Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Oscar Wilde is of course one of the great epigrammatists so found myself scrambling to save some as they swam by: "One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing ... Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner ... It is only shallow people who require years to get rid of an emotion." There are many more. It surprises me a little that this is the only novel he produced—it's so good, above and beyond his language, which was witty no matter what he wrote about. One could quibble that Dorian Gray is more of a fantastic tale, inflated to the size of a novel. Perhaps. I actually wish there were more about the bad behavior of our hero and object lesson Dorian Gray—the specifics. Obviously he had an illustrious depraved career. We might have been shown, for example, whatever it is Gray had on the chemist Alan Campbell that enabled him to blackmail Campbell into doing something so abhorrent and contrary to Campbell's character. More on the women Gray ruins too. It's still a fine first novel. The arc of Wilde's career seemed to be toward the theater—his plays are still produced today—but it's always tempting to speculate what might have been, particularly as he died at 46. I like the fantastic element to this story, and I like the way it remains unexplained. It proceeds in many ways like an unusually chattering Henry James, but the macabre and dark forces go well beyond anything James imagined in The Turn of the Screw or elsewhere. This is closer to Poe—to "The Cask of Amontillado," where everything is all convivial and easygoing good fun ... until someone has to go too far. In Dorian Gray that is largely Dorian Gray, and when Wilde pulls back the curtain even a little on the evil in which Gray traffics—as how forcefully he makes Campbell cooperate—it can be a little alarming. My gnawing question: What did he do? Yes, I know, there's a whole school of argument that the details of such things are best left to the imagination. Fair enough. I've imagined plenty now. One more nice point: a good nervy scene that takes place here in an opium den somewhere in London near the river. Mostly this is just a blast to read.

In case it's not at the library.

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