Wilde, Josefowitz, John Bercow

You do not always get what you see: in bibliography (Wilde) as in life (Bercow)

Wilde, Josefowitz, John Bercow


Dear readers of my blog,

today I am writing my new post on the eve of a trip to Marseilles. As some of you may know my bread-winning job is teaching modern languages at a Gymnasium in East Frisia, which is in the North-Western pocket of Germany just facing the Netherlands. So whenever we travel South, we start off at the North Sea and don't stop until we have reached the Mediterranean, covering about 1,600 km in the process and linking our school with three Lycées at Marseilles plus several others from Paris, Tournai, Vienna and one grammar school from Newcastle. This is the last pre-Brexit meeting of the organisation called Relai de la Mémoire Junior, originally founded in 1989 by survivors of the Shoah and former deportees and resistance fighters to keep alive the memory of the atrocities committed in the Second World War.

As it happens, both Oscar Wilde, the main topic of this blog and website, and Tanya Josefowitz, the Jewish lady I have been writing about lately in my posts, also pass on memories of traumatic experiences. And like John Bercow, the current very controversial Speaker of the House of Commons, Wilde and Josefowitz like to be witty, too.

All three, Wilde, Josefowitz, and Bercow, to mention them according to their year of birth, tend to surprise people by keeping in mind or recalling things that are apt to disturb the majority. Wilde's life culminated in this scandal year of 1895. Ever since then his reception has been marred by the consequences, and it is only with difficulty that the real facts of what he experienced can be separated from the emotional overlay. For example, when I last contacted Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, I became finally convinced I needed to have Stuart Mason alias Christopher Millard's bibliography as a constant reference in my library. At the same time, I asked Merlin about “Oscariana” which he replied was very rare, so that I tried to find it myself. In fact, it was only in 2014 that Hermida Editores in Spain had issued a collection under the same title. Then I also tried to find an Italian edition, but was shown the same as for Spain, as if the provider failed to distinguish between the two languages. With the help of a friend from York and another from Madrid, I was soon able to check the contents myself. Only the “Oscariana. Epigrams” reprinted by Head of Zeus in 2018 without the author's name on the cover can be called the real thing. It is a facsimile with all the typos the original had, a proof copy of which can be found at Oxford.

The Spanish book, however, perpetuates a bibliographical blunder perhaps committed on purpose in 1904 by the same printer, Arthur L. Humphreys, who had done the first and second editions in Wilde's lifetime, in 1895, that is, Mason's nos. 628 and 629, to be precise, and who re-entitled what had been “Sebastian Melmoth”, again without Wilde's name on the cover, “Oscariana”, before, eventually, in 1910, Oscar Wilde figured on the cover again.

The permanent damage, however, seems to have been done then, for, apart from the Spanish publisher, there may have been others who took what they saw for what they got. In fact, it was not Wilde's own selection nor his method of displaying and arranging his epigrams that most readers have been buying since 1904. Stuart Mason's bibliography first appeared in 1914 but that does not seem to have affected editors and publishers alike. What I understand from Luis Antonio de Villena's “Prólogo” to “Oscariana” in Spanish is that the work itself was first published in 1910. This is definitely not true.

You may wonder why I write about bibliographical matters today. For once, they have started to fascinate me when I committed the blunder of considering myself the first-ever translator of the Lippincott's text of Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray into German. I was only the third – which my then publisher took advantage of to talk me into preparing the first-ever uncensored text of the novel as well as translating it into German. So I was not surprised this time to discover that others may commit similar mistakes with respect to the bibliography of Oscar Wilde, the only biography most writers ever like to talk about.

Wilde, like Josefowitz and Bercow's ancestors, emigrated. While Wilde had crossed the Irish Sea to read Greats at Oxford and chose to stay on in England, Josefowitz had to leave Germany with her family in early 1938 – given that with her father, Ilya Kagan, being Russian, the whole family were sent an expulsion order in February 1938. Bercow's grandfather had had to leave Russia in 1900, arriving in London at the age of 16. Later, Josefowitz also lived in London, where she also wrote her memoir “I Remember”.

Like Wilde's great letter De Profundis, which he wrote in prison, Josefowitz' memoir, as the title indicates, does not record facts. It is emotions and incidents as they came back to her rather than the correct chronology of the events in the dramatic months of the family's flight from Nazi Germany that are relayed to the world of today. Both in De Profundis and in “I Remember” moments of great anxiety and other partly traumatic emotions come to life, so that it is not only descendants whose feelings are stirred whenever the wrong adjective is used to describe experiences that they – in their family genes – consider to be primary ones having heard the story so many times by the generations concerned.

