Friday, December 05, 2008

Review: Oscar’s Books by Thomas Wright

Oscar's Books

Thomas Wright

Published by Chatto & Windus

Review by Giuseppe Albano


Oscar’s Books refashions Wilde’s life through the literature which engaged him, to varying degrees of intensity, from boyhood and student-dom, through his years of success and disgrace, imprisonment and illness, and even beyond the grave. Books, for Wilde, were intellectual worlds to be broken down and appropriated into his own writing and dinner-party banter, but his most prized tomes also served as visually aesthetic objects, things to be seen and photographed with and to embellish his ‘House Beautiful’, even if the evidence shows that he’d often recklessly slash open, scrawl over, and tear out their pages.

Wright’s thesis – that literature didn’t just inspire Wilde; it made him – is explored in various ways, but wades into risky waters when extended to the influence of Plato on Wilde’s sexuality: ‘Could it be then that a dead philosopher stimulated, or perhaps even engendered, Wilde’s latent attraction to other men?’ It’s an interesting enough question in a queer studies sort of way, but applying a neat theoretical shortcut to understanding something which cannot (and need not) be explained away here seems silly and unconvincing. Where cultural constructionism fails to deliver answers Wright takes a stab at psychoanalysis, calling the kites doodled on Wilde’s Trinity textbooks ‘symbols of the lightness and sensitivity of a mind which soared on the currents of its reading’. Lest anyone should suspect Chatto & Windus to be offering funny mushrooms as perks of their publishing deals, Wright swiftly concedes that ‘they also testify to the fact that even the most dedicated of classicists was sometimes known to nod’, thereby restoring Sound Judgement and Good Humour. Phew!

The author’s passion occasionally slides into bizarre fetishism, not least when imagining every practical and decorative detail of Wilde’s working library. Appropriately enough given the subject, these guesses can lead to paradox. Wright surmises of his hero that ‘If he shared the typical Victorian gentleman’s horror of having his books handled by servants, he would have tidied them up himself at the end of each working day’. Apart from Wilde’s likely horror at being cast alongside ‘the typical Victorian gentleman’, surely, given his visionary wish in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ that workers be freed from the shackles of their class and allowed to explore literature, he’d have been less possessive with the very instruments of revolutionary change? This book won’t change the minds of those who think that Wilde was a bit of a lipstick socialist.

Sometimes Wright’s guesswork and inability to resist a pretty cliché conspire to muddle his argument. On the auctioning off of Wilde’s collection after his trials, Wright deems it ‘highly unlikely that [his friends] were able to out bid the dealers’, which would be fine if he hadn’t revealed just three paragraphs earlier that ‘The volumes were sold for a song’. (Maybe the dealers were in fine singing voice.) And while much meticulous research has obviously gone into this study, it leaves a curious question unanswered and, indeed, unraised; namely Wilde’s relationship with French boulevard drama, whose plots, as Ignacio Ramos Gay has recently argued, he quarried for his comedies.

But – and it’s a Big But – the enthusiasm with which Wright presents his subject is an often wonderful thing. This book was born of a love which grew to an obsession and is utterly gripping throughout, if you can forgive its stylistic tics and occasional methodical pickles. It also provides fascinating insights into what sort of writer Wilde was and, given his post-prison forays into popular English fiction, a genre he’d previously scorned, what sort of writer this self-confessed plagiarist might have become had he lived longer.


Giuseppe Albano has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University and is a former fellow of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He lives in Edinburgh and works at Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Midlothian.

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