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Richard Eder

The Impossibility of Being Oscar : OSCAR WILDE by Richard Ellmann (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 630 pp.)

February 14, 1988|RICHARD EDER

The late Richard Ellmann, along with Henry James' alter ego, Leon Edel, was one of two giants among contemporary American literary biographers. His life of James Joyce was precisely that; not so much a book as a life. It did not simply lie there, written; it was attended and nurtured as if Joyce continued to live and change his clothes and, at least in small ways, his mind.

Ellmann's "James Joyce" hangs in the memory like one more of Joyce's creations, along with "Dubliners," "Portrait" and "Ulysses." So fully did Ellmann explore his work and his life together, attaching them, that it is hard now to think of Daedalus and Bloom peregrinating around Dublin without recollecting bits of Ellmann's Joyce going about Trieste, Paris and Zurich.

Ellmann, who died last year, spent the last part of his life on a second major biography. You could almost think of it as a second marriage, so strong is the commitment and our sense of a writer taking his subject by the hand and leading him firmly into the daylight. Unlike many second marriages, it is stormier than the first.

Oscar Wilde is not easily led. Ellmann's biography is authoritative and daring, and incontestably the best book we have seen or are likely to see on the subject. But there is an air of struggle to it.

It is as if the subject did not entirely want to come, as if he was not fully content to inhabit Ellmann's meanings, as if, his many masks painstakingly lifted, he was perversely signaling us: This too is a mask: I have got away; or even, finally: A mask is all that is there.

Ellmann does everything a biographer could do, and some things that few biographers have the courage and talent to do. He refuses to net the butterfly Wilde; he flies with him, instead. In his biographer's flying machine, as agile and stripped down as such a thing can be, but still--since it is his task to find a theme and a direction--subject to the limitations of an airplane flying a butterfly course.

He sets his direction at the start. Wilde's theme, he writes, "is not, as is often supposed, art's divorce from life, but its inescapable arraignment by experience."

Ellmann's Wilde is the tragic artist beneath the bubbly one. In part, it is the tragedy of his life, wrecked by jail and disgrace over his homosexual affairs, and voiced in "De Profundis," his long unsent prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, his lover. Essentially, it is the tragedy of modernism, where the world disappears and art's subject becomes itself, flaming out in a void and ultimately suffering the void's consequences.

The frivolity of "The Importance of Being Earnest," the somber fireworks of "Dorian Gray" and the ornate decadence of "Salome" all announced the bad news in their vastly different ways.

Wilde was thought of as the hilarious shocker of the Victorians; Ellmann gives him to us as the Victorian who took upon himself the shock of this bad news, turned it into performance and stood the blame. Perhaps he let his countrymen off lightly; decadence could be ascribed to him rather than to the turning of the planet.

Ellmann places Wilde in a setting whose liveliness comes from the biographer's mastery of both detail and storytelling, and from a wit that occasionally steps outside for a breather. In his account of Wilde's destroyers, the beautiful Lord Douglas, and Douglas' vengeful father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he brings out the striking parallels. One loving, one hating, both were monsters of egotism, and probably half-mad.

At one point, the Marquess threatens to whip Wilde "like a dog." Years later, when Wilde is in jail and temporarily refusing to communicate with Douglas, the latter threatens to whip a fancied rival "like a dog." Ellmann observes: "Dogs had little to hope for from the Queensberry family arsenal."

The portraits of Wilde's parents are highly engaging and nicely suggestive of parts of his own future, though without going beyond suggestion. His father was a brilliant and eccentric surgeon, whose career was blighted when a patient complained that he had seduced her under ether. Lady Wilde was flamboyant, an ardent Irish nationalist and a believer in causing shock.

"We are above respectability," she advised her son, who listened. Later, when it seemed likely that Oscar's libel suit against Queensberry for calling him "a somdomist" (sic) would not only be lost but would lead to his own criminal prosecution, she disastrously urged him to fight instead of leaving the country.

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