Vol. IV No. 4-9
issue no 35-41:
April - September 2007
The Critic as Critic
A Monthly Page of Reviews
All authors whose books are reviewed are invited to respond.
To see a complete list of all works reviewed, click
Zeender on Oscar Wilde in
2. Lucia Krämer on Oscar Wilde from first to last
Kingston on Oscar Wilde in
Herbert R. Lottman: Oscar Wilde à
Review by Marie-Noelle Zeender
Herbert Lottman’s Oscar Wilde à Paris (‘Oscar Wilde in Paris’) is another biography of Wilde, devoted more especially to the various stays of the author in the French capital, from his honeymoon to his death at the hôtel d’Alsace. The book is composed of XXV chapters and an envoy. To the Wilde scholar and English specialist, it is unreadable in many respects. First of all, the translation from the original typescript is awful, clumsy and rough, riddled with anglicisms and mistakes. Some passages are even comic sometimes, with such barbarisms as ‘efféminement’, p. 27 (for effeminacy probably), mistranslations like ‘crucifix’ instead of ‘calvaire’ , p. 40, the noun ‘convicts’ is not translated at all, probably because the translator could not afford a basic English dictionary. As for French grammar, it is more than once misused (the tenses, notably on p. 40, are often wrong). Yet, this does not mean that the original text is necessarily good.
Indeed, if from the start, the average reader may feel that the language sounds rather strange, the well-informed reader is soon exasperated by a number of errors ranging from Walter Peter (p. 8), Rupert Hardt-Davis (p. 18), the inevitable misquoted title in English: The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Harris Frank for Frank Harris, de Régnier (the nobiliary particle is not used in French except when you use the first name) instead of Régnier, the Old Bailey, just to quote a few examples.
However, the translator can in no way be blamed for all the defects of
the book. Indeed, the narrative is on the whole a botched job, padded out with
all sorts of digressions. In this respect, the very first chapter entitled ‘La
Manche facile’ – which by the way is meaningless in French – offers a good
example of this insofar as the author expatiates on the schedules and fares of
ferries and trains between England and France at the time of Oscar Wilde.
Further, the description of
Too often, the biography relies on petty anecdotes, clichés and
contradictions. As for the quotations, they are not always accurate or
relevant, and anyway do not really highlight Wilde’s genius. Moreover, the
author proves to be capable of making silly remarks on occasions. I have taken
the liberty of translating two of them into English: ‘a curious play which could have been born
only from his brain’ (p.77); or ‘It was not necessary to be looking for sexual
affairs to visit
Although he borrowed much from most of Wilde’s biographers, the author
of Oscar Wilde à
As Flaubert put it in a letter to Ernest Feydeau in 1872: ‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him’. Apparently, Mr. Herbert Lottman is no friend of Oscar Wilde, because his representation of the character is reduced to a mere caricature. In fact, his book is a reader’s digest somehow, a clumsy collage of passages borrowed from Ellmann, Pearson, Sherard, Ross and Harris among others, with quite a few references to the correspondence of Wilde. However, the mix is all wrong despite the footnotes that aim at giving the impression that the author dominates his subject.
In fact, if one wants to read a real biography of Oscar Wilde, one can
read Ellmann of course, or Peter Ackroyd’s remarkable The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. Although his book is a work of
fiction, Ackroyd manages to reconstruct brilliantly the atmosphere of
As a brief conclusion, if you should invest in the purchase of Oscar Wilde à
· For another, and somewhat less favourable, view of the book, see the critique by Lou Ferreira in rue des beaux-arts no.10.
Hans-Christian Oeser, Oscar-Wilde-ABC, with the collaboration of Jörg W. Rademacher.
