Addendum in English only: Oscar Wilde and Graham Swift: illusionists of literature

Dear readers of my blog,

certainly it is not a very convincing move to announce a few days ago I would not write on Graham Swift again for some time to come and to do so within less than a week. It might have been otherwise in a study with piles of work undone and lots of papers lost for the time being in files difficult to find because of being in no order whatsoever.

At the moment, though, owing to a refurbishment of my study that I had been thinking of for some time and which was realized, delivered and mounted by a local company of joiners according to my plans last week, I for once see through many angles of my work that normally seem to be hidden away. As a result, I also looked through newspaper articles kept during the period when the schools were completely closed, and there was one article I came across just after having uploaded the last blog post which dealt with Mothering Sunday as well as with Here We Are by Graham Swift.

While rereading this good article I recalled my first perusal and a silent wish on my part not to allow myself to fall under the spell of the reviewer's drift. In fact, this did not happen, though I still agree with most of his observations on both novels. Lothar Müller from the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, based in Munich, insists on Swift's view of all people being “secret agents”, both in the literal sense of following Joseph Conrad's novel of that title, which is an influence on Jane Fairchild, the narrator in Mothering Sunday, and in the figurative sense of living with their secrets all their lives.

While I would not have highlighted this strand of both novels as much as Müller does because I am not as much into the novels of Joseph Conrad, preferring Ford Madox Ford and Oscar Wilde to him, I definitely share his judgment that Here We Are is a novel, a tale rather, causing the readers to marvel because nothing everything can be fully explained. It is clear, however, that my own favourites, Wilde and Ford, share Conrad's way of telling stories within tales as well as in the framework of more realistic novels.

Helpfully, Müller also reverts to the original English, quoting the sentence: “He was moving from magic towards wizardry”. It is only here that Müller also mentions how consistently Susanne Höbel translates the differences in terminology between “magic” with its “tricks” and “wizardry”.

In terms of precision, Müller does not quite reach the translator's standards, failing to realize that Ronnie's surname is “Deane” with the end-e and, more importantly, that it is Jack rather than Ronnie himself who hatches the idea of adding “the great” to his first name (p. 118 of the German edition). So it is the friend with connections in the music hall world who provides Ronnie with everything before being also responsible for Ronnie's losing almost everything when Evie White fails to accompany her partner on stage and fiancé to London where he arrives too late to see his mother alive.

As part of a blog on Oscar Wilde, this post, you may have guessed it, while being exclusively in English this time, is going to deal with an essay Wilde wrote and published in 1885, first entitled “Shakespeare and Stage Costumes” and later republished as “The Truth of Masks” (1891) in the context of Graham Swift. This was also an idea that emerged as an afterthought when browsing in my personal library that is now much more accessible than before and discovering that I had even on first reading this essay noted Wilde's comments on Victor Hugo's novel Notre-Dame de Paris – 1482, a new edition of which has kept me busy for several months on end now. Before turning this blog into a triangular affair let me first state how helpful it is – even though the idea may not make anyone applaud with enthusiasm – to think of reshaping one's surroundings, one's workspace every now and then. Nobody can keep in mind everything he or she has ever done, so rearranging one's study also means to discover what one has forgotten or repressed. At the same time, such activities slow down the everyday toil in one's hamster wheel, something Oscar Wilde whose letters were sometimes written in such haste that there were only two words per line probably only learned when in Reading Gaol he was given a certain amount of writing-paper he had to make do with when penning his letter De Profundis clamavi. Before he could ever perform such an ordering job, he had lost everything that might have belonged to his study and/or library at the auction of 24th April 1895.