Neither a survivor nor his or her descendants can bear to have called their experience a lucky or even happy one – even if, objectively and compared to so many others' lives, these might be the right epithets to describe them. In Wilde's case, however, everything was unhappy and unlucky at the end of day, and for many he is still only an individual rather than the forerunner of much darker times when prejudice and hatred made sure that all social outsiders became the target of what is considered “the majority society”.

In fact, when John Bercow's grandfather arrived in London (I take the idea to write about him in this context from an article that appeared in Jüdische Rundschau, 2, February 2019, a Jewish monthly published in Berlin), Wilde was still persona non grata in England and Ireland, and many Jews who then went on to Ireland to perhaps emigrate to America but did not do so in the end finally dropped their Jewish surnames to disappear in the Catholic Irish mainstream – as did the great-grandfather of a friend of mine now living in Germany whom I interviewed on that matter twenty years ago. In London, this was not necessary, so that John Bercow, that man's grandson could rise to be the speaker of the House of Commons – with Benjamin Disraeli, writer and politician, a Tory Prime Minister in the 19th century, having been a Jewish statesman of renown well before him. Disraeli (1804-1881) was born when the rule Bercow referred to yesterday in his intervention to stop the British Government to have a third “Meaningful Vote” on “the same or substantially the same” Brexit Deal motion, had already been laid down for two hundred years.

Interestingly, this happened only a year after Queen Elizabeth I had died. So there must have been a reason why Parliament then was authorized to stop the King from presenting a bill ad infinitum until it would eventually be adopted. 1604 was also the year when Shakespeare's Othello war first performed – a play in which race and intrigue play an important part. And it is clear that with Antisemitism still a part of both British, European, and global politics such an intervention as that by John Bercow yesterday could trigger another outburst.

While I do not want to go into such a negative scenario, I would rather suggest, in a more positive vein, that in pointing this specific rule out from the many rules laid down for the House of Commons – which like Case Law go back many centuries – John Bercow only did what many politicians in his own party and in other British parties have consistently tried to run away from: history as part of their own present with the challenge to integrate it into what they try to construct as the future of their own country in a European and global context.

It is not only the proverbial “The rest is history” which can explain the historical amnesia touching those who as in blind man's buff stumbled into the Brexit Referendum without ever considering the consequences for the fragile structure the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been since 1998. Rather it is a complete neglect of what has been lost ever since the demise of the Empire by the closure of the Imperial Office on 31st July 1966 – the very Sunday on which all the papers were full of patriotism following the World Cup win by the English national team at Wembley on Saturday, 30th July 1966 – which the world at large only knows for what became the “Wembley goal”.

What could have been gained since the UK joined the EEC in 1973, some people may never have grasped, and they were not interested in having young people realize this fully, so that the latter did not feel they had to exercise their right of vote in June 2016. Now they should know better, and John Bercow knows his English parliamentary history well enough, better than most of his colleagues, I think, to have raised the subject of that rule established when Shakespeare was still alive.

He is almost my coeval, so I understand him to be a voice from the United Kingdom hailing from my own generation and willing to relay from history not only wishful thinking but also thorny facts of life. By not paving the way for a fatal third vote on Brexit just ten days before the exit date, Bercow has managed to bring to a head once again the issues at stake in this drama of real life. With neither the Queen – officially so – nor her Prime Minister – for health and other reason – in possession of the voice of the people, it is him alone who looks back not in anger but sine ira et studio to discover that four centuries ago Parliament had already laid down the rules for such a case.

One might argue, as a BBC journalist did yesterday, that rules are there to be changed, but if you keep in mind the fact that democracy is about caring for all the people who vote rather than only for those who voted for oneself, it was only Bercow's duty to point out this rule once he had discovered its existence. As in an English court of law, this is often only due to the wit of the counsel involved, and I can appreciate that many politicians just do not like to have such a rule quoted at them when they are about to cheat everyone into the belief that their only interest is in delivering on the people's vote.

It is the few, dear readers, rather than the many who tip the balance in many such cases. The many frequently only follow the band-wagon, which means that they keep their mouths shut. When you are relaying memories of whatever crises there were you cannot fail to stun into silence or rouse to angry indignation all those who have all sorts of reasons to hope for general silence. Bercow, like Wilde and Josefowitz, deserve a hearing in these times, be it only for the sincerity of their verbal interventions which provide hope in terms of their gift of the gab, their humour, and their depth.

Wishing you a nice week of spring all the same,

Jörg W. Rademacher,

19th March 2019


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