Review by Lucia Krämer
Hans-Christian Oeser’s Oscar-Wilde-ABC pulls off the rare feat of providing a very well-informed introduction to Oscar Wilde’s life, works and thoughts for the Wilde newcomer, while at the same time engaging with various aspects of the academic debate on Wilde. The Oscar-Wilde-ABC is thus one of the few books which will appeal to specialists and amateurs alike – which is an admirable achievement in itself. In the relatively short span of 175 pages (compare here, for example, the 450 pages of Karl Beckson’s Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia of 1998), Oeser and his collaborator Jörg W. Rademacher, who provides 26 of the 108 entries in the book, manage to fulfil their acknowledged aims of creating curiosity for Wilde’s life and oeuvre and of doing justice to his many facets as a writer, thinker and talker. Taking into account the context in which the book is published, Oeser has put special emphasis on two aspects of Wilde’s works of which there is relatively little awareness in Germany: Wilde as a thinker (in particular his relation to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) as well as the influence of his Irish background on his life and works. A timeline of Wilde’s life and a useful selected bibliography complete the book.
Although Oeser’s Oscar-Wilde-ABC comes in the shape of a dictionary, it is not a reference work in the usual sense, and it does not pretend to be: it is obviously no coincidence that the book is not called “Oscar-Wilde-Lexikon” [Oscar Wilde Dictionary]. There is no index, for example, which would be necessary to make the book really usable as a reference work, and links to other entries are sometimes misleading or missing. Thus the text on The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, does not mention decadence or provide a link to the corresponding entry (where, however, The Picture of Dorian Gray is mentioned). The Oscar-Wilde-ABC therefore appears like a book that should be read from start to finish, possibly with some detours on the way, rather than be used as a reference work.
While the book is not an “Oscar-Wilde-Lexikon”, however, it provides much more than just an ABC, which in German implies the basics of a specific field. The entries cover a wide range of topics that certainly do more than only introduce Wilde. Texts on various persons and places from Wilde’s life are combined with texts on individual works, important themes (e.g. “Christus” [Christ], “Dandy”, “Kunst und Kriminalität” [Art and Crime], “Zitat und Plagiat” [Quotation and Plagiarism]) and, more importantly, entries on the practical aspects of Wilde’s writing (e.g. “Arbeitsweise” [Working Process], “Aufführungspraxis” [Staging], “Korrespondenz” [Letters], “Verlage” [Publishing Houses]). It is in the entries on the reception and the political contextualisation of Wilde, however, where Oeser’s work is most convincing. In these texts he goes beyond mere biographical fact and quotations from Wilde’s works and letters, to establish a Wilde inspired by his Anglo-Irish background and the ideas of republicanism and socialism, as well as to discuss Wilde’s status as a homosexual icon. The entry “Märtyrer” [Martyr], for example, provides an excellent introduction to the theme of martyrdom in Wilde and in Wilde’s reception. Oeser is very good, moreover, in his balanced treatment of contested aspects of Wilde’s life. His well-informed entry on “Krankheit, Sterben, Tod” [Illness, Dying, Death] for example, contains an admirable summing-up of the arguments for and against the syphilis hypothesis, and his entry on Lord Alfred Douglas, while underlining Douglas’ later denunciation of Wilde, does not simply aim to demonise Douglas but points out his double role as Wilde’s muse and evil spirit. The only problematic passages where Oeser deviates from his otherwise exemplary fashion of acknowledging the grey areas of Wilde’s biography is when he makes the unverifiable claims that Douglas’ brother Drumlanrig had sexual relations with his employer Rosebery (162) and that after the second trial Wilde’s fate was decided in a secret meeting of three government officials who wanted to save Rosebery and the Liberal Party (118).
Some readers will be
surprised by the fact that individual entries have been given to “Torquay,
Devon”, “Worthing, Sussex”, and “Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire” while women
like Ellen Terry or Lillie Langtry, who are usually granted much more space in
books on Wilde, have been relegated to the entry “Schauspielerinnen” along with
several other actresses. Others will be surprised that Robert Yelverton
Tyrrell, Wilde’s teacher at
Despite all the
positive things to be said about the Oscar-Wilde-ABC,
there are some problematic aspects, which, however, do not impair the overall
pleasure the book provides. Among the less grave of these are occasional slips
in the otherwise concise and readable style, and the fact that Wilde’s works
have been listed according to their first words. Since most titles in German
start with the definite article der/die/das
or the indefinite article ein/eine
this leads to an unfortunate clustering of entries on Wilde’s works under D and
E. Moreover, the translations of Wilde quotations do not always do justice to
the original and are not always precise or idiomatic. More serious criticism
concerns the lengths to which the authors have taken the biographical approach
to Wilde’s works, for example by presenting Sibyl Vane in Dorian Gray as a portrait of Florence Balcombe or by equating the
gardens in the fairy tales with the park on
Such mistakes occasionally cause the Wilde scholar to raise an eyebrow, and will send a reviewer to the bookshelf to check facts. In the context of this otherwise remarkable book, however, which is entertaining and informative and which evokes a surprisingly vivid image of Wilde’s person and works, they must be considered minor weaknesses.
