Thursday, October 17, 2019

Quote of the Day (Andre Gide, on How Oscar Wilde’s Work Never Matched His Table Talk)

“The best of [Oscar Wilde’s] writing is but a pale reflection of his brilliant conversation. Those who have heard him talk find his writings a disappointment. Dorian Gray was originally an admirable story, much superior to La Peau de Chagrin! Far more significant! Written, alas, it is a masterpiece that falls short. His most charming tales are too literary; despite their grace you are too much aware of affectation; preciosity and euphuism cover the beauty of the first inspiration…and when, later, Wilde works over his sentences, strives for his effects, it is by a prodigious overlay of conceits, of petty inventions, amusing and bizarre, in which emotion is brought up short, so that the surface shimmer conceals from mind and eye the profound central emotion.”—Andre Gide (1869-1951), on friend Oscar Wilde, “In Memoriam: Oscar Wilde,” translated by Jeffrey J. Carre, in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, edited by Justin O’Brien (1959)

One hundred sixty-five years ago this week, Oscar Wilde—who attracted international attention for his flamboyance and wit even before he wrote anything substantial, finally conquered the London theater scene, only to see it vanish after a scandalous trial—was born in Dublin.

I have posted several times on the Anglo-Irish man of letters, including this one from five years ago, on the 160th anniversary of his birth. Yet the nature of his character and achievement is such that I felt more could be said about him.

Much of this was brought to mind for me when I came across Andre Gide’s poignant tribute to his deceased friend Wilde. The French Nobel Prize-winning novelist and diarist recalled meeting the playwright in 1891 at a dinner for four, where the other guests took a backseat as the older writer spoke without ceasing:

“Wilde did not converse; he narrated. Throughout almost the whole of the meal he did not stop narrating. He narrated gently, slowly; his very voice was wonderful.”

After his confinement for violating England’s anti-homosexuality legislation, Wilde, under the assumed name Sebastian Melmotte, moved to the continent, where he encountered Gide again. By this point, Wilde was a wreck of a man.

Several friends tried to mount a critical rescue mission after Wilde’s death in 1900, Gide observed:
“Unfortunately, their action was based on a misconception, for it must be admitted that Wilde is not a great writer. The leaden life preserver that was thrown out simply completed his ruin; his works, far from supporting him, seemed to sink with him. In vain a few hands stretched out. The waters of the world closed over him; it was the end.”

Nobody alive, of course, has ever heard Wilde in conversation, so it is impossible to determine the validity of Gide’s comparison of the playwright’s table talk with his work. In 18th century London, the same point might have been made about Samuel Johnson, judging from James Boswell’s biography.

But Gide accepted too readily Wilde’s lament, “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.” The value of a work can be determined at least partly by whether it continues to be read or performed.

By this measure, Wilde’s work in the last half-dozen years before his fall from grace—his dazzling comedies (especially The Importance of Being Earnest), Salome (the basis of  the Richard Strauss opera), The Picture of Dorian Gray, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”—assure him of a secure place in the literary canon—probably an even more certain place than that of Gide himself.

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