What I’m reading: Wild about Wilde

Jonathan Fryer:

Gide, Wilde and the
Gay Art of Living

Not a recent book (published in 1997) but one I’ve only just caught up with. Jonathan Fryer has written a short and entertaining study of the friendship between Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide. They first met in 1891 when Wilde wowed literary Paris on an early visit, even before his first play (Lady Windermere’s Fan) took London by storm. 
The pair were friends but never, we’re told, lovers. They both liked younger men or in Gide’s case young boys. He hung out with pre-adolescent boys on extended holidays in North Africa (much as gays still do today!). Fryer thinks that his relations with these youngsters were probably platonic, adoration rather than molestation, but he was lucky not to have suffered a greater shame than Wilde.

The rise and fall of Oscar Wilde is an oft-told tale, but Fryer’s very readable style and admirable economy of words offers a  enjoyable ‘overflight’ of the familiar ground of Oscar’s fatal friendships with Alfred Douglas and the Piccadilly rent-boys they shared. He quotes Wilde’s most painful letter from Reading Gaol to his old chum Robbie Ross: “I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him [Bosie] to dominate my life.” And yet he resumed this dangerous liaison after his release, causing Constance, his wife, to cut off the allowance she was generously paying him. He died, as we know, penuriously, losing the battle with the wallpaper in a Parisian hotel.

Gide’s story may be less familiar. He seems to have been massively up himself, as we would say today but, like Oscar, he was a prolific letter-writer and a sharp observer of humankind. After his first meeting with Lord Alfred in wintry Algiers in 1895, Gide described him in letters to his mother as ‘Byronic [and] devoured by an unhealthy thirst for infamy‘. With considerable prescience he also writes: ‘If Wilde’s plays in London didn’t run for 300 performances, and if the Prince of Wales didn’t attend his first nights, he would be in prison, and Lord Douglas [sic] as well‘. There’s an element of hypocrisy in all this: Andre was only too keen to have some of Bosie’s teenage Arab rent-boys passed on to him.

Gide married his adored cousin Madeleine: a sexless and ultimately loveless union. Over time he came to treat her as shabbily as Oscar did Constance, flagrantly pursuing rent-boys on the streets of Paris and even fathering a child with a mistress. It was easy 120 years ago – it still is – for a woman to marry a man not knowing he was actually gay. Wilde and Gide’s treatment of their wives would be deemed marital cruelty today.

Jonathan Fryer has clearly done scrupulous research, but he is not overawed by the eminence of the writers he is exhuming and avails himself of a few opportunities to take the piss. Of Oscar’s own account of the ‘frenzy’ with which he completed the writing of his banned play Salome after listening to a gypsy band on a Parisian boulevard, the biographer comments: ‘Like many of Oscar’s stories, this is entertaining nonsense.’ He reminds us of Wilde’s famous pronouncement (to Gide in Algiers) that “he had put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works.

Was Oscar Wilde a genius? Clearly he was a gifted playwright, but his comedies are not in the same league as Shakespeare’s. You could make a case for Moliere and Coward being just as brilliant satirists of their times, even Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn, but do any of them deserve to be called geniuses? Genius is a word we should perhaps use more sparingly.

Gide lived twice as long as Wilde, dying at 82 in 1951. After selling his daring novels and travel books in pitifully small quantities for many years, he finally broke through to the big time and was even awarded a Nobel Prize. Oscar won no prizes and was awarded only infamy, but his plays have already given him a degree of immortality – something that may not happen to Monsieur Gide.

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