v Lucia Krämer is the author of Oscar Wilde in Roman, Drama und Film: Eine medienkomparatistische Analyse fiktionaler Biographien. Frankfurt/M: Lang, 2003. Dr Krämer is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.
Nigel Woodhead: Kill or Curare (FishesEye Publishing eBook, 2006)
Review by Angela Kingston
Woodhead’s novel opens in the
French seaside town of
It soon becomes clear that Hastings himself is in the dark
about why he has been sent to
Indeed, Hastings’s inquiries lead him to stumble upon all
manner of suspicious circumstances and people; white slave traders, anarchists,
Freemasons, student devotees of ancient mysticism, Freemasons, Symbolists,
Theosophists, Irish Republicans, French Royalists; not to mention even two
illegitimate girls apparently fathered by the Prince of Wales.
It must be said that, while Woodhead occasionally strikes the right note with evocative descriptions and well-turned phrases, the reviewer found little to recommend in the book. The fact that the text simply wasn’t ready for review did not help matters; the frequent poor punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors are irritating and Woodhead’s expression is often muddled. The text does not appear to have been proof-read at all. Unfortunately, the narrative is also seriously flawed. The reader is given little insight into the character or motivation of the protagonist Hastings, and his reasoning and conclusions often leave the reader mystified. The plot is convoluted – there are too many characters and outlandish conspiracy theories to mention – as a result the story drags, plot developments are unclear and there is little suspense in this supposed thriller. Moreover, drama often lapses into melodrama and hackneyed clichés abound (‘The man in the shadows gripped the cold steel in his pocket. Weep your tears, my pretty, he thought.’)
The narrative is also inconsistent: details are left out and then raised as if they have already been mentioned; other details are repeated as if being mentioned for the first time. Again, this appears to be a proof-reading issue. At one point Hastings discovers his arsenic supply, brought from London to treat his malaria, is inexplicably low, and he resolves to procure more from Dr Dinan, when in fact just seven pages before he has already procured more arsenic from Dinan when his London supply mysteriously goes missing. In several places sentences simply don’t make sense:
Both sat up abruptly as heavy shoes mounted the steps brought them both
“We’re surrounded,” gasped
Woodhead does appear to have a good general knowledge of the 1890s, but for the academic reader familiar with Wilde and his circle there is little that resonates. We are given general physical and biographical and descriptions of Charles Conder, Aubrey Beardsley, Leonard Smithers, André Gide, Robert Ross (who Woodhead refers to as Wilde’s ‘secretary’), Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons. All of these historical persons feature significantly in the book but none of their characters are adequately explored or developed. They are depicted as a bunch of indulgent lay-abouts who pass their days in a perpetually inebriated haze, only pausing in their extravagant consumption of absinthe, laudanum and cocaine to make crass jokes or smutty innuendoes. Their dialogue, like that of other characters in the novel, is often curiously unintelligible.