At Reading Gaol, he also had to hand in both writing-paper and pen every evening so that his cell except for the books he was allowed to keep was bare and certainly materials did not accumulate to obscure his vision of the past he was trying to put into words. Reality as he was experiencing it behind prison bars could no longer serve as a mask to prevent him from seeing through the machinations of the people he was dealing with. In order to apprehend what I failed to realize when first reading Wilde extensively in the spring of 1989 and then again in 1991, I only needed to register that I made no mark whatsoever in the two letters to the editor Wilde, once released from prison, wrote to The Daily Chronicle about prison reform in May 1897 and in March 1898 when he had already issued his last poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Too much immersed into literary studies pure and simple, I failed to understand the relationship between the letter “De Produndis clamavi” addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas but never sent in Wilde's lifetime and the two published letters to the editor. So I equally missed the point as to Wilde's own life of the metaphor of the mask.

To return to Graham Swift's novel Here We Are, what struck me at once when looking at Wilde's essay again was its sub-title: “A Note on Illusion”, something which is part and parcel of any text concerned with magic. Wilde tries to make his point vigorously from the start, saying by way of introduction that “anybody who cares to study Shakespeare's method will see that there is absolutely no dramatist of the French, English or Athenian stage who relies so much for his illusionist effects on the dress of his actors as Shakespeare does himself” (“The Truth of Masks”, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. Vyvyan Holland, Glasgow, Collins, 1983, p. 1060-1078; quotation: p. 1060).

To state it clearly, there are illusionist aspects to Shakespeare's plots as well such as in The Winter's Tale. The disappearance of Ronnie is certainly linked to the moment when both his mother and foster-father have died recently and he has become aware of Evie's desertion, too. This is a point of view more or less withheld from the readers who need to infer it from the other characters' perspectives. In a sense, Ronnie for most of the novel is the absent protagonist and it is in illusions such as the very real one of the spider's web that Evie walks through on the morning of the day she recalls both Ronnie and her life with Jack that the magician is most present. One might be justified in applying Wilde's description of the stage directions Shakespeare devised for the performance of Henry the Eighth to Swift's novel: “Knowing how the artistic temperament is always fascinated by the beauty of costume, [Shakespeare] constantly introduces into his plays masques and dances, purely for the sake of the pleasure which they give the eye; and we still have his stage-directions for the three great processions in Henry the Eighth, directions which are characterised by the most extraordinary elaborateness of detail down to the collars of S.S. and the pearls in Anne Boleyn's hair. Indeed, it would be quite easy for a modern manager to reproduce these pageants absolutely as Shakespeare had them designed […].” (“The Truth of Masks”, p. 1060) While Swift wrote a novel, not a play, the director of a film can reproduce his descriptions of the spider's web and Evie's way of being caught in it (German edition, pp. 1023/124) just as accurately as Wilde claims for a Shakespeare play in the context of a production in the 19th century. It was in the year of his downfall, in 1895, that cinematic performances started, and Wilde may have been aware of them in Paris in exile but it was too late for him to witness a another twist to the story of how masks can be worn – in film, that is. This development of the modern media only affected his works when he was no longer able to influence it himself.

So you see that I was right not to make this blog post a part of what would then have to be called a tetralogy. I prefer it this way, for it has allowed me to reflect on media history as well, and works by both Swift and Wilde have been turned into films. It is perhaps easier to make someone disappear altogether in a film than to make a picture age rather than the protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Gray. This, too, is one of the great illusions of literature, just as what Puck does in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a Shakespearean character impersonated by Jack Robbins in his later years (p. 85 of the German edition). In his own way, Jack, in the constant company of Evie, had become an illusionist, while his early part as the master of ceremonies on Brighton Pier had conveniently been forgotten by all but himself and Evie. This is another difference between a writer like Wilde whose star rose steeply and fell in like manner and Swift who has been around for almost forty years now and thus been able to look back on so much living history himself that his way of writing fragmented fictional biographies – as he does in Mothering Sunday and Here We Are – is equally authentic because of the detailed descriptions and a marvel as the mysteries neither life nor literature can ever resolve.

Wishing you a nice summer, I am wary to even indicate when I am going to upload the next post but hope you may spend in reading and imagining what you cannot experience at the moment in other ways than by keeping a certain spatial and social distance,

Keep in touch and keep well, with and without apprehending the truths of whatever masks you meet and wear, and beware, they might tear,

Jörg W. Rademacher, 7th July 2020


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