“We spend our days looking for the secret of Life. Well, the secret of Life is Art!”
“My first idea was to print only three copies: one for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I had some doubts about the British Museum.”
On his poem, “The Sphinx”
“I can live for ten francs a day (boys compris)…”
Letter to publisher, Leonard Smithers, on “Italy”
The betwixt Irish polymath and aesthete Oscar Wilde might have entered my story in Paris: he died there in 1900. “Either the wallpaper goes or I do.”* Or at Père-Lachaise, where Jacob Epstein’s 1912 monument to Wilde may have improved my mood, though I doubt it; or even with Victor Hugo who is said to have slept through his audience with the young career-making Wilde sometime in the 1880s.
He could have entered with Shakespeare – whenever The Man decides to impose himself on this journey fully, it will be Venice or Verona, I guess – as Wilde’s “The Portrait of W.H.” is an interesting addition to the canon of literature about who Shakespeare was, and exactly who he loved. I might have written (though do today) about Wilde last week, with the street theatre ballet performance of Salome, the subject of his own controversial play: in French so as not to épat too many of the London bourgoise. (Edgar Saltus said the last line of Salome made him shudder. “It is only the shudder that counts,” Wilde replied). His “Duchess of Padua,” though not a great piece of theatre could have been the peg when I reach the town, soon enough. Or it might have been Wilde’s youthful fluency in Greek; his love of Virgil, the man of Mantua. There are his European years with “Bosie” or without, after imprisonment in Reading jail and all those “profound” poems. There is Wilde’s confusing relationship to Romanticism, a topic which will feature heavily in the German part of this journey. Frankly Wilde is such a European sensibility, and perhaps even more pertinently, his image has been so consistently remade over time, an excuse could be found almost anywhere.
But instead I will admit simply that Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is the first novel I have read on my journey; and the pleasing coincidence (or not) that one of its major characters, Sir Henry Wotton (a Wildean self-portrait, surely?), shares his name with the famous spy, politician and diplomat that ran the English embassy in Venice during the time of Tom Coryat’s visit, and saved our man from a beating after a robust exchange of opinions about religion. We’ll get to that in Venice.
On pausa, reflecting a little on what has come before, and the “wiki” of allusions and influences that have been thrown up as I am crossing Italy, I find myself this afternoon wanting to exorcise Tom for a few hours, and not by reading the Guardian online or in expensive overseas edition sans sports results. The solution? Wilde.
The Italian publishing house “Giunti” has offices in Milan and Florence; its scope is broad and in Italian, naturally, but in its “Classics” series, it offers a range of out of copyright fiction in English. The small list includes Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Defoe, Hawthorne, Henry James, Lawrence, Melville, Shakespeare, Swift, Thackeray (his classic of the 100 Years War, Barry Lyndon, not the Rabelaisian Vanity Fair), Wharton, Twain, Lewis Carroli, Conan-Doyle (?) and…The Picture of Dorian Gray, at seven Euros. Dorian Gray is free online, of course, but today I want to read on paper, not a screen.
On the first floor of a well-stocked modern bookshop here, where “Breakfast on Pluto”, Ali Smith, Hanif Kureshi and a host of other modern writers in English are available in Italian, I can’t help but ponder the imbalance. I remember having the same feelings the first time I went to Bucharest, capital of Romania. In a fine bookshop close to the university I found a broad range of translated modern fiction: from Ian McEwan upwards. The question is always the same: why do the English speaking countries translate so much less “other” literature? I always assume it is just that I haven’t found the contemporary Italian, French, German or Dutch classics because I don’t want to: but I look hard enough. In Nevers or Lodi, Montreuil and Mantua I have found numerous translated modern English fictions. Is this about the irresistible rise of “English” as the world’s language, or about the resistible decline in “our” interest in “foreign” literary cultures? I will have to wait for the statistics, which must exist somewhere online.
Anyway: a café (though not the “de Paix”), some Camparis and Canapés; and Dorian Gray.