Wilde himself is barely recognizable. His
distinctive style, intelligence and wit are remarkably absent. While this may
be intentional on Woodhouse’s part, in an attempt to portray the deleterious
effects of Reading Gaol, this picture of Wilde is hardly consistent with
contemporary reports. Indeed, nothing about this Oscar Wilde (or Sebastian
Melmoth) is familiar; he ‘blusters’ and ‘splutters’, has a ‘shrill laugh’, an
Irish lilt and sings bawdy songs. And while Reading Gaol may have taken the
edge off Wilde’s impeccable table manners, it is difficult to imagine him dunking
his cake into his teacup or ‘noisily slurp[ing] his soup’! Other passages in
the book suggest that Woodhead does not have a detailed knowledge of his
The novel’s ending and final revelations, when they do come, are at once far-fetched, clichéd and anti-climactic. Loose ends remain untied; too many plot lines have been introduced and forgotten and the effect is jarring. The conclusion is further marred by the half-hearted suggestion that perhaps, after all (and contradictory to the evidence supplied throughout the story), the entire series of events has been orchestrated by Wilde and/or other influential players as a sinister summer amusement, a real-life play complete with ‘ritual qualities, magic resonances [and] layers within layers’. Woodhead’s book may have included all these elements, but this reviewer is sorry to report that she found the combined effect far from entertaining. Perhaps her patience would not have been so sorely tested had the author spent a little longer researching and refining his work.
· Angela Kingston’s Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in November. Dr Kingston is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.
Marco Pustianaz and Luisa Villa (eds.) : Maschilità decadenti: la lunga fin de siècle, Bergamo: Bergamo University Press, 2004, 368 pp.
Review by Chiara Briganti
Any syllabus of Victorian Literature taught in universities about fifteen years or so ago was bound to cover the obligatory terrain of ‘constructions of femininity’. Masculinity (the plural was not even a possibility) was accepted as a natural given, exempt from the untethering of gender from sex that has been one of the main goals of Women’s and Gender Studies. A glance at the hefty footnotes in this volume is an abundant reminder of how far this paradigm has shifted. Thus the achievement of Maschilità decadenti appears the more remarkable in that despite the wealth of studies that has emerged in the last few years all the essays make a significant and in many cases, brilliant contribution to a well trodden ground.
To return to Charcot and to hysteria is always, I feel, a risky business. One wishes for some fallow time. However, Alessandra Violi’s painstaking examination of the connections between the nerves of the hysteric and the curved lines of the Art Nouveau style (particularly Aubrey Beardsley’s version of it) and of the coming together of medicine and art in a new ‘nevrosic imaginary’ not only makes for a fascinating reading, but is also an invaluable reminder of the material roots of the often repeated argument that the turn of the century was distinctly marked by a blurring of boundaries.
Marco Pustianaz’s sophisticated exploration of the vicissitudes of the concept of sexual inversion gives due emphasis to the uniqueness of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s contribution to the development of theories of homosexuality. Reminding us that Ulrichs was first of all a jurist, whose purpose was to insure that legal discourse would accommodate scientific knowledge (specifically embryological findings that supported the view of homosexuality as congenital), Pustianaz reinvests Ulrichs’s work of its political content and carefully distinguishes it from that of John Aldington Symonds and Havelock Ellis.
The question of why the figure of Sherlock Holmes has proved such a consumable commodity, infinitely rewritable, and in fact, given to continuous self-regeneration, provides Alessandra Calanchi with the opportunity for a useful review of the work of critics who, almost engaged in tug-of-war with London tourist industry, have claimed Conan Doyle’s creation as a central figure of modernity, a tad more complex than the Baker Street dweller with a fancy for funny hats. Calanchi concludes her survey with an intriguing reading of Mark Twain’s appropriation of Holmes in ‘A Double-Barreled Detective Story’—a story which demonstrates how not even a humorist like Twain was immune to the profound pessimism that characterised the American fin de siècle.
If Sherlock Holmes’s appeal is undoubtedly connected to a desperate desire to affirm the ability of reason to fend off chaos, the threat of folly is key to the power to haunt of President Schreber. Paola Di Cori provides a sophisticated and useful survey of ‘Schreberiana’. Her elegant and sensitive journey through the continuous ‘metaphorical re-appearance’ of Schreber’s tormented ghost tries to make sense of the ‘unstoppable fortune’ of this figure, which, disturbingly, has become powerfully emblematic of the human condition.
The difficulty of reviewing a volume of this size is that it is simply impossible to do justice to all the essays. One, however, must make room for Luisa Villa’s discussion of Kipling, especially of The Light that Failed, a novel which, flawed as it is, offers an intriguing glimpse of an unusual Kipling—urban, Bohemian, confronting failure and making of failure a theme and a project. Villa’s informed and engaging discussion adds gravity to Elaine Showalter’s fortunate definition of the fin de siècle as ‘sexual anarchy.’
