Re­vis­it­ing the lives and times of a Wilde bunch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ed­mund White’s Our Young Man is a mod­ern take on Os­car Wilde’s The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray, mov­ing the story to New York in the 1980s-90s, with the back­drop of HIV and AIDS an ad­mon­i­tory coun­ter­point to the sex, drugs and shame­less deca­dence of that time.

Do­rian is re­cast as French-born Guy, and nat­u­rally enough for a man who al­legedly never grows old, he’s now a model whose face and fig­ure ap­pear on count­less run­ways and in glossy ed­i­to­ri­als.

In Wilde’s 1890 novel, Do­rian’s hid­den por­trait ages hideously, with all his sins fur­ther adding to his dis­fig­ure­ment, while he re­mains eter­nally young. But though the orig­i­nal has a su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ment to it, White does not ven­ture down that al­ley (although ref­er­ences to Wilde’s novel are sprin­kled through­out.)

There’s no good rea­son of­fered as to how Guy has cheated time’s winged char­iot, still ap­pear­ing fresh faced when he’s push­ing 40. Could it be that “he must be ar­moured against the as­saults of the av­er­age with wealth and beauty and connections”?

Cer­tainly Guy’s not averse to ex­ploit­ing sugar dad­dies who give him ex­pen­sive trin­kets, cars and even apart­ments in re­turn for sex­ual favours. But un­like the orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion, he’s not ma­li­cious, just self-ob­sessed and nar­cis­sis­tic. And af­ter all, he’s just sell­ing his body, not his soul.

His ad­mir­ers ap­pear grat­i­fied with the bar­gain: ac­cess to a good-look­ing “young man” in ex­change for mon­e­tary largesse. The re­la­tion­ship of preda­tor and prey goes both ways.

Guy fully lever­ages his beauty for plea­sure and com­mer­cial gain but he’s also vul­ner­a­ble in a way Wilde de­nied the amoral Do­rian: the de­mands of his ca­reer and his lovers take their toll, not so much on his con­science but on his time. The con­stant beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and keep­ing ahead of trends, and the jug­gling of the many side­kicks, pa­trons and hang­ers-on, keep him busy and weary. “He thought he was an ex­pen­sive race­horse whom all the peo­ple around him kept in­spect­ing ... not for his wellbeing but to pro­tect their in­vest­ment.”

In the 1890s Wilde could only hint at the ho­mo­sex­ual stir­rings of his beau­ti­ful man-child but White has no such hes­i­ta­tion. Our Young Man is ex­plicit in its de­pic­tions of gay cou­plings, with the pas­sion Guy arouses in his paramours played out in var­i­ous sce­nar­ios from S& M set pieces to long­stand­ing de­vo­tion.

Through his many works (fic­tion, non­fic­tion and mem­oir) White has ex­plored same-sex love; mod­ernising Wilde’s book is an­other canny vari­a­tion on the theme. New­com­ers to his work may be shocked at his brazen­ness.

White has never shied from re­veal­ing his own promis­cu­ity; there’s no coy­ness in his book ei­ther. With writ­ing that’s arch, sala­cious and provoca­tive, he keeps the ac­tion mov­ing briskly. Though never quite los­ing sight of Guy, he is sup­ported by a large cast that in­cludes longterm lover An­dres, an en­thu­si­as­tic but poor Colom­bian art stu­dent who faces jail due to a mis­guided de­sire to keep up with his mon­eyed part­ner; a re­place­ment toy boy named Kevin; agent Pierre-Ge­orges, who is a bit like Do­rian’s men­tor, the droll and he­do­nis­tic Lord Henry Wot­ton; and var­i­ous ve­nal and sad older men.

This novel is fu­elled by a rest­less en­ergy. Guy swings free fall in a pro­tracted state of youth. Be­cause he never seems to age phys­i­cally he doesn’t need to ac­cept the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with grow­ing up. And yet to­wards the end there’s a splin­ter of hope.

Wilde’s lat­est bi­og­ra­pher, Emer O’Sul­li­van, sounds as though she is think­ing of Guy when she writes, in her char­ac­ter as­sess­ment of Do­rian Gray, “Depth is what Do­rian lacks. He is a char­ac­ter for the new age of cin­ema, of celebrity, of glam­our.” It’s a com­ment that nes­tles deep within her book The Fall of the House of Wilde: Os­car Wilde and His Fam­ily.

