Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Report!

(Goal 61 - Read all the books on my reading list)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

Random Fact:Wilde was so extremely disliked at Magdalen College, Oxford that his fellow students dunked him in the river and trashed his room.

One word review: Lordy.

Okay, I'll elaborate. First I'll back up: when I was making up a reading list I consulted various "must-read" lists floating around the internets--the ones that claim in order to be considered well-read or educated, you have to have read the following, blah blah blah. Dorian Gray was on at least one of them, and I thought it would be entertaining, since Oscar Wilde usually is.

I whiled away the long idle stretches of rehearsal last week (at the recent Bard Festival) with this carbuncle of a novel. A fellow "literati" had warned me, when I told him that Dorian Gray was next on my list, that it was a bit "ugh," and sure enough it is. This exercise in decadence is beautifully and overly wrought, and the story is extremely unpleasant if fascinating.

The plot is well-known, but I'll excerpt the Wikipedia summary here:

The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward...Realising that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form.

So, you gotta know this isn't going to end well.

Wilde's prose is very, very purple, ornate and exotic. Not that it isn't beautiful. Every now and then he throws in a witticism; the most famous one in this book is uttered by the impossibly effete Lord Henry: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Dorian late in the story calls Lord Henry "Prince Paradox." I'm not sure whether that was because he considered Henry personally paradoxical, or because of Henry's penchant for uttering paradoxes and passing them off as witticisms (unless we should really credit Wilde with that). That first one isn't bad, but they become annoying as the story slithers on. (Lord Henry's witticism formula: "[noun] is [superlative] except for when it isn't.")

To give Wilde all the points he deserves, his anti-hero's long spiral down into debauchery and cruelty seems to point up the limitations of the aesthetic philosophy that Wilde held, or professed to hold, so dear. Or maybe it illustrates, or he hopes it does, that if you make something really beautiful it doesn't matter if the subject is depraved. I guess the question is how beautiful it really is.

I will now, absent Oscar Wilde, go dunk this book in the river.

Second Random Fact: the cover image for this edition (Barnes & Noble Classics) shows a portrait of the composer Franz Liszt by Henri Lehmann. (Coincidentally we just "did" Liszt at the Bard Festival a couple of years ago.)


solarity said...

(Liszt? Really? Who can fathom the minds of publishers....)
Oddly enough I re-read Dorian Grey late last year for the first time since I was eleven or twelve. At that age I loved purple prose more than I do now (although I still do), and was more patient with fools on the printed page (although not in real life) than I am now. Even so, I enjoyed the re-read.

Mary Anne in Kentucky

Sbanfnyc said...

Well. I guess I'll take that off my list then. I don't suffer fools gladly in person and would arbor them in print.

I always thought Oscar Wilde was a little off. I don't need the aggravation.

I know I could be better read, but I want uplifting in my life.

Any other uplifting suggestions? I am now reading the "The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond. Interesting biological evolution but old data from the 80's. Still he makes a great point about where we have been and where we might be going.

I am wondering what the updated version would conclude.

Crabby McSlacker said...

The sad thing is that all the classics I did read have long faded from my mind. Which could be good, in that I could enjoy them again! But it's bad in that I feel like I've lost "credit" for having read them, and most likely lost any civilizing influence they had on me.

Good for you for getting back into them!