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“I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough; being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

This is yet another classic story that in the public memory has been eclipsed by a watered down film. Although Moon River was quite sweet. To be honest, I question whether many folks have actually seen Breakfast At Tiffany’s, or simply just had the poster on their college dorm wall. And that Mickey Rooney racist stereotype performance…

Actually that’s one of the early surprises of Capote’s novel. When Mr Yunioshi is first described, the narrator corrects barman Joe Bell that he is not Japanese, he is Californian. The character of Holly Golighty has already been enshrined as a mythical figure by the start of the novel, appearing in far-off Africa and word travelling all the way back to New York. Her past is shrouded in mystery, her personality entirely self-created – peppering her dialogue with random words in French and her manner occasionally quite abrasive. The narrator makes the fatal mistake of attempting to read his writing to her, only for her eyes to quickly glaze over (with the legendary dismissal afterwards that she has no interest in reading about lesbians). Despite his wounded vanity, he cannot help becoming fascinating with the mysterious Holly.

You may notice that I have not really described anything like a plot. Well there are a number of instances, building up to what could be called a climax, but in reality this is a profile of an irrespressible free spirit. In fact her role is quite Wildean in that she is fond of making the occaisonal bon mots, but has no interest in profundity, or tortured meaning. She mocks the narrator for his frustrated writer status. If he is not writing to make money, what is the point? His earnest social realist stories will not bring Hollywood calling. Truman Capote appears to have inserted his own auto-critique on the futility of art in his most popular fictional creation.

However, it is easy to understand exactly why such a ephemeral novella has maintained its hold over the years. For one there is a fascination with the various gay shibboleths that Capote has slipped in under the radar (along with some not so secret references). So much of the humour and wit that still sparkles in this book is due to the acerbic employed in Golightly’s disparaging remarks regarding other characters. Poor Mag Wildwood is said to have contracted the clap so often she has had an applause.

It’s the way you tell ‘em. I cannot hope to watch the delivery of the line.

Sharply funny, with a fierce intelligence belied by the superficial film adaptation.

The author is again visibly starting to amuse himself – nay, we’ll use the word – to mystify us.

So I woke up this morning feeling tired, wondering what I would read next.  Then Mr Postman arrived with a package from Canada. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a book from Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse blog. Hey, if anyone else out there wants to send me on a book, that would be just lovely.

This book features a series of parodies of different authors by Proust, describing the circumstances of a scandal that involved the famously neurotic writer himself. Henri Lemoine was a scam-artist who claimed to be able synthesize diamonds from coal. Proust himself was conned, but famously the De Beers Diamond Mines were also taken in by the scam.

For the purpose of his parody, Proust has the likes of Henri Balzac and Gustave Flaubert respond to the scandal, as well as a critical review by Sainte-Beuve of the latter’s effort published in The Constitutional. With each example chosen the parody extends beyond merely stylistic quirks of the respective authors, as the short chapters focus on different aspects of Lemoine’s deception.

I have never read À la recherche du temps perdu, having previously only come close when studying Chien de Printemps by Patrick Modiano, as well as that silly book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. As such my impression of him was that his writing was structured around endless digressions into memory and self-consciousness. The Lemoine Affair proves that I was missing the point entirely.

The authors selected by Proust are not merely chosen to display his gift for parody, but to demonstrate his insight into their importance in French culture. What if this scandal had demanded that all the bright lights of the literary world weigh in on what had happened? What if Lemoine’s trickery had led to Proust’s own suicide? In imagining this scenario he removes himself from the ranks of literary contenders vying to write the definitive account of the affair. Yes, and by association, about Proust’s own shame in being taken in by the scam. In this as in everything else, the central point of concern is Marcel Proust himself. This is interesting as Sainte-Beuve for one is known for having argued with Wilde on the point about all authors revealing their inner selves through their fiction.

Balzac in particular fairs poorly as a target of gentle ridicule. ‘His’, section of the novella concerns itself with aristocratic gossip and badinage, right up until the end, when it seems the author suddenly remembers to deliver a screed of exposition on Lemoine. Flaubert’s realism is also dismissed as mere stylistic prudery and Michelet delivers pedantry about the diamond industry itself. Again and again we see the degree to which Proust prided himself not only as a writer capable of translating his thoughts onto the page with exacting detail, but as a critic of literature itself. Failing to revenge himself upon Lemoine, he retreats to the world of writing, where he holds a stronger position.

I enjoyed this book for its insight into Proust and the taste it gave for his masterpiece. While I do not intend to plough through that sequence of novels for this site, I am looking forward to reading them soon.

Thanks again to Stacey for the lovely gift.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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