Saturday, January 15, 2011

“The books of Oscar” by Thomas Wright

Toulouse Lautrec : La Danse mauresque, 1895, Toile, 285 x 307 cm
The man with the tophat, left of the woman in black, is believed to be Oscar Wilde

Thomas Wright’s “The books of Oscar”, is the ultimate LibraryThing fantasy.

Applying the adage " Tell me what you read and I tell you who you are" on Oscar Wilde, the most bookish guy there ever was, Wright succeeds in painting a surprisingly accurate and entertaining portrait of the XIXe century writer.

I was looking for a "lighter" introduction to Oscar Wilde before tackling Ellmann and Wilde’s oeuvre and this book was exactly what I needed.

Immediately after that awful court case that send Oscar Wilde to prison, his belongings including his superb library, were sold off to a frenzied crowd. The Library that took 30 years to complete was effectively destroyed in a single afternoon on the 24th April 1895. Thomas Wright sets himself the task to reconstitute the library. Not only the titles, but also searching the exact editions Wilde owned. Wright tries something altogether new:

" the back of my mind, the idea of writing a book about Oscar Wilde the reader slowly took shape. It would be an entirely new kind of literary biography - an attempt to tell the story of an author's life and to illuminate it exclusively through the books that he had read."

The library of Oscar Wilde turns out to be an accurate mirror of his life, for books were everything to him. Not only was Oscar reading one book after another, (even speed-reading), which he then reviewed and annotated, but he also collected splendid editions, fondled them, designed their covers. He sniffed the pages, spoke like a book, offered and received tomes, dedicated books, even destroyed them, breaking their spines or eating the corners of the pages.

In the book, we follow his reading and the build –up of his impressive collection. Starting with the Irish folktales, his mother and father read to him as a child, and later switching to the Classics, which he, as a precocious and awesomely intelligent student, studied and learned by heart. Following that, there are the readings of his brilliant time at Trinity College and Oxford. Then comes, while he lived in London, his discovery of Flaubert and the French decadents, His love-hate relationship with the contemporary British writers and poets. Oscar becomes the tongue in cheek poseur shocking the Victorian bourgeois, fascinating and baffling to the non-conformist.  We are introduced to the forbidden books that announced his downfall and the meagre choices of the prison libraries. The books his friends were able to pass to him to save his sanity and finally the books like Flaubert’s Temptation, which consoled him in his last years.

The scenes in prison, where he ruins his eyes by reading in the dim light or his breaking down when a friend smuggles him a book are heart wrenching, as is the story of Wilde himself, barely believable today, of how his life was so utterly destroyed because he was different and because in the end he messed with the wrong bully.

I loved it. Highly recommended!