Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

November 19, 2010

You get much more than you pay for these stories as they are free from multiple sources for your e-reader. Oscar Wilde’s wit lightens these comically sinister tales. In the title story, for instance, we get such lines as:

Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality.

The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.

No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They went out of fashion years ago.

The story itself begins with a dinner party attended by Lord Arthur Savile. The hostess invites a fortune teller as entertainment.

“Oh, I see!” said the Duchess, feeling very much relieved; “he tells fortunes, I suppose?”

“And misfortunes, too,” answered Lady Windemere, “any amount of them. Next year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which.”

“But surely that is tempting Providence, Gladys.”

“My dear Duchess, surely Providence can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant to be warned.”

Lord Arthur Savile has his palm read and is told of something dreadful in his future. To tell more is to spoil the many delightful twists along the way, but I will say that this amusing story puts in play issues of rationality, fate, and, an Oscar favorite, the power of secrets. This is the longest of the five stories and, perhaps, the best.

“The Canterville Ghost” is a twist on ghost stories that plays off British stereotypes (good and bad) of Americans. “The Sphinx without a Secret” is a miniature piece examining the seductive power of secrets. And the saccharine “The Model Millionaire” manages to engage despite being so terribly predictable to a 21st century audience.

I found most enjoyable, however, the final story: “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” My enjoyment came not only from Wilde’s barbs and the story’s plot, but from the fact that it seems a clear progenitor of Nabokov’s Pale Fire which is, perhaps, my favorite novel.

Wilde’s story revolves around the theory that the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated was actually a boy actor named Willie Hughes who specialized in playing female actors. The theory is first brought into the circle of characters by Cyril Graham, a firm believer. His attempts to persuade his friend Erskine are initially futile due to a lack of historical evidence. The entire theory hangs on enigmatic lines in the Sonnets, such as puns on “will” and “hews”. When viewed in light of Cyril Graham’s theory:

“things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.”

The fun in this story is reminiscent of Pale Fire, if less involved and less of an artistic achievement. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” relies both on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an actual theory (that of Thomas Tyrwhitt) regarding the identity of the dedicatee of those Sonnets. Nabokov wrote his own 999 word poem and turned his protagonist’s textual interpretations into a complete novel. But Nabokov clearly owes a debt to this work, I think:

“…the surname was, according to him, hidden in the seventh line of the 20th Sonnet, where Mr. W.H. is described as

A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling

“In the original edition of the Sonnets “Hews” is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words “use” and “usury.” Of course, I was converted at once and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’s name from this list really corroborated the theory.”

The comedy of these characters taking this theory so seriously, and taking absence of evidence as definitive proof, is wonderful, as is the traipsing through the Sonnets themselves. The story is interesting and the underlying themes serious, dealing as they do with secrets and mysteries and homo-eroticism (Shakespeare and Willie Hughes), all themes with which Oscar Wilde seems obsessed.

I lack the time and depth of recollection to undergo any deep comparison of Pale Fire and this work; though I think the hall-of-mirrors effect that would result from using textual analysis to prove that these two artistic works are related would be amusing. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe, the comedy of textual analysis was sufficiently obvious in 1950s literary society that Nabokov did not need his inspiration from this work. However, the fact that a few minutes of searching provides no confirmation of my theory tends only, in my mind, to solidify the truth of my conjecture…..

Wilde is, to me, a treasure. I may even have to read some plays as I am running out of his prose. This and a growing appetite for poetry? The debaucheries of literature may overwhelm me yet. But as for whether you should indulge the pleasures of Wilde, I have nothing to say.

It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

May 4, 2010

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)


Intentions by Oscar Wilde

October 1, 2009

IntentionsIntentions is a groudbreaking work of criticism, in four parts, by the inimitable Oscar Wilde. I will begin by suggesting you seek this out and read it. The book is important; Oscar Wilde is a genius. Throughout each of the four parts, Wilde advocates for originality. For Wilde, all virtues are subservient to Art.

The first part, “The Decay of Lying”, consists of a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian that takes place in “the Libarary of a country house in Nottinghamshire.” The dialogue begins with Cyril walking into the library and encouraging Vivian to go outside:

Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.

VIVIAN: Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty…My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects….

CYRIL: Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.

VIVIAN: But Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects….If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative.

The temptation here is to continue quoting, if not from here, then another substantial quote when Vivian introduces his forthcoming article entitled “The Decay of Lying”. For instance, when Cyril suggests that politicians surely have kept up the habit of lying, Vivian replies:

I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!

Lawyers and journalists are rejected as adequate keepers of the torch of lying and Vivian moves on to make his point about lying in art. Cyril asks Vivian to read his article. Vivian obliges. The article is both uproariously funny, as I hope the above has suggested, and brilliantly insightful. It is not always easy to determine which views Oscar holds and which he is lampooning, but Vivian’s lines always contain barbs:

M. Zola…is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull.

Ah! Meredith! Who can define him?…As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate…..But whatever he is, he is not a realist. Or rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father.

The wit continues to sparkle throughout. Simply for the laughs, this is a worthwhile read. In addition, the essay acts as a valuable provacateur regarding the place and function of art. Vivian concludes:

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

The next section is a biography of a forger and murderer. Again, Wilde displays both humor and depth. Among other things, Wilde examines the intersections of criminality and art. On one side, he suggests that criminality may, itself, be a form of art. Taking another, more direct angle, he has his fictional biographer write:

The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.

Again, the inimitable quotes are thick throughout. The thoughts on art and literature are, to understate, edifying.

The third and fourth sections are a continuation of the brilliance.

In “The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing”, Wilde offers another dialogue, this time between Ernest and Gilbert, which also takes place in the library of a house, this time “in Piccadilly, overlooking the Green Park.” Oscar’s rhetorical blade is as sharp as ever. The quotables are ubiquitous and the ideas provoking. Throughout, there are hints that Gilbert is merely playing with the audience. This fits with the overall theme of the work.

The final section, “The Truth of Masks – A Note on Illusion”, ostensibly addresses the importance of dress in the production of Shakespearean works. Oscar argues that attention to costuming details is essential to properly staging Shakespeare’s plays. However, this piece continues to advance the ideas put forward in the other three works. The concluding lines fairly sum up the entire work:

Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realise Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.