Remembering and documenting the genesis of the edition-cum-translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) in 2000
Dear readers of my blog,
while May and June are the main marking season of an active teacher at a German Gymnasium, events in the outside world, even in literature, do not slow down as the year progresses to the phase when it seems difficult to stick to a rhythm established in January. Then all you had to do was try and work according to another plan fed by a bunch of good intentions.
Now, when finals are being played in all kinds of sports, when resilience is asked for on all sides in order to win, the same applies for exams at school as well. Oscar Wilde, for his part, always did much better in the finals than the outside world, or his Dublin or Oxford friends, would have thought and, indeed, did think for a long time after his death. So it may still come as a surprise to some who only know about his life story that the story of his works is also about how painstakingly scrupulous he was with words when composing The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example.
It was roughly at this time of year in the spring of 2000 that I received the microfilms of the MS and the TS of The Picture of Dorian Gray, dispatched as separate parcels from New York City and The University of California in L.A. after I had located the documents on the websites of two libraries with the help of Peter te Boekhorst, a librarian at Münster University Library. Then, having access to the Internet at home was not yet on my agenda for many years to come. I sat in his office, looking over his shoulder when he did the research, all of which I had never witnessed before.
Later, having found out the telephone numbers, I also talked to Debbie Coutavas at the office of New York City Library, imagining the honking yellow taxis during the conversation with this friendly lady who, like Jennifer Schaffner, her counterpart at UCLA’s, was as good as her word. For it was within three or four days that I received both microfilms from the States, turning up at Münster University Library once again to have the microfilm of the TS converted into a sheaf of photocopies I could then work on at home.
For once, I was carefree in terms of paying my immediate living costs, since I had just been granted a six-month stipend for a book with translations of texts written by Franz Hüffer and his son Ford Madox Ford. So I could concentrate on also preparing an edited translation of the Lippincott’s text of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Contracted to a Berlin publisher, to which I had already sent my draft translation back in March, I had thought I was only going to be writing an extended afterword about the genesis of this version of the novel when I was asked to meet my copy editor who happened to visit a friend at Münster over the weekend.
Of course, I was pleased to meet him, for talking over draft translations on the phone with someone unknown had proved to be quite a difficult task in earlier projects. We arranged to meet at the City Library of Münster. Actually, the friendly man, whose name I have forgotten, had been asked to communicate a piece of very bad news to me. Having discovered in one of the big libraries of Berlin that contrary to what I had thought before there had been two translations of the Lippincott’s text in 1901 and in 1970, he had passed on this piece of information to the publisher. Rather than talking to me about it, they had preferred charging this editor, who was making his money as journalist for the Börsenzeitung, something like Germany’s Wall Street Journal, with the responsibility of persuading me into doing a fully edited translation.
We did have a good conversation on the translation which, he found, would stand on its own faced with its predecessor published in 1970 but for the fact that Hanser Verlag Munich had reprinted the two volume Wilde edition five times in the 1970s and 1980s. Economically speaking, I was to provide my publisher with a unique feature in terms of translations of Wilde: producing an uncensored text, that is. Visibly, the editor, whom I have never heard of thereafter, was glad I did not fight his proposal as he might have feared. It was then only that my real adventure of editing and translating The Picture of Dorian Gray as published on 20 June 1890 began.
These memories, as usual, do not add up to the same picture as the notes I made in my diaries in early May 2000 which say that the microfilm from L.A. arrived on the same day, Friday 5 May, that I also talked to Thomas Hack on the phone and that a day after our conversation about the translation I received a call from the publisher’s office in Berlin in which I was told to “translate the typescript” (Monday & Tuesday, 8 & 9 May 2000). In fact, I had received the bad news in the letter returning my draft translation & afterword on 4 May 2000. Indeed, it is often the good memories you remember in detail, while you note the bad ones in your diary – if you do record them at all.
Having now told you about how I came to scrutinize or, rather, take apart the typescript of the novel, I also want to share my current insights into the text. Since all my editions of Wilde texts are in for a revision after the critical edition as sold by Elsinor Verlag ran out of print last year, I equally want to re-issue the English text. Since its publication in 2014, I have repeatedly returned to the details of the novel. For it is simply that every fresh look provides me with a new perspective, while working with the results of other editors has also helped to keep me focused on the various phases informing the process of turning Wilde’s typescript into a published book.