Pustianaz and Villa’s
volume succeeds on two fronts: on the one hand it demonstrates that despite the
traditional resistance of Italian academia to any serious exploration of
gender, Italian scholars are more than ready to enter in a genuinely
interdisciplinary way into a transnational conversation; secondly, by
judiciously adding translations of English seminal studies (and by providing
translations of quoted passages) to the essays originally presented at a
conference in 2001 the editors have expanded their audience from students of
Anglo-American literature to anyone interested in complicating the field of
gender studies in fruitful ways. Implicitly, elegantly, and lucidly, they have
made a point that the study of masculinities is not the exclusive
v Chiara Briganti has been Professor of English
and Women's and Gender Studies at
Gianna A. Mina, Henry J. Duffy, John H. Dryfhout: Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1949-1907) scultore americano dell’Eta d’Oro. Museo Vela, Ufficio federale della cultura e autori, 2006
Review by Paula Murphy
‘The most famous sculptor to spring from Irish soil’.
The one hundredth
anniversary of the death of the eminent nineteenth-century American sculptor
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was commemorated three weeks early on
That the event might initiate new thinking on Saint-Gaudens is to be welcomed. The most recent publication on the sculptor resulted from an exhibition of his work held at the Museo Vela in Ligornetto from June to October last year, 2006. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) sculptore americano dell’Eta d’Oro was curated by Gianna Mina and essays by Henry Duffy and John Dryfhout, both associated with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, are included in the catalogue. This is an elegant publication, informative, exquisitely illustrated and, thankfully, a slim volume rather than the more usual colossal tome that has become the norm for exhibition catalogues today. However, somewhat surprisingly, the catalogue has only been published in Italian. While it might be expected that most art historians have a working knowledge of Italian, this does rather depend on individual research interests, and, nevertheless, no exhibition catalogue should be published exclusively for an academic audience. In the case of this publication, if you are not fluent in the language, but are familiar with the life and work of Saint-Gaudens, it is relatively easy to follow the discussion. And yet I found it reassuring to discover that an English translation of at least one of the essays - Duffy on Saint-Gaudens training and the renewal of American sculpture - was inserted into the catalogue.
exhibitions of Saint-Gaudens work in recent years have instigated some new
writing on the sculptor. The first of
these, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1848-1907, A Master of American Sculpture, was
held for four months at the Musée des Augustins in
subsequently the subject of a touring exhibition in the
was not the case with the most recent exhibition in
discussion is also based on the work that is available for exhibition. In this instance, plaster models and bronze
studies of details of large scale public work and relief portrait images in
bronze formed the bulk of the 60 works by Saint-Gaudens that were on display
and it is these, therefore, that shape to some extent the content of the
different essays. In spite of the
location of the exhibition in a museum dedicated to the work of Swiss sculptor
Vincenzo Vela (1820-91), who worked contemporaneously with Saint-Gaudens, it
was not possible to ascertain whether the two sculptors had ever met. Nonetheless the catalogue illustrates a
riveting comparison between Saint-Gaudens Shaw memorial in
Several bronze heads
of the soldiers on the Shaw memorial were included in the exhibition and formed
the basis of a brief factual discussion in the catalogue. The
Taking a circuitous
but what might ultimately be considered a strategic route into sculpture by way
of cameo making, Saint-Gaudens was to become one of the major American
sculptors of the nineteenth century, receiving prestigious public commissions
and producing seriously heroic monumental sculptures. Commemorative statuary by Saint-Gaudens can
be seen in several major cities on the east coast of
We have a particular
interest in Saint Gaudens in
Saint-Gaudens spent a
great deal of his time in
appears to have been little concerned with his Irish roots before receiving the
Saint-Gaudens was a
fine sculptor, working ultimately in a period of stylistic transition, as is
particularly manifest in his seemingly conflicting response to Rodin and his
work. His expertise and varied
engagement with the practice of sculpture is clearly indicated in the catalogue
of the Swiss exhibition. Dazzling images
of the gilded
Murphy teaches in the
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