Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellman

September 19, 2011 at 03:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Literature, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

Ellman’s style is prim and polished and very aloof. He writes with great attention to detail, but like a barrister rather than the poet he describes. There are honestly vast sections of this book that seem as cheerful as obituaries, and as vivid as tax codes. Considering the sometimes languid and often obtuse subject of the biography, this style is peculiar to say the least. Bafflingly, equal attention is given to minutiae as to life-changing encounters and pivotal events in Oscar Wilde’s life; and while it would have been impossible to offer exposition on unknowns and irresponsible to speculate or even editorialise much, it is left to the reader to wonder how many of the six hundred pages are at all relevant in building a complete picture of Wilde, and just how much of the account is a mess of flotsam and jetsam, pieced together with deference to chronology and indifference to anything resembling a narrative.

“For Wilde, aestheticism was not a creed but a problem.”

-“Oscar Wilde” (R. Ellman)

Wilde is quoted copiously throughout, and Ellman religiously copies down the original texts of any amount of letters and recollected snatches of conversation, in English, French and Latin at least. He scores points for veracity, but seems again to be writing a scholar’s book for scholars’ palates, rather than a portrait of a man. His friends and acquaintances are selectively arranged, with Ross and Douglas having the lion’s share of their work reproduced, and others mentioned regularly but without depth.

As noted, Ellman does not often offer an editor’s opinion; but then, neither does he frequently offer a scholar’s analysis, either upon Wilde as a man or upon Wilde’s works as literature. Occasionally he goes so far as to admit that one piece of poetry is not as advanced as later works, or is flawed, or is a masterpiece; but he seldom goes much further to explain his judgements. Some of Wilde’s works are not mentioned at all, and only a few are given even this briefest of treatments. For a critical view of the poet and his poetry, or for a sociological query of his life and legacy, this book is not satisfactory at all. As a flawless piece of research with interesting resources and a detailed chronology, this book is a complete (although rather pedestrian and unfortunately cumbersome) biography.

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