of pleasing his audience be it on stage or in darkened tavern, he was immensely and unsurprisingly engaging to those he encountered. There are several accounts of Wilde lamenting the humdrum conversation presented by Gide and beseeching him to seek poetry and perfection in all aspects of existence, particularly any form of expression. Wilde once even chastised Gide for his use of the pronoun "I" in his critically-revered prose-poem Les nourritures terrestres, while comforting him with the assurance (in some form of flowery Wildism) that it was basically "uh, pretty good." Gide retorts throughout by repeatedly stating that Wilde was specifically not a great writer, arguing that his words, once set to type, lacked the intoxicating electricity intrinsic in their spontaneous verbal delivery. You kids.

Gide claimed the following to be a quote by Wilde:

My plays are not good, I know, and I don't trouble about that, but if you only knew how much amusement they afford! They are nearly all the results of a bet. So was Dorian Gray. I wrote that in a few days because a friend of mine declared that I could not write a novel. Writing bores me so.

I must admit that, given my gross love for that novel, this quote feels a bit like a slap in the face from across a century. I'll comfort myself with the knowledge that it is speculation. Oh, denial.

Much as I feel compelled to defend Wilde against his own supposed self-deprecation, and to harp on Gide for writing a mildly critical portrait of a deceased friend, I also commend him for focusing on Wilde's true character--more the good than the bad, but a lot of both--rather than creating a gossip rag for the controversy-hungry masses of the day by divulging secrets and regurgitating the publicized facts of his tribulations. He has made no attempt to capitalize on Wilde's various misfortunes, but rather presented the man at both his most seductive, impassioned moments and his times of crushing defeat and cynicism, largely through Wilde's own words as recollected from both memory and journal entries. (Apparently, Wilde was such a brilliant orator that Gide would transcribe their conversations in a notebook upon returning home from one of their social engagements.) In short, Gide has humanized Wilde, taking the flat picture of the icon and breathing into it life in 3 dimensions. Beautifully written, emotive, and filled with the various complexities of competing egos engaged in an infuriating and stimulating meeting of the minds, this is absolutely worth checking out if you are interested in Wilde or Gide or both or neither.
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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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Paquita Maria Sanchez Has it really been that long? Shit, I feel like I'm always running my mouth on this site. Esteban's even been expressing concern at the state of my mental health.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Honestly, I suppose I could get out more...

Paquita Maria Sanchez I'm just cleaning off my desk of all these miscellaneous items of interest which I'd started so I can finally finish those two BIG books, one (of many) which belongs to the library. Also, I want to have an epic load of books to sell off before I move. It will be my unemployment check. Must. Read. All. Day. Friendships. Can. Wait.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Dude. That's totally what she said.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Lucky you!

Paquita Maria Sanchez Well, I think that's because she mistakenly thinks "verbal" and "oral" are the same thing in any context. Imagine that, vulgarity in a Wilde thread in only 6 moves.

message 7: by Traveller (last edited Feb 27, 2012 12:36AM) (new)

Traveller It might be fitting to place one of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes here:
“I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying.”

That's what HE said.
(For a change)

message 8: by Miriam (last edited Feb 27, 2012 09:49AM) (new)

Miriam I wouldn't feel too slapped by that quote -- aren't the two attitudes of the aesthetes basically, "Oh, haha, that little thing? I tossed that out impromptu to amuse my dear friend [insert famous figure here]." and "Oh God the torture of my ART! I suffer, I burn! Nurturing yet hott model/muse/mistress, hasten to mop my fevered brow!" Saying that creativity requires hard work was just too Victorian-middle-class for them.

message 9: by Paquita Maria (last edited Feb 27, 2012 10:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paquita Maria Sanchez Fair enough. I guess he's just staying in character. There is a lot of that in this book, even after the world has pummeled Wilde enough that he's a sad shadow of his former glory. He was still a slave to appearances even in his last days, attempting to charm others in soiled and rumpled clothing, drunk and discombobulated, offering to pay for meals and drinks for tables of people, then taking friends like Gide aside and asking them for the money to pay for the meals. So, yes, the point you raise is comforting. Thanks!

message 10: by Traveller (last edited Feb 27, 2012 12:06PM) (new)

Traveller Mistress? In Wilde's case, I rather doubt it... which is, in fact, why we should be saying: "That's what he said", not: "That's what she said". :P

I don't mean that in a bad way, mind. I think Oscar himself would have approved, actually...

