First test blog entry
Oscar Wilde in Donna Leon's Venice
it has been my wish to spread the word about Oscar Wilde for a long time, while I hesitated to go beyond having books and articles printed. I still do distrust web mechanisms when they are controlled by large money-making institutions, just as I do not fancy one-sided presentations for the sake of silencing minority views. So it took a long time until I finally decided to launch my own blog, concentrating on Oscar Wilde rather than trying to present all my interests.
What I am going to do, however, is to extend the range of subjects and people covered in the course of time.
For this, the very first installment of my blog, written when it was not online yet, I have chosen to review a novel I read while looking for an extract that I might choose for an exam at school. As ever, when you pursue certain interests, it does not take you long to discover such interests everywhere. First, however, here is my review of Donna Leon's novel The Girl of his Dreams (London: Arrow Books 2009 ).
It is the seventeenth installment of a novel series by now spanning almost three decades. I could not remember at all to have read this one in the frenzy of making up time lost by my ignorance of them when I happened to switch on the TV version of it some weeks ago. Struck by the intensity of both plot and feelings combined, I immediately ordered a copy of the original at my local bookstore's.
In the spring of 2013, on eventually turning my attention to Donna Leon's books, I had decided not to buy all the novels but to borrow them at the municipal library. Recently, I did, however, acquire the latest editions for as much as I appreciated most translations – especially the early ones, since I had once met the translator at a seminar in Bavaria – I was more interested still in perusing the originals. So the idea I might make my students examine a passage from this novel in the context of their set text of The Merchant of Venice provided me with the welcome occasion to go and order an earlier installment.
In fact, before I had chance to read it, the class also watched the TV version, and once again I was impressed by the prominent part Vice-Questore Patta plays in the German script. Played by the German-Jewish actor Michael Degen, born in 1932, who survived the Shoah in Berlin alongside his mother, the “film” Patta is a much more humane character in this episode of the Brunetti saga. It is Patta who identifies the dead girl, and so Brunetti goes and interrogates her aunt, a prize-winning photographer, who does not figure in the novel at all.
Officer Alvise is appointed head of a task force in the novel, too, but its work culminating in a test, all of which is relegated to the office of Lieutenant Scarpa in the text, is allowed to form the backbone of scenes of comic relief in the TV drama. My original idea to include the novel in an exam collapsed entirely when I realized the extent of the changes the novel had undergone before it became a TV script. There are very few sequences of dialogue taken verbatim from the novel, and the fact that Brunetti had discovered a German “accent … lurking in” Maresciallo Steiner's voice (p. 172) was perhaps the origin of the idea of turning him into the pivot of a system of crime that involved Rom children once captured in flagranti by the Carabinieri. Indeed, a similar story of exploitation is told in the novel when Brunetti recalls where he had first encountered Giorgio Fornari's name (pp. 223-225). This is the man whose flat had been broken into by the dead girl and her brother.
In the novel, however, cruise ships circulate addresses of “'safe'” shops and restaurants where passengers would also be rewarded by discounts on presentation of “their … identification” (p. 224). The story wouldn't be complete if crew members of the cruise ships didn't turn up on the premises later and ask for their share. It is a more idealist stance adopted by the film-makers since the case is cleared, and Walter Steiner, as he is known in the novel, is arrested as the Carabiniere at the head of a network of thieves employing Rom children in Venice. Ironically, the first time he appears in the film, he is at the helm of his boat. When you last see and identify him as the leading criminal, you just perceive his head.
In the novel, though, not even the death of the girl can be properly explained, while she needs to be buried by “the comune di Venezia” (p. 306), so that opening and closing scenes are set on the cemetery of San Michele, with Brunetti's mother and the dead girl firmly established as points of reference in the policeman's life during that particular investigation. Brunetti's memories of his refusal to attend a Catholic boarding-school in Switzerland seem to have been invented by the script-writer or to have been imported from another novel, while in the book Brunetti more often thinks of her non-interference in his following the footsteps of his father who, owing to his war experience, had no faith at all.
Of course, whatever is read by a character in a novel, is most often passed over in the process of turning a book into a TV version. So the following quote unsurprisingly was missing from the dialogue: “Even so, as Paola insisted, one did not misplace a child. This was not drawing-room comedy with an infant in a leather handbag, left unclaimed in the cloakroom of Victoria station. This was a young girl, missing, but unmissed.” (p. 134) Hilarious, laughable, ridiculous, as one might say with Paola Brunetti, Guido Brunetti's authority on 19th-century literature, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) still is all but the invention of an escapist.
On the contrary, it was necessary to give the plot of the comedy such an incredible twist, otherwise it wouldn't have been staged at all. And the film script of Donna Leon's novel is another proof of the statement that whatever is considered food for thought for individual readers must undergo substantial changes in order to be considered suitable for a TV audience many of whose members would eagerly embrace a colleague's opinion that films like these had never been anything else but Saturday night detective stories.
While a novel can aspire more easily to being a representation of what in reality cannot always be solved, both play and TV audience still seem to share the desire for a solution of problems. And Oscar Wilde's life's lot is a case in point. We are still far from having solved all the riddles of his life, while we enjoy both natural and supernatural solutions he may have come up with in his works. And, of course, he is not alone. Both The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare's immortal creation from the 16th century, and the song “Strange Fruit” created by singer Billie Holiday in 1937 show that the stating of facts in works of art allows us forever to re-enact and try and understand the problems lurking in real life despite all our efforts to forget them. And it is here that Oscar Wilde is still very much our contemporary.
Since this is the first time my blog goes online, I want to encourage you to engage in an ongoing debate on everything you might think worth your while as long as it is broadminded and also touches Oscar Wilde's world view. He was all but narrow-minded and he never failed to perceive the point in things. For example, should you one day wonder why of all subjects I might refer to the game of soccer, please recall that Wilde was a strictly non-playing member of an Oxford cricket club in his student days. I never posed as such but for almost thirty years I have been a strictly non-playing observer of the international football scene, writing and commenting on it just as Wilde would have done about anything he ever had an interest in, fashion, politics, food, etc. I am looking forward to next time,
all best wishes,
Jörg W. Rademacher, October 2018, revised 29th December 2018