Charting Wilde's journey from insouciant wit to fame - and exile

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Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 576 pp. $24.95. I fell in love with Oscar Wilde when I was 16. I had read somewhere that he was imprisoned for homosexuality - precisely the sort of thing I hoped would shock our stodgy, crew-cut, athletic English teacher, who had assigned us each to choose a famous writer for our term projects. I read everything by or about Wilde that I could find, from his once-scandalous play ``Salome'' to Rupert Croft-Cooke's biographical attempt to vindicate Lord Alfred Douglas, ``Bosie.''

Reading Hesketh Pearson's engaging life of Wilde, until now the standard biography, I felt tacitly reprimanded for my girlish curiosity about Wilde's sex life, even as I came to admire all the more his ebullience, generosity, wit, and courage. Yet Wilde's genius - in art and in life - is intrinsically related to his personality and the myth he managed to make of himself, both in the years of his meteoric ascent to fame and in his last years, ``when in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes.''

The late Richard Ellmann, distinguished biographer of Yeats and Joyce, restores to our picture of Oscar Wilde not only a profound sense of the pity of his last years in prison and in exile, but also a sense of the difficulties of his brilliant, seemingly insouciant early years. Wilde's gifts as a classicist (at Oxford and, before that, at Trinity College in his native Dublin), his winning the Newdigate Prize for his poem ``Ravenna,'' his enthusiasm for the ideas of Ruskin and Pater, did not pave the way to instant success.

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Although he gained some notoriety as the prototype for the aesthete satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan's ``Patience,'' it took a self-publicizing lecture tour in America to establish his reputation. Ellmann gives the schedule of this tour, which looks even more strenuous than those of modern presidential candidates.

The product of some 20 years' research, Ellmann's life of Wilde pins down a number of details, from the probable cause of Wilde's syphilis to the factors leading to his early death. It is generally believed that Wilde did not engage in homosexual relations until he was in his early 30s, already married and a father.

Surprisingly, Ellmann's book provides less of a sense of Wilde's social milieu during the years of his great social and artistic success than other books on the subject. His portraits of Wilde's friends and contemporaries are sketchy. And one misses a sense of the joie de vivre that seems to have animated Wilde in those happy years. What this book does provide, however, is a subtle, sympathetic, profoundly judicious understanding of Wilde's personality, which enables Ellmann to present Wilde's tragedy in all its complexity.

And it is a tragedy in the classic sense: Wilde's infatuation with Alfred Douglas led him, against his own better judgment, to become involved in a feud between a belligerent, litigious father and a spoiled, temperamental son who loved to make ``scenes.'' Responding to Queensbury's insults by instigating a libel suit was surely hubris on Wilde's part. Martyrdom was not far behind. Having lost the case, faced with the certainty of criminal prosecution for ``gross indecency,'' Wilde was urged by nearly all his friends to flee to the Continent.

But, in his own words, ``I decided that it was nobler and more beautiful to stay.'' His decision was understood by Yeats, who later wrote, ``I have never doubted ... that he made the right decision, and that he owes to that decision half of his renown.'' It may also have cost him his health, his happiness, and his life, for he died in 1900 in exile at the age of 46, just 3 years after serving a two-year prison sentence that included hard labor, malnutrition, and countless other forms of deprivation, physical and spiritual.

Writing about an earlier crisis, Ellman makes an important observation about his subject: ``If he felt ennobled by victimization, he liked better not being victimized, a point not always recognized by students of his character.''

Wilde was one of those rare personalities who dominated an era by sheer force of charm. No one who heard him speak ever forgot the experience. People who had conceived a prejudice against one they considered a posturing, pretentious aesthete were won over when they actually met him, dazzled by his wit, and disarmed by his warmth and kindness.

Much of what made him so enchanting is evident in his writings: in the witty, melancholy fairy tales he wrote to amuse his little sons; in scintillating essays like ``The Decay of Lying'' and ``The Soul of Man under Socialism'' (still the most lucid and graceful refutation of the notion - still with us - that individualism depends on the possession of private property); in the sparkling comedies, from ``Lady Windermere's Fan'' to Wilde's generally acknowledged masterpiece, ``The Importance of Being Earnest.'' (``There are two ways of disliking my plays,'' Wilde once said. ``One is to dislike them, the other is to like Earnest.'') And the stark power of ``The Ballad of Reading Gaol''; the raw emotion and polished cadences of his letter from prison, ``De Profundis''; and the intoxicating blend of aestheticism and moralism of his only novel, ``The Picture of Dorian Gray,'' continue to magnetize new generations of readers.

Wilde's voice - in life his most distinctive feature - reconstructs itself on the written page: self-dramatizing, self-indulgent, self-mocking, self-delighting:

``When one is in love one begins by deceiving oneself. And one ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.''

``... Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.''

``... a cynic ... [is] a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.''

``To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.''

Biographers proceed at some peril. (``I think they love not art/ Who breaks the crystal of a poet's heart,'' wrote Wilde in a sonnet about Keats.) Ellmann's life of Wilde is surely frank enough to suit the standards of our clinical age, but if he cuts to the heart of the matter, it is only to increase our regard for the man and his art.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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