Book Reports: Oscar Wilde and Velvet Goldmine

Published July 22, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Several reports at once here.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde that I’ve got on Goodreads, so here’s the closest cover I could find.

The one I have is a Barnes & Noble edition from 1994, long before they were doing the leatherbound thing.  (Which I found at a local used store.)  It’s got this photo on the cover, but a bit smaller, and tinted slightly blue.  And despite that it calls itself “Complete” it isn’t really complete.  The things most people want to read are all there — Dorian Gray, the plays, and the short stories — and there’s a lot of poetry, though I haven’t bothered to look up if it’s all the poetry.  (And it claims to have an introduction by George Bernard Shaw, but what it actually has is a letter from him to an early Wilde biographer recounting his own memories of Oscar Wilde.  Which is far from being an introduction in any standard sense.  It was interesting stuff (and in one place wonderfully useful to me) but not an introduction.)  But there are only a handful of letters and essays.  Which, for most people, is probably not much loss, because most people are likely to only want the fiction, whether in prose or play form.

And no, I haven’t read the entire thing cover to cover.  It’s about 1200 pages, so that’s a lot of reading.  But I have some reports on the individual pieces I have read.  (And I plan to read more of the pieces later.)

De Profundis:  This is the 50k word letter Oscar Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas in the final months of his incarceration.  (Normally, people describe Douglas as his boyfriend, but I think that term is an oversimplification, and brings in too many modern perceptions and expectations.)  In the course of De Profundis, Wilde veers back and forth between reproach, advice, praising the Christian faith (yes, he found religion while in prison), self-loathing and self-pity.  It’s a fascinating (if somewhat voyeuristic) read, giving you a deep look into his mind as it was in 1897.  There’s also a lot frustrating about it, though, because he alludes to incidents and people that the reader doesn’t know anything about, and in some cases has no way of learning about.  (In other cases, I’m sure I could find out about them, if I did a little research.)  Despite it being one of the last things in the book, as well as being chronologically one of the last, I read this one first, because I was looking for quotes to use in my July CampNaNo project.  (Nothing like a pure reason to read something…)

“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”:  This is a short story published in a magazine in 1889.  It was stuck in the “Essays” section, so I might not have read it, if I hadn’t noticed it in the timeline, as it was released the year before The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wondered if there was any connection between them.  (There wasn’t.)  In essence, it’s a speculative essay on the sonnets of Shakespeare, but in fiction format.  One of the characters came up with a theory according to which Shakespeare’s sonnets all told an autobiographical story of his love for a boy actor named Willie Hughes, and those specifically addressing a woman are addressing a temptress who tried to come between them.  If I knew Shakespeare’s sonnets, I’m sure I’d have more to say about this, but I only one one or two, and not by number.  Viewed through a logical lens, the theory is rather ridiculous, but it’s argued fairly convincingly within the story.  (I suspect the story behind the story is that Wilde came up with this theory, knew it was an impossible explanation, but still wanted to share it with the world, and thus invented fictional characters who could espouse it for him with no consequences to his own reputation…though I imagine this one came back to bite him when he was on trial…)

And now, finally, we get to

my Read Harder Challenge #9 “Read a book you’ve read before.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray:  It’s hard to know what to say about a book like this.  Everyone knows the premise, so there’s no point in repeating it.  I think those who haven’t read it before would be surprised at just how long it takes for the premise to go into strong effect, and how much the title character doesn’t do to take advantage of his condition.  (I mean, compared to what a modern writer might do with the premise…or, for that matter, what modern writers have occasionally done with Dorian Gray himself…)  My personal observation from this re-reading (third time reading it) is that I’d forgotten just how epigrammatic the text often is.  Which could be good or bad depending on how you like your prose.  (Since I was still looking for good quotes to use, it enhanced the experience considerably this time around.)  I do often wonder what the original version was like; following the novel’s original magazine serialization, Wilde went back and removed a number of passages which were deemed too suggestive of the homoerotic, and added in a lot of new material.  It would be interesting to find out what the removed material was, and which parts were newly added for the collected edition.  (I’m sure that information is on the Internet somewhere, but I don’t really have time to go looking for it right now.)

And, moving (slightly) away from Oscar Wilde, we have

 the published screenplay for Velvet Goldmine.  Because I am obsessed.  (Yes, I admit it.)  Probably not much of a read for those who’ve never seen the movie, but I found it illuminating in a number of ways.  All the scenes have years tacked on the end, and ages are specified for two of the primary characters whose precise ages we never learn in the film itself.  (Both are older than I thought from watching the movie.)  The level of scripting detail in minor dialog is impressive:  for example, in one early scene, a teenage main character goes into a shop to buy a record, and while he’s picking it out, his brother and some friends are chattering in the background, and we can’t really hear what they’re saying at all, but it’s all scripted for them, rather than the actors having ad-libbed something vaguely appropriate.  There aren’t many deleted scenes in the script, but there are places where the finished dialog is different from what made it onto the screen, and the blocking for the sex scene is wildly different (okay, yes, that is perhaps irrelevant), and one major sequence (which included the sex scene) was shifted in its position in the film, which changes one character’s motivation for making a phone call dramatically.  (Which does not sound significant to those who haven’t seen the movie, but those who have will recognize its significance.)  The introduction by writer/director Todd Haynes was extremely interesting, but (as is usually the case with this sort of thing) only scratched the surface of what I’d have liked to know.  But I felt gratified that Citizen Kane was specifically mentioned, reassuring me that I’m not crazy.

One thing about reading these in conjunction with each other is that going through all that Oscar Wilde material really makes me aware of how often the characters in Velvet Goldmine were quoting him.  (Short version:  a lot.)  That, of course, is why I wanted to put in the same post as the Oscar Wilde material.


I’ve reached a point in the Read Harder 2017 Challenge where I need to sit down and figure out exactly what books I want to read for the remaining challenges, because I’ve gotten several books read that could apply to several, and I need to decide which go where.  Also, the book I’m currently reading (which I actually started while still reading Dorian Gray because I needed to be able to take it with me and a small paperback was so much more convenient than a massive hardbound tome) seemed like it would fit the “banned or frequently challenged” challenge, only as I’m reading it I can’t imagine why it was on a list as being frequently challenged, plus that list was for, like, the 1990s, so it’s sort of out of date, and if it’s merely challenged, doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of reading a banned book?  But depending on where I put other books I’ve read, I might be able to use it for a different challenge.

Also, I would like someone to explain to me why I finished 99% of this post and then let it sit for three days.  That makes completely no sense.

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