An entirely new kind of biography, Built of Books explores the mind and personality of Oscar Wilde through his taste in books
This intimate account of Oscar Wilde’s life and writings is richer, livelier, and more personal than any book available about the brilliant writer, revealing a man who built himself out of books. His library was his reality, the source of so much that was vital to his life. A reader first, his readerly encounters, out of all of life’s pursuits, are seen to be as significant as his most important relationships with friends, family, or lovers. Wilde’s library, which Thomas Wright spent twenty years reading, provides the intellectual (and emotional) climate at the core of this deeply engaging portrait.
One of the book’s happiest surprises is the story of the author’s adventure reading Wilde’s library. Reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional hero who enters Cervantes’s mind by saturating himself in the culture of sixteenth-century Spain, Wright employs Wilde as his own Virgilian guide to world
literature. We come to understand how reading can be an extremely sensual experience, producing a physical as well as a spiritual delight.
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Thomas Wright was educated at Saint Thomas More School in Bedford, England. He lectures frequently on Wilde, and has written countless articles about him. The author of Oscar Wilde’s Table Talk, Wright lives in Genoa and London, and sometimes writes about subjects unconnected with his hero.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. ‘Hear the song of Oscar!’
WHEN WILDE MADE his entrance on to the world’s stage on 16 October 1854, his mother came up with a name that produced intensely romantic vibrations: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde.* Christening was a matter of the utmost importance for Wilde – like one of his fictional heroes, he believed that ‘names are everything’.1
Lovely names, he thought, could make even the ugliest objects beautiful: cigars were vile things, but when called ‘nut-brown cigarettes’ they became charming.2 Wilde’s friends too, were altered forever when he baptised them anew with names drawn from books. What unimaginative people referred to as the ‘real’ world could be transformed, apotheosised, and endowed with meaning through words, which took its brazen objects and magically turned them into gold.
It was imperative then, that the bloody, screaming baby boy was licked quickly by language into shape and significance, and elevated from the mundane and formless world of nature to the golden world of words. Wilde’s mother, a famous poetess, proved equal to the task by conferring on her second son a name both marvellous and musical (Wilde’s elder brother, Willie, had been born in 1852).
Two of Wilde’s names, ‘Oscar’ and ‘Fingal’, were drawn from James Macpherson’s celebrated eighteenth-century Ossian poems, which were based on ancient Celtic mythology; O’Flahertie was the name of a famously fierce Irish clan.3 Fingal is Macpherson’s name for Fionn MacCumhaill, the legendary Irish poet and warrior king. Oscar is Fingal’s grandson, and the son of the poet Ossian. According to one Celtic legend, a version of which Wilde would narrate years later, Ossian is enchanted by a fairy woman called Niamh, who carries him over the seas to Tír na nOg, the Celtic country of the eternally young, where the fairy child Oscar is born. After three hundred years, Ossian yearns to revisit the land of his fathers. Niamh warns him never to dismount from his horse in the land of mortal men – if he does, the three hundred years he has spent in Tír na nOg will suddenly catch up with him. But alas, when he returns, Ossian’s foot does touch the earth; his three hundred years suddenly fall upon him, and he is bowed double, and his beard sweeps the ground.4
Macpherson’s reconstruction of Celtic mythology, which draws on the rich oral folk traditions of Ireland and Scotland as well as on ancient manuscripts, has an epic flavour. It is full of archetypal stories concerning warriors, bards and women of ethereal beauty, who people a misty landscape haunted by ghosts and memories. The style too, with its solemn and plangent music and its extravagant formulaic epithets, has an epic grandeur. The young warrior Oscar is hailed as ‘the chief of every youth’, ‘the King of many songs’, ‘Oscar of the future fights’, and ‘Oscar of the dark brown hair’. His father and grandfather continually exhort him to heroic deeds: ‘O Oscar, pride of youth . . . Pursue the fame of thy fathers . . . Their deeds are the songs of bards.’ Oscar takes up their challenge, and resolves to seek renown. Though he may fall, his death will be fully recompensed, so long as some future bard shall announce at the feast, ‘Hear the song of Oscar!’
Lady Wilde, who liked to be referred to by her pen-name Speranza, chose the names precisely because they were ‘grand, misty, and Ossianic’;5 she doubtless hoped they would inspire her son to deeds of greatness. She had glorious plans for her two boys, describing them as ‘all I have to live for’.6 She looked forward to the time when Wilde’s brother Willie would be ‘a Hero and perhaps President of the future Irish Republic’.7 She harboured similar ambitions for her second son, later urging him to take the English parliament by storm as an MP; failing that, he must become the most celebrated writer in English since Byron.