O’Sul­li­van po­si­tions Wilde within the bo­som of an in­flu­en­tial and highly re­spected An­glo-Ir­ish fam­ily in the Vic­to­rian era. His house at 1 Mer­rion Square is one of Dublin’s best ad­dresses.

That there have been quite a num­ber of Wilde bi­ogra­phies doesn’t faze O’Sul­li­van. She writes in a pref­ace: “Bi­ogra­phies of Os­car

Wilde typ­i­cally treat him in iso­la­tion. He is seen as an out-size per­son­al­ity and ev­ery­thing tends to be re­duced to per­sonal terms. Os­car was the son of two im­mense per­son­al­i­ties who were at the cen­tre of Ir­ish so­ci­ety.”

As Os­car him­self would say “an artist is not an iso­lated fact, he is the re­sul­tant of a cer­tain mi­lieu and a cer­tain en­tourage”.

Wilde’s par­ents, Jane and Wil­liam Wilde, were in­tel­lec­tual pow­er­houses, so­cially and po­lit­i­cally ac­tive and ex­em­plary role mod­els to their chil­dren (Os­car and his brother Wil­lie were home ed­u­cated un­til age 10 or so). Their mar­riage was not propped up by the pa­tri­ar­chal struc­tures of its time but ex­isted on eq­ui­table terms; their par­ent­ing style was more free and en­gaged than au­thor­i­ta­tive.

O’Sul­li­van de­scribes the at­mos­phere in the Wildean house as con­vivial, “lib­eral, lively and un­but­toned in a way many Vic­to­rian English homes were not”.

The an­ces­tral trees of Jane and Wil­liam are lightly sketched be­fore a more ex­haus­tive por­trait of their lives is laid out. The reader may be for­given for think­ing the book is a bi­og­ra­phy of the par­ents, so thor­ough is O’Sul­li­van’s re­search. We learn about Wil­liam’s travel romps be­fore set­tling down to a med­i­cal ca­reer, his ad­vance­ments in oph­thal­mol­ogy, his suc­cess as a man of sci­ence and of let­ters, as well as nu­mer­ous other facts. O’Sul­li­van de­tails how Jane first came to pub­lic at­ten­tion by writ­ing po­etry and ar­ti­cles for a lit­er­ary jour­nal and later de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a writer, blue­stock­ing and po­lit­i­cal fire­brand.

De­spite O’Sul­li­van’s elo­quence, these chap­ters can some­times be a bit dry and feel like the ground­work be­fore Os­car en­ters the scene — like a sup­port act be­fore the lead singer makes an ap­pear­ance.

But thanks to the au­thor’s ex­ten­sive re­search it’s easy to imag­ine how the young Wilde would soak up this love of learn­ing by lis­ten­ing at this mother’s sa­lons and his fa­ther’s sup­pers, by be­ing ex­posed to and en­cour­aged in the art of po­etry and con­ver­sa­tion. His wit­ti­cisms and re­join­ders seem to have been a di­rect re­sult of grow­ing up in such a hot­house of ideas.

The book then trails Wilde to his ca­reer, in­clud­ing his vis­its to the US and Canada, and touches on his im­por­tant works. But an in­depth anal­y­sis of Wilde’s art is not within the am­bit of this bi­og­ra­phy. O’Sul­li­van’s in­ter­est lies more with the man him­self. The two piv­otal court cases are re­vis­ited in de­tail: Wilde’s fa­ther be­ing ac­quit­ted of the charge of rape of a for­mer stu­dent (though his rep­u­ta­tion was for­ever stained) and Wilde him­self be­ing found guilty of “in­de­cent acts” and sen­tenced to jail. O’Sul­li­van notes the echoes be­tween the cases.

From Vic­to­rian Dublin to fin-de-siecle Lon­don, the tragedy of this fam­ily is com­pre­hen­sively cov­ered. In the end, for a man fash­ioned by his par­ents’ idio­syn­cratic per­son­al­i­ties and teach­ings, Os­car, like his mother, couldn’t help be­ing a risk-taker who craved pub­lic at­ten­tion. His un­mit­i­gated im­pulse was to “seek the high seas rather than the safe har­bour”.

Thuy On is the books ed­i­tor of The Big Is­sue.

Emer O’Sul­li­van’s bi­og­ra­phy of the Wilde fam­ily sug­gests Os­car, above, couldn’t help be­ing a risk-taker who craved pub­lic at­ten­tion

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