The Internet as such is not always a reliable instrument of research since if you type in “The Picture of Dorian Gray + typescript” what you get is also an advert for a limited and numbered edition of the manuscript in book form:
It goes without saying that you also find multiple references to the “Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray” as edited by Nicholas Frankel in 2011:
This coffee-table book is also a work of scholarship but not the definitive edition of any text of the novel, not least since it is not, as some critics claim following the publisher’s lead on the front flap, an edition of the typescript itself. Interestingly, Frankel himself does not claim to prefer this version to any of the others (Brett Beasley, paragraph 30), since what he makes available to the English-speaking world – and thus to the world at large – is what Beasley in “The Triptych of Dorian Gray (1890–91): Reading Wilde’s Novel as Three Print Objects” calls a “reading text” (Beasley, note 5). So this is a third text that Joseph Bristow in his edition of both texts of the novel in chronological order had failed to produce in 2005.
If you seek to understand what is at stake in this academic discussion it is necessary to look at Beasley’s declaration about his intentions: “Rather than seeking to understand the important differences as those occurring between texts, I want to analyze the important differences that exist between the versions as print objects.” (Beasley, paragraph 4) This means he does not want to find out what exactly happened in the last stages of typing and revising before Wilde dispatched the typescript to America, nor what happened there once the typescript had been read and accepted for publication.
Thus an edition of the Lippincott’s text highlighting both the textual genesis and the acts of self- censorship and censorship committed before and after dispatching the typescript as I prepared it for the German market in 2000 and from which my reading text in English was derived (first issued in 2014 and soon going to be revised) still has to see the light of day. While with hindsight Wilde’s work in progress – and such was “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in its various pre-publication stages – needs to be described in the context of late Victorian society. And it is the accumulation of factual details – textual as much as social, with reference to such minutiae as who did the typing up of the manuscript at what time, producing such and such a typo, for example – that ought to be taken into account as well.
The idea I just expressed is only one result of having examined the typescript closely once again to identify which dashes had arguably already been part of the typescript as opposed to those that were added later on. In the process, I also recently took note of the names of the different typists. The resulting compilation shows that there are some who participated only once or twice, while others took over the helm several times.
That is why it is a typescript done by many hands, perhaps done in a great hurry as well, with Wilde lacking the time, too, to revise the text as patiently as he would have liked since, after all, he was writing and revising to meet a deadline, for the people at Lippincott’s had refused to pay an advance, and he was usually in dire need of money.
Since both Wilde’s novel in 1890 and my translation in the year 2000 primarily were economic ventures, it is clear that any progress in terms of changing the production process of books for the future and in the perception of Wilde’s works as such were also the result of more or less economic considerations. Both my own first publisher in 2000 and the American publisher in 2011 were interested in selling a novel as edited and/or translated from the typescript as a sensation in order to have a marketable commodity. At the same time, the mere question of what this meant in terms of the text then to be printed was conveniently neglected, as one might neglect “vulgar details”, as Wilde was wont to say and write, something he had to pay for dearly in the last five years of his life.
It is in moments of crisis that society, the arts or sciences undergo crucial changes. The digital humanities, as Beasley calls them, might undergo such a change at the moment following the Covid-19 pandemic, and perhaps Wilde studies will profit from that change, too.
For the moment, however, here is, quite unashamedly, as another set of images for this post the cover plus back cover of another collector’s item: my own no. 24 of a limited, numbered and signed print run of 11 hard back copies of over all 66 copies of my edition-cum-translation I issued privately when I could afford to do so.
Before I leave you for today, I would like to remind you that in June every year there is not only the anniversary of the first publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine on the 20th but also, four days earlier, on 16 June, that is, the anniversary of Bloomsday, the historical date when James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was set.
Another four days earlier still, on the 12th, there is the 93rd birthday of Anne Frank, which, this year, is being commemorated in over 600 schools in Germany alone.
These facts are enough to suggest that literature, even if read only or for the most part in translation as in the case of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, does not fail to fascinate readers both young and old. For all these classics the aphorism Wilde wrote about his novel holds true: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
While these words – as all the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray in book form – did not prevent any of the tragic events including the courtroom drama in the spring of 1895, they show to this day that for the sake of literature Wilde was right to insist on the quality of writing. Like James Joyce and also Anne Frank he had to pay for this consistency in his artistic approach to life. In that we have the chance today to revisit the workshop of Wilde’s mind by examining his novel as a work in progress, we should be grateful to any writer who has ever taken such a risk.
And, last but not least, you may even take part in a celebration of Bloomsday at Nuremberg. Take a look at the details included in the last set of images. Maria Eger, the organizer, has for a quarter of a century made sure that every year there was a memorable occasion with food for thought as well as all the senses. Many happy returns!
All best wishes,
Jörg W. Rademacher
Brett Beasley, “The Triptych of Dorian Gray (1890–91): Reading Wilde’s Novel as Three Print Objects”, web publication 2016