I have forgotten what a graciously modern novel Dorian Gray is; how it appears utterly contemporary at times, and at others the perfect gothic novel his great uncle, Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, never wrote; or the manifesto of a (particularly articulate) contemporary artist schooled in the finest marketing and PR techniques and guerrilla campaigns. A picture of David Bowie or Damien Hurst, indeed. “I am afraid it is rather like my own life – all conversation and no action…”
With such an elegant and aphoristic writer it is easy to forget the broad range of knowledge that Wilde possesses in so many fields. Richard Ellmann writes this of Wilde’s preparation for his version of Salome: [his] “knowledge of the iconography was immense. He complained that Ruben’s Salome appeared to him to be an “apoplectic Maritornes.’ On the other hand Leonardo’s Salome was excessively incorporeal. Others, by Durer, Ghirlandaio, van Thulden, were unsatisfactory because incomplete. The celebrated Salome of Regnault he considered to be mere ‘gypsy’. Only Moreau satisfied him, and to liked to quote Huysmans’s description of the Moreau paintings [in Paris]. He was eager to visit the Prado to see how Stanzioni had painted her, and Titian, about whom he quoted Tintoretto’s comment, ‘This man paints with quivering flesh.’”
There were many other influences before Salome was written: not least the idea of Sarah Bernhardt dancing naked on stage in Paris. Watching the three Italian ballerinas perform Salome here last week little of the quivering passion or edge remained, only the surface – which, I suppose Wilde might have liked, but probably not. (The veil sequence was done as a shiny video “thong” advertisement, like an MTV slot, much to the sorrow of the teenage boys with telephoto lenses in the row in front of me expecting live action; and of little interest to the Polish producer of Woman v.2, who sat with the two remaining members of his troop: the rest, he told me, had gone home to Poland. They were, it is perhaps worth noting, the two naked female actors of the previous night: they’d been to Venice for the day, “for the first, but not for the last time”, says, Woman v.2 (ii).
If we take four of the protagonists in Dorian Gray: the author, Oscar; ever-youthful, murderous Dorian; the worldly, plagiaristic Henry Wotton; and the murderee-painter of the deadly portrait, Basil, then The West is in its face-lifting, breast-enhancing “Dorian” phase; the cultural success stories in the download charts, at the Biennales and the multiplexes are in their “Oscar” moment. I’m feeling rather “Sir Henry” and I am wondering is there some new Italian or German Wilde still un-translated into English? Some universalizing “betwixt” artist who is still without the right PR mentor and Frankfurt Bookfair rights deal? Or is she in “circuit-bending” or the oracle of “Second Life” these days? Or worse still: killed, like Basil Hallward, by a careless and indifferent youth-obsessed audience?
Dorian Gray is full of fragments: beyond the perfect Faustian story, the gay sub-text, the historical allusions and the meditations on beauty there is some fabulous, and deceptively simple, prose. Wilde’s genius resides partly in this effortless-ness, not dissimilar to the prose of Bruce Chatwin. Both shared not just homosexual-leaning bisexuality, but a brutal work ethic to go with narrational genius. And there’s Oscar’s wit of course:
I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.
Always! That is a dreadful word.
People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial…but at least it is not so superficial as Thought is.
We are punished for our refusals.
People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.
Courage has gone out of the race. Perhaps we never really had it.
[Poets] Know how useful passion is for publication.
Days in summer are apt to linger.
When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.
The only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact
Most of all, though, in this re-reading (Dorian is one of those texts to be re-read throughout life, a sort of marker on where one is – like Gatsby or Lear, The Big Sleep and Moonraker) is the certainty that Wilde is the Prince Regent of Betwixtness: rooted and nomadic; learned and light; a unique explorer in space and thought – and deed. In reading him – unlike that other great Irish nomad, Joyce – comes the sense of a mind living not for his grandest of tours, nor for his roughest of rent boys or the loudest of curtain calls, but for the foundation myths of art and creation itself.
As I think again about the frescos of the Palazzo Te here in Mantua, whose authors names I have already forgotten, though not their images, Oscar’s Preface offers the perfect closure: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” he writes. Perhaps this is why I like the frescos so much.
“As he looked back upon man moving through History, he was haunted by a feeling of loss. So much had been surrendered! and to such little purpose.”
Towards the end of his life Wilde often joked that the British public wouldn’t let him live in the twentieth century; I am glad this most twentieth century of artists didn’t see the Somme – or hear that Hitler burnt Heine’s poetry. He can remain forever in-between the aesthetic and the “modern”, the Classic Betwixt Man. The bridge between Baudelaire and David Bowie, as it were.
*Actually, at the Hotel D’Alsace, the quote being: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”