Talking of Oscar Wilde... I came to love his style as a child already, reading his fairy tales. I adored his fairy tales more than anybody else's. Ever.

In fact, some of his fairy tales even made me cry; they actually hurt, the beauty of them, in a good way. The only other fairy tale that could ever do that, was Andersen's Little Match-girl.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Something I learned from this book: he was married to and had children with a woman once, but she died. An interesting bit of trivia, though I know for a fact that doesn't mean much...not that I ever had a serious boyfriend I didn't realize was a largely in-denial gay man, and went to his house on a lunch-break in high school to find him asleep, spooning a man in his bed while half-clothed. Never once did that happen on 50th and MacArthur in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the Spring of 1999.

message 12: by Traveller (last edited Feb 27, 2012 12:37PM) (new)

Traveller Married and had children? Gee, I feel a bit idiotic that I didn't know that.. what became of the children?
(I honestly didn't know that he'd been married).

Obviously that's where he got his "experience" re marriage then when he disparages the institution of marriage in his works. I thought it was just... you know.. a kind of "vicarious" misogyny ..

I guess I mostly only knew about his male lovers because, that's what brought him into such trouble, and inspired Dorian Gray, of course.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Well, I would argue against the misogyny thing a bit, specifically when we consider the only interpretable marriage in Dorian Gray: Lord Wotton tries to talk and talk his way out of the fact that his wife has lost her taste for him, and is most likely sleeping around while also flagrantly disregarding him in general. Wotton tries to play it cool and express disinterest in her personal life and person, though his hatred for her is obvious, and he is clearly attempting to mask his immense pain or bruised ego or both. "A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her."

Paquita Maria Sanchez To me, the whole Sibyl Vane thing seems like vicarious revenge on Wotton's part, a swipe at the female species as a whole. Not sexist really, but more slighted and vengeful...and we are all capable of being like that in some of our worse moments, all anatomy aside.

message 15: by Traveller (last edited Feb 27, 2012 12:53PM) (new)

Traveller I did a bit of quick reading on Wilde now, and he seems indeed to have been a lot more domesticated than my previous impression of him had been.

My idea of Wilde had always (previously) been that he was a bit of a society fop, not the kind who would fall for domesticity at all, and also, from some things of what he'd written, I had the impression that he wouldn't value fatherhood; - another impression that seems to have been incorrect, since, according to some sources, he seems to actually have been a fond father.

Well, I'm so glad you read that book, Paquita, I'm going to try and do some reading on Wilde that's less sensationalist than what I've obviously been reading about the poor man thus far.
..and maybe even this book that you reviewed here, if it isn't too long... :P

Paquita Maria Sanchez Seriously, until a few days ago, I had an almost identical impression of him. Goodreads has informed me that Gide went on to write an actual biography of Wilde, though I'm wondering if that's not just some retitled reprint of this. Even this one is a reproduction of a very old book, naturally. Of course, there are probably at least 2,000,000,000 biographies of him out there in book-land, so you could really just take your pick at random and come across pretty similar information regardless.

message 17: by Miriam (last edited Feb 27, 2012 01:09PM) (new)

Miriam Wilde actually remained on reasonably good terms with his wife after leaving her -- she wanted him to be part of his sons lives. She died while he was in prison and her relatives took custody of the boys and he never saw them again.

There is a sad story his son Vyvyan wrote down about their first day of school after the immense scandal that as the Wilde trial. They'd had their names changed, but when they opened their bags they realized their all sports equipment still had WILDE on it, and ran and hid behind a shed trying desperately to get it all scraped off before someone saw it.

message 18: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Here's a pic of his wife with one son:

message 19: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Miriam wrote: "They'd had their names changed, but when they opened their bags they realized their all sports equipment still had WILDE on it, and ran and hid behind a shed trying desperately to get it all scraped off before someone saw it. .."