Speranza encouraged her youngest boy to emulate his legendary namesake by dressing him in the garb of an Ossianic hero. In the earliest surviving photograph of Wilde, taken when he was about two, he wears what appears to be the costume of an ancient Celtic warrior.8 The infant looks out with his dark and heavy-lidded eyes; his expression is serious, his physique robust and his bearing stately. Even at that early date, he seems to have no difficulty in living up to his heroic name.
Speranza often read poetry to her children, and her fondness for Macpherson, as well as for other versions of the Oscar legend, makes it highly likely that Wilde imbibed the myths surrounding his name from his mother.9 Perhaps he heard them as he lay in bed in the Wildes’ grand house in Dublin’s fashionable Merrion Square, or in the nursery there. He would not, of course, have understood all of the words, but they would have enchanted him like a magical incantation or a piece of marvellous music. Wilde was described, by a visitor to the house, as ‘an affectionate, gentle, retiring, dreamy boy’,10 and such boys are often susceptible to poetry’s sound and suggestiveness.
The fertile fancy of the dreamy boy was doubtless fired by the heroic images, as his mother declaimed Macpherson’s sonorous phrases: ‘O Oscar!’ (she pronounced the name ‘As-car’) ‘be thou like the age of Fingal. Never search thou for battle; nor shun it when it comes.’ And with what delicious melancholy must she have read the passages that narrate his death. ‘Ossian, carry me to the hills!’ the blood-soaked warrior whispers at his last. ‘Raise the stones of my renown . . . place my sword by my side.’
Speranza would have performed the poem with gusto. Flamboyant, exuberant and innately theatrical, she described herself as ‘wild, rebellious’ and ‘ambitious’. ‘I wish,’ she told a friend, ‘I could satiate [myself] with Empires, though a Saint Helena were the end.’11 Instead, she satisfied herself by writing the fervent Irish Nationalist poetry that made her famous throughout Ireland, and by creating a grand personality. As part of her self-fashioning, she continually improved on ‘facts’ by lying about her age and ancestry; through such means, she kept her two bêtes noires, nature and the ‘real’ world, at a safe distance. Children often regard their parents as all-powerful sources of comfort and authority, but Speranza, who thought of herself as ‘first cousin to Aetena and half-sister to Vesuvius’12 must have seemed goddess-like to the young Wilde. He worshipped and adored her.
Wilde was, in a sense, born out of a book and, when he looked back on his baptism, he was well pleased. He delighted in Celtic mythology, which, he said, revealed ‘the loveliness of the world . . . through a mist of tears’; his renditions of some of its famous episodes formed part of his repertoire of spoken stories. He also adored the ‘passionate melancholy’ of the Ossian poems. Macpherson’s verse, he argued, had revolutionised ‘dull’ eighteenth-century literature and offered the Romantic poets of the succeeding century a ‘well of undefiled pure poetry’ to draw from.13
Most of Macpherson’s first readers accepted his claim that the poems were collated from the writings of the ancient bard Ossian. Historians of ancient Ireland quoted them as authoritative sources; archaeologists dated their finds according to the events they described. By Wilde’s time, however, Macpherson’s ‘hoax’ was quite exploded: it was widely known that the poet had conflated ancient oral and written sources with many passages of his own invention. The fact that Ossian was a ‘forgery’, or what might be called a ‘bastard’ book, did not concern Wilde in the slightest. He defended the poet, on the grounds that ‘to censure an artist for forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem’.14Speranza in her mid-fifties, painted by J. St. C. Liddell.
Wilde was delighted by the sound of his name as well as by its provenance. As a two-year-old, he entertained a group of drawing-room guests at Merrion Square by reciting it repeatedly: ‘Oscar, Fingal, O’Flahertie, Wilde . . . Oscar, Fingal, O’Flahertie, Wilde’.15 While his school companions later laughed at these romantic appellations, Wilde relished them. He signed his early poetical publications, and autographed many of his own books, with all of his names; in later life, he lamented the fact that he was forced to drop some of them. ‘A name which is destined to be in everybody’s mouth must not be too long,’ he explained. ‘It comes so expensive in the advertisements . . . All but two of my names have been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply as “The Wilde” or “The Oscar”.’16
* Later Wilde also adopted ‘Wills’ as a middle name, because of a family connection with the Roscommon Wills’s.
Excerpted from Built of Books by .
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Wright.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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Book Description Henry Holt and Co., 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 0805089934 Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde. Bookseller Inventory # IM119958
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