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7. Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
teapot
el_staplador wrote in queerlit50
It took me a while to get into this one, which was something of a surprise, since I thought I was fairly keen on Wilde. That is to say, I like the plays, and the short stories still have the power to make me cry.

The first few chapters dragged like anything - something about the combination of the lush descriptive bits with the fearfully spikey epigrams. I remember, studying The Importance of Being Earnest in my first year at university, being afraid to prod it too hard in case it broke and was never the same again; I loved the verbal fencing, the way epigram followed epigram as if it were as easy as breathing, and it felt that taking to the text with a pencil and deconstructing it would rupture the gossamer fabric of it. It was too insubstantial a thing to actually study. Here we had the same thing - charming, clever people - but all happening against a backdrop heavy with beauty beautifully described. It was rather like a fruity pudding with fragile bitter chocolate bits on the top, which either break or sink into the cream, and I was rather worried that it would go on like that all through the book. There is such a thing as too much pudding, after all.

It grew steadily more compelling as I got through it, though. Possibly the reduced concentration of Lord Henry and the increased concentration of plot were instrumental. The basic plot device is famous, of course, but I was fascinated to see how it came together. We see nothing of most of Dorian's crimes; as Wilde himself pointed out, we don't even know what most of them are, only that they have done irreparable damage to the reputation of X, Y, or Z - and to Dorian's own soul. In its own time, it was extolled as a 'moral' book and denounced as an 'immoral' one. Wilde tried to prove that it was neither, only that it was good - I'm not entirely sure that he succeeded; it retains something of the feeling of a fable.

'How horribly unjust of you!' cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back, and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the sky. 'Yes; horribly unjust of you. I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.'

I do not recommend the Oxford World's Classics edition for anyone but the most culturally isolated reader. The pages are so littered with asterisks that it is more reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm than a serious work; and most of them are referring to words or phrases whose meaning is apparent from the context. I appreciate the extensive notes at the back, but I do object to being constantly distracted from the text by the well-meaning editor's attempt to elucidate it.

It is somewhat disconcerting, speaking as one weaned and nourished on a diet of the Savoy operas, that it actually is exactly like Patience. Perhaps it's just Dorian's taste for beautiful things, but I couldn't help thinking of "a cobwebby grey velvet, with a tender bloom like cold gravy, which, made Florentine fourteenth century, trimmed with Venetian leather and Spanish altar lace, and surmounted with something Japanese - it matters not what..." And I know some people for whom the descriptions of the sumptuous vestments would be altogether too exciting. But the less said about that, the better.

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Oh, yeah, I had that experience with the Oxford World Classics thing when I was reading Mansfield originally. It's infuriating; I'm totally down with notes on a text if they actually have something to add but the vast majority of theirs didn't on that text either. Don't think I'll be buying any of their books again unless I really can't find another edition.

Seriously. I know what a laburnum is. I couldn't take you into a draper's shop and point to tussore-silk, but that doesn't mean that my understanding of the passage in question is irrevocably spoiled. And there were eight more asterisks on that page alone.

It's great to have the notes there for stuff I genuinely don't understand, but I'd much rather be able to look it up on my own terms, not constantly distracted from the flow of the prose by wondering what the idiot editor thinks he has to say about this or that phrase that wouldn't have made me think twice otherwise.

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