Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (not a review in the end) – if you want to know more about Oscar Wilde go here:

https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk

Dear Oscar,

My hero.

I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.

The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.

The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.

It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules. 

Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree? 

We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.

It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.

Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.

You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical The Picture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of Being Earnest our own hypocrisies are played out.

You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.

Ever yours,

– A Woman of Even Less Importance.

PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite 
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name, 
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”

A Country to Call Home

A Country to Call Home – edited by Lucy Popescu

I’m not much in the habit of writing book reviews. There are so many people much better at it and far more committed to it than me. And anyway I am not really sure how to go about it. And I’m lazy too which doesn’t help. Most of the book reviews I read by online bloggers are summaries of the book in question, that they mostly like. When I read those books I mostly don’t like them, so the online-blogging-book-reviewers club is not one I want to join. At least it wasn’t. Having read A Country to Call Home I find it is such a powerful piece of work that I have to share my views. 

This book is an anthology, a collection of pieces about and by young refugees, put together by editor Lucy Popescu. According to the book’s introduction children make up half the world’s refugees. Gloom alert right there, so this wasn’t a book I was desperately keen to read. I was sure it would make me completely miserable, but fortune had other plans: conscience and curiosity slapped hard my emotional cowardice.

As soon as I finished the first couple of pieces I was so glad I picked up the book, even if I had done so with some reluctance. I picked it up with a sigh, and put it down with a sigh, but one of a very different sort. Once I started A Country to Call Home I literally couldn’t put it down, not least because of how the stories, poems and interviews are organised. They showcase a diverse range of voices, ordered so you’re constantly tempted by what is coming next. What comes next is mostly unexpected, which also keeps you hooked. When I did finish this book, I immediately started leafing through to reread my favourite pieces. How did I jump from dutiful to delight in a mere handful of pages?

It was the breadth of the writing, the voices and the balance between anguish and joy, the jolting realities. It was the horror and the threats, as in “Now you tell the truth or you will end the same way” said to a child in Christine Pullein-Thompson’s I Want the Truth. It was the insensitive and lazy renaming of Jamal and Daoud in Miriam Halahmy’s The Memory Box. There are 30 such  contributions in A Country to Call Home ranging from the ones mentioned above through Brian Conaghan’s poem Just Another Someone, to Sita Brahmachari’s Amir and George. This is the longest of the stories and my personal favourite. There are contributions from Michael Morpago and Eoin Colfer, Kit de Waal and Simon Armitage to name but a few. There is also an interview with Judith Kerr, an unreluctant refugee from Nazi Germany, and illustrations by Chris Riddell throughout.

These stories, interviews and poems resonate and will touch different readers in different ways. They are rather like filters through which we can see our own experiences, which is why Moniza Alvi’s poem Exile is especially resonant for me. And in Bali Rai’s the Mermaid, I totally relate to the line: “I am just like the mermaid by the harbour. Stranded far from home. Forever.”

Dealing with such complex and personal experiences in a collection that doesn’t exclude or numb the reader, for whatever reason, takes light touch and care. The weight of the awfulness of the refugees’ horrendous experiences is balanced with hope, and an appreciation that we can hear these voices. We learn to listen, to try to understand and relate to the human stories behind every statistic, every deportation, every internment, every death.

This collection addresses a difficult and emotive subject, but you should read it because it will change you, especially your emotional responses to immigration horrors. It may also help you cope with your own tangled fears and hopes, as you consider the fates of the people in the book and for the scope of what wider awareness of their experiences might achieve. A Country to Call Home adds new dimensions to simplistic sound bite renderings that cloak truly awful human experiences with insensate numbers. All credit to editor Lucy Popescu for a sensitive, inclusive and provocative collection.