Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oscar Wilde: Inspirations Along the Way #1

The whole time I was writing Destination Saigon I had on the wall in front of me some photographs that inspired me to continue writing. I thought I'd like to blog about each of these, and explain a little about why they were so important to me, and how they kept me going.
The first photograph was of Oscar Wilde, probably my greatest literary hero.
Now, the odd thing is that much of Wilde's writing is not particularly readable in the 21st Century. The fairy tales are charming, some of the plays are moderately amusing (Salome an absolute scream), and The Picture of Dorian Gray stands now as a florid piece of campery (though I took its preface to heart when I was a teenager, and read it almost every day in my last year of high school). Really the only thing of his that I find myself intrigued and touched by these days is his long, bitter letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis. I think it's one of the most extraordinary documents in the history of literature, something still quite unique.
I can't say when I learned about Oscar Wilde, but by the time I was 13 I was well aware that he had been perhaps the world's most famous homosexual, and I became determined to learn all I could about him. My local small-town library had a reasonable selection of books by and about Wilde, so by the time I was 15 I had made my way through the standard Collected Works, his collected letters, a couple of ancient biographies and the account of his trial published in the Penguin Famous Trials series. I had already become something of a Wilde expert.
In year 10 I won a couple of prizes at school, and we were given a voucher to buy a book, which we had to give back to school for them to engrave and present at the end-of-year award ceremony. Buying books was not easy in the tiny North Queensland town I lived in, but by some miracle the local newsagent had a hardcover copy of Wilde's Collected Works, and somehow this passed through the school's rigorous vetting procedure for appropriate books.
When I left school Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde was released, and this quickly became one of my favourite books. It still is, and I tend to re-read every couple of years. It was through Ellmann's careful tutelage that I broadened my knowledge, and coloured my whole life in the kind of purple aestheticism of the 1890s. I began to read Pater and Ruskin, Huysmans and Cavafy, and admire the art of Whistler and Beardsley. I also read Vyvyan Holland's exquisitely beautiful memoir Son of Oscar Wilde, and still think it a minor masterpiece.
In the early 1990s there was quite an industry around the history of the 1890s, and dozens of books were produced dealing with Wilde and people associated with him. That seems to have slowed down somewhat, but I still have two bookshelves devoted entirely to Wildeana.
Ultimately I think it is Wilde's life that inspires me - I am moved more by the person Wilde than the author Wilde. That is no longer a very fashionable position, but there you have it. I think he would have approved - I am in love with Wilde the poseur, and the wildly glamorous, decadent and ultimately tragic world he helped create.

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