OMG, that is so sad.. I had always been sorry for Oscar, but, wow, his poor kids going through that, just adds a new dimension of sadness to the whole sorry affair. I guess Victorian values ruined a good few lives, which is why authors like Thomas Hardy kicked against it.

On the other hand, I guess what happened with Wilde would have been a scandal until fairly recently, and in some social circles (like if you were the president of the US or a charismatic preacher) it might even still, to some extent. I guess if he had just been gay outright from the start and didn't have a wife and kids, things would have been less complicated...

message 20: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I don't think it would be a major media circus now, but that's because we have TV and aren't as desperate for trashy entertainment.

message 21: by Paquita Maria (last edited Feb 27, 2012 05:28PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paquita Maria Sanchez I'm sure there would still be Lifetime and CrimeTV specials about it,
though, with a random Baldwin or some former SBTB cast member as Wilde. Maybe he would've ended up on The Surreal Life or hosting a talk show on Oxygen. I don't know...I guess I feel that our cultural voyeurism and schadenfreude are the same as always, just more easily appeased these days. Remember that stupid Winona Ryder shoplifting thing? Something so uninteresting and minor, who cares? Wait, what, millions of people care?! Not that I pitied her like Wilde or find them otherwise comparable at all. I am babbling. Blub blub.

message 22: by knig (new)

knig Wilde is one of my favourite authors and personalities. I will 'come out' and say I cried over 'the happy prince', (it was a while ago, but still). My favourite anecdote about Wilde is when he travelled to America: at customs he was asked if he had anything to declare, to which he replied: 'I have nothing to declare but my genius'

message 23: by Traveller (last edited Feb 28, 2012 04:45AM) (new)

Traveller Knig-o-lass wrote: "Wilde is one of my favourite authors and personalities. I will 'come out' and say I cried over 'the happy prince', (it was a while ago, but still). My favourite anecdote about Wilde is when he trav..."

Haha, brilliant and so Wilde-ian. :D Yes, Happy Prince was one of the ones that made me cry, and IIRC, also The Rose and the Nightingale, and The Birtday of the Infanta, and The Selfish Giant was also a favorite.

message 24: by Traveller (last edited Feb 28, 2012 04:36AM) (new)

Traveller Paquita Maria wrote: "I'm sure there would still be Lifetime and CrimeTV specials about it,
though, with a random Baldwin or some former SBTB cast member as Wilde. Maybe he would've ended up on The Surreal Life or hosti..."

I like Winona. But then I don't know her.. *shrug*

Didn't some Beauty Queen also shoplift cosmetics or a magazine or something?

Actually, I myself once shoplifted a magazine, but it was purely accidentally and out of complete doziness/being on another planet. I walked out the store with the magazine still under my arm, and only realized it on the bus about 6 blocks later. :P Nobody noticed (including myself) and I didn't really even want the stupid thing. #_#

message 25: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Haha, my late granny once did the same thing, Traveller!

Paquita Maria Sanchez Knig-o-lass wrote: "My favourite anecdote about Wilde is when he travelled to America: at customs he was asked if he had anything to declare, to which he replied: 'I have nothing to declare but my genius'

You've no idea the smile that this comment put on my face.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Traveller, be careful about admitting guilt to crimes online! They could be watching...they could be waiting...

I like Edward Scissorhands, Heathers, Beetlejuice, and Black Swan. That's pretty much the extent of my opinion on the matter of Winona Ryder.

message 28: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell I read that memoir a couple of years ago, and it was completely harrowing.

Paquita Maria Sanchez We are in agreement. There is a Wilde quote in here which, though mostly just a clever little observation about art and culture, also seems like a fitting epitaph in a way: "Have you ever noticed how the sun detests thought? The sun always causes thought to withdraw itself and retreat into the shade. Thought dwelt in Egypt originally, but the sun conquered Egypt; then it lived for a long time in Greece, and the sun conquered Greece, then in Italy, and then in France. Nowadays all thought is driven back as far as Norway and Russia, places where the sun never goes. The sun is jealous of art."

I hope more people find themselves reading this.

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