Saturday, 30 November 2013

Week Forty-Five - Jeanette

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
Recommended by Nicky


Not the words of Oscar Wilde, funnily enough, but the tagline to the 2009 flop Dorian Gray, starring Ben ‘Who?’ Chaplin.

I’ve been trying to source my Two Readers books from Sheffield libraries as far as possible. That’s why I read a large-print The End Of Mr. Y and lugged around the Rabbit Angstrom Tetralogy. We must borrow from them: it is one way of standing up to the cultural desecration this government is wreaking. Fuck them and their assault on free and accessible books for everyone.

So that's why I'm holding up the already-dated film book jacket version of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Always makes one look serious about classic literature. Still, in my case it felt appropriate. My introduction to The Picture Of Dorian Gray came at age 13. The 1945 film version (starring Hurd ‘Who?’ Hatfield) was the afternoon ITV matinee.

That film blew my tweenage mind. I knew of Oscar Wilde – Morrissey went on about him, and he was always the answer to quote questions on Going For Gold – but I didn’t know much of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. I found the story beguiling, and the one-liners killer; plus the film itself seemed very inventive. It was in black and white, but whenever it showed Dorian’s portrait, it switched to fantastic technicolour. When I saw the final, degenerate painting, I gasped in horror. (It’s here, but for the full effect I’d recommend not peeping and seeking out the movie instead).

I read the book shortly afterwards. Not much can compare with experiencing Oscar Wilde at that age. Wow. Who were these waspish sophisticates with an aphorism for every mood? I really thought I might become Lord Henry Wotton as an adult. Never mind that I was in some crap area of Norwich, and my day involved thinking up excuses to get out of cross-country running rather than flirting with duchesses and renaming orchids. I was in the gutter but, yes, I was looking at the stars.

He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience.

Nicky said that The Picture Of Dorian Gray meant a lot to him when he was growing up. I think it’s one of those special texts: key in forming a persona, or at least key in forming an ideal of what we’d like our persona to be. And, in Nicky, I can definitely see its influence.

Exhibit one: wit. Every advent Nicky counts down his ‘sexy boys’ chart. His type isn’t really my type (Jedward got in there!) but his commentaries make me cry with laughter. Last year, when talking about some actor no-one’s heard of (Ben Chaplin? Hurd Hatfield?), he wrote ‘He always seems to get in the lower reaches of the chart. Much like All About Eve singles in the late 80s.’

Exhibit two: sociability. An absolute joy to be around. We’ve started a semi-regular cinema club!

Exhibit three: disinhibition. Open and honest about all sorts of stuff – from sexual behaviour to Eurovision fan politics – he’s prompted me to think about relationships, sex, identity, and celebrity, in myriad different ways.

He’s far more Lord Henry’s heir than I am. Damn it.

                          ‘Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure.’

It’s interesting to (re)read a book whose plot is so well-known in popular culture. The shorthand – vain pretty boy makes a Faustian pact that his portrait, not he, will age, and then goes on a massive debauchery binge – is pretty much what happens. But, as with any distillation, it conceals as much as it reveals.

Reading The Picture Of Dorian Gray as an adult, I found it to be a very sad novel. It is as much of an unapologetic ode to hedonism as Crime And Punishment is a sanction for the cracking wheeze of murder. Dorian is a paradoxical character. He is, at once, amoral and virtuous; a manipulator and a naïf; an anti-intellectual and a nerd. The lovely young Dorian, at the start of the book, is somewhat laconic and petulant, but absolutely magnetic. Hell, anyone would fall in love with him.

He does not stay so pure after he meets Lord Henry. Henry is an endlessly quotable bon vivant, and Dorian seeks to be both what he thinks Henry will desire (a young and beautiful man) and what he thinks Henry is (a pleasure-seeking wit). The pair enter into a Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle relationship, the key dynamic of the book; and it is Henry’s speech on how youth is the only thing worth possessing that prompts Dorian to strike his fateful bargain.

Henry gives Dorian a present.

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.

Ah! That’s bloody well À Rebours! I can’t believe how that book has followed me around this year. Although Wilde never names it, it’s such a unique work and once read, it’s easy to recognise any allusion to it. Chapter Eleven is almost completely given over to a parody (or an homage) to the narrative style of À Rebours, as Dorian meditates on his possessions and what they represent.

The King of Ceilan rode through the city with a large ruby in his hand, at the ceremony of his coronation. The gates of the palace of John The Priest were ‘made of sardius, with the horn of the horned snake inwrought.’

So yet another reason why I’m glad to have read À Rebours; I’m sure I would have found this chapter entirely head-scratching if not. Let’s have another picture of it, with its English title, to remind you to read this incredible work.

As the Henry-Dorian relationship progresses, its initial teacher-pupil aspect becomes far less straightforward. Although he wants to emulate Henry, Dorian is simply unable to do so. People love and indulge Henry, and when he is outrageous, it only serves to enhance his standing. Dorian, though, is different; he can beguile like no other, but once his initial charm impact wears off, he is seldom a popular presence in a gathering. He doesn’t have the élan of Henry – he’s too brooding, too conflicted, and his secret picture drags after him like a beached whale.

What is left to Dorian? Drugs. Sex. Material goods. Cruelty for the sake of feeling momentarily powerful. Looking into the mirror at his never-changing appearance. And all this makes society dislike him further. I found it fascinating how Dorian’s behaviour becomes more delinquent the older he gets: the amoralist, manipulator, and anti-intellectual win out, but in a very joyless way. In life, this is rarely spoken of, but it rings true. While younger, we may be afraid of consequence: age brings a new fuck-it-ness. Plus, if we do something exhilarating once (perhaps without exactly intending to) then we learn we can, and are far more likely to do it again. Yet, with each repetition, our tolerance grows, and the taste of transgression becomes blander.

Dorian and Henry are the headline acts in this novel, and I could see why each was so enticing to me at a younger age. But, reading now, it is the portrait-painter, Basil Hallward, whose tragedy struck me the most. In love with Dorian from the very start of the book, Basil watches his beloved muse get sucked in to a new life, and you can feel every jagged shard of his broken heart.

He drove off by himself, as had been arranged, and watched the flashing lights of the little brougham in front of him. He felt that Dorian Gray would never again be to him all that he had been in the past. Life had come between them… His eyes darkened, and the crowded, flaring streets became blurred to his eyes. When the cab drew up at the theatre, it seemed to him that he had grown years older.
It is Basil Hallward who is really Dorian’s picture. He is the one who bears the scars – as it says above, even grows older – as a result of Dorian’s behaviour.

And that’s why I found this book so poignant. Basil Hallward’s suffering is what happens in reality. When we’re cold-blooded or thoughtless, deliberately nasty or uncaringly selfish, the distorted mirror held up to ourselves is not a grotesque self-portrait. Rather, it is painted on the flesh, on the memory, on the very soul, of each person that we hurt.