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Showing posts with label Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray. Show all posts

Thursday 18 November 2021

Review: E M Forster, Maurice


I hadn’t read this before; it was a disappointment. Its history is fairly well-known: written fairly impulsively in 1913-1914 as a novel which the author knew could not be published, it did not appear until 1971, shortly after the author’s death. It could have been published before then but the elderly author (quite reasonably) did not want the hassle it would create - not so much legal, since there is little in the book which even the most vicious lawyer in the Mervyn-Griffiths-Jones  mould could seize upon, as personal - Forster was Establishment at the highest level: Fellow of King's, Order of Merit, Companion of Honour. The novel can  be summarised as a gay male coming out story with more than a suggestion of a happy-ever-after ending.

In terms of structure and style it is unremarkable, a chronological story told more or less in plain prose.  The author’s effort was presumably focussed on the challenging because fairly novel task of actually writing about male homosexual love and/or sex. He has two shots at it: Maurice’s anguished first affair with fellow Cambridge student Clive is framed by the Platonic ideal of the Phaedo: they do sort of have sex, but not much, and it’s not the important thing. Maurice’s second post-Cambridge affair is thrust upon him by an importunate gamekeeper, Alec, interested in physical sex as the gateway to whatever else might be possible between two men. Maurice decides - very rapidly - that a bit of rough is what he has always needed and throws up his conventional life to embrace a chance which won’t repeat itself; Alec also throws up a life. It’s Bernardine Evaristo stuff, if you will excuse the anachronism.

Over a hundred years on from its composition, this either-or framing in terms of Platonic soul and decidedly non-platonic body can only seem rather dated or, at least, limited. As a result, I guess that for most readers, the novel will present itself as a period piece which reminds us of how anguishing it was to be young and gay - and middle-class -  in early twentieth century England..

Monday 16 August 2021

Review: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Reading a novel, you usually assume a stable text. But - consulting the notes to this edition in the course of reading - it became clear that this is not a stable text. For first 1890 magazine publication in the USA, Oscar Wilde submitted a typescript which was then edited in house. Some simple improvements were probably made but, more importantly, passages which were  overtly homoerotic were toned down, made more bland and generic. When Wilde expanded the American text for  1891 British publication as a novel, he also drew back from some of his original commitments as well as adding new themes to make the novel, let’s say, more “balanced”.

So it’s unclear now whether Wilde put his name to what he had really wanted to write and to what extent he was taking pre-emptive action against the cancel culture of his time, a culture which would not only have disallowed an overtly homoerotic story, even one couched as a morality tale as this one is, but would also exclude the author from polite society. And Wilde - married man with two children -  had one very big foot in polite society even if by 1890 (when this work was first published) he had the other foot in London’s  gay demimonde. Despite its enduring fame, the text of Dorian Gray is a compromise formation which could be read as a reflection of Wilde's compromised position.  So I ask, was there a different Dorian Gray that he would really  liked to have written?

The novel is built around an effective Gothic conceit - a portrait of Dorian Gray which spontaneously changes appearance to track the degeneration of its sitter - and it has some characteristic Wildean dialogue which hovers nicely between the frivolous and the profound. It’s a bit uneven and at one point I winced. For the second version, Wilde added a revenge narrative in which the sailor James Vane seeks to avenge his sister Sybil who committed suicide after being cruelly discarded by her Prince Charming, Dorian. By page 198 of chapter XVIII, the reader knows for sure, though without a name being given, that James Vane has been unsuccessful in his attempt. This does not stop Wilde right at the end of the chapter (page 199) labouring the obvious with a flat sentence which reads “The man who had been shot in the thicket was James Vane” which falls, redundant and very flat. 

Wilde could probably have written and published the novel he really wanted to write by a quite simple subterfuge. He could have written in English, employed a translator, and published in French - under his own name or a pseudonym. This thought occurs to me having just read (in the TLS, 13 August 2021) a review of two autobiographical novels, translated into English from the French of Liane de Pougy (1869 - 1950). De Pougy is always called a “courtesan” and, more familiarly, one of les grandes horizontales, both euphemisms for what we would now call a high-end sex worker. Clients on her books included Queen Victoria’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales, later Edward Seventh. Pougy appears to have felt free and been free, to write as she pleased with explicit sexual detail - and get published around the time Wilde was writing.

By the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov did not even have to translate into French to get his Lolita published in Paris. The USA and the UK have always been bastions of  prudery, and still are. As a result, Dorian Gray is a prudish book.