Literature

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

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Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

Who Won?

Ross Douglas

When you start doing interviews to promote a book, you have no idea what people are going to ask you. The more you do it, the more patterns emerge. You get an idea of what your own book is from the way people respond to it. You also get better at talking about you work as this process focuses you.

Oscar’s Ghost is about the long-simmering feud between Oscar Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after Wilde’s death. In the few interviews that I have done so far, one question has been consistent, and it’s strange that I never anticipated it.

What people want to know about the feud is: Who won?

For a short time after he was released from jail, Oscar lived with Bosie in Naples. During this interlude, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Bosie was understandably curious about the refrain, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

The first time he asked, Oscar brushed the question aside. That did not satisfy Bosie, and so he asked again. “What did you mean by ‘Each man kills the thing he loves?'”

You ought to know,” was his reply.

Bosie did not ask again.

But he did not know. The line cut both ways. Was he the killer or the killed in the metaphor? The destroyer or the destroyed? Had Oscar written an expression of blame or of regret?

Bosie spent many years trying to answer that question in his own mind.

He eventually found his path to absolution in strict Catholicism. Oscar’s deathbed conversion was central. Bosie wrote:

The difference it makes in the way I am able to think of Oscar is, of course, tremendous; chiefly because the fact of his wishing to die a Catholic implies a certain state of mind which connotes a number of other things. For example, a man becoming a Catholic must ipso facto, if his conversion be genuine, “forgive all those who have injured him and ask pardon of all whom he has injured…”

Christ was the solution. Bosie became devoted to a strict form of religion to absolve himself of his guilt and shame. Bosie’s transformation from Bohemian to religious moralist never sit well with Robbie. Thus the very thing that gave Bosie a level of peace and satisfaction drove a wedge between the friends that laid the groundwork for Robbie to circulate unpublished portions of De Profundis.

Who won?

De Profundis was Wilde’s victory over incarceration and public humiliation. It was part catharsis, part personal letter and a large part artistry. Using the events of his own life as material he told a story that expanded on a motif that had always fascinated him as an artist. He had dramatized it in Salome and the Picture of Dorian Gray before he and Bosie ever met: Love destroys its object.

In De Profundis, he took this idea a step further by demonstrating the even greater passion of continuing to love the object of your own destruction.  By writing, he transcended the depths of despair and created an enduring literary work.

Today they mount art installations in Wilde’s former jail cell and poets gather to read De Profundis aloud– a powerful rebuke of the Philistines, Wilde triumphant. But that same artistic statement tore Bosie apart when he finally read it, years after his lover’s death.

Who won?

In 1912, Robert Ross, now a noted art critic as well as Wilde’s literary executor, weighed in on one of the artistic controversies of his day.  The Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt was going to be flooded in order to build the Assuan Dam. A letter to the Times defended the destruction because of the economic development a dam promised. The writer said he was sure that if an art lover, a baby and the Dresden Madonna were in a burning tower, the art lover would save the baby rather than the picture.

Ross wrote to reply that he hoped that he would save the picture rather than the baby.

Indeed, there are many other works of art for which, sitting beside a patent fire extinguisher, I find it easy to think that I would lay down my life; there are few adults or babies for whom I would make any such sacrifice.

Ross was, indeed, faced with such a choice when it came to De Profundis. To make the contents of the document known was to sacrifice Bosie. It would ruin him with polite society with its evidence that Bosie was homosexual. It would also ruin him in the counterculture of men who worshiped Wilde because it presented him as the sole cause of Wilde’s downfall.

When I was asked “who won” the second time I answered that perhaps it was Ross as he was the one who accomplished what he set out to do. He had preserved a document that Wilde had once told him was the most important thing he had ever written. He amplified its message by gently guiding biographers. It was through Ross that Wilde was able to make his own life story into a work of art.

But did Ross win?

De Profundis, that beautiful essay, left a lot of pain in its wake. Its text attacked all of the pillars of Bosie’s self-esteem. It denied what had been Bosie’s proudest accomplishment– the way he had stood by Wilde through thick and thin. It claimed that Bosie interfered with Oscar’s work, and stole Bosie’s pride at being his mentor’s muse. It even mocked Bosie’s poetry as “undergraduate verse.” To have everything he was most proud of denied by the man he loved most was emotionally overwhelming.

By the time Bosie read the full version of De Profundis, Oscar was dead. He could not ask him again what he meant by “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He could not understand why Oscar had not told him about these resentments when they were living together or in all of the time they spent together afterwards. If he hadn’t said anything while sober, why hadn’t he blurted something out when he was drunk? He pondered this question in one of his autobiographical books. In each of his books he wrestled with the question of De Profundis, Oscar’s silence about it, and how it contradicted his own memory of their love affair.

Unable to confront Oscar, an increasingly bitter and unstable Bosie attacked Robbie with every means at his disposal. Robbie spent his last years consumed by legal trials, bothered by stress, paranoia and ill-health. Perhaps we could say that he did, in the end, live up to his ideals and lay down his own life to save a work of art.

Who won?

 

 

 

 

George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

The Best of Friends to Oscar Wilde

robert-baldwin-ross-4Robert Baldwin Ross was a man of wide artistic interests, and an even wider circle of friends. Someday someone will write a fantastic book that uses him as a central focus to highlight the greatest characters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He was an art critic, a promoter of literary and artistic talents and a writer. He is, however, remembered for one thing above all else–he was Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor.

This last identity, it appears, came with a certain ambivalence. I just discovered a poem Ross wrote as the dedication to a copy of his Masques and Phases which he gave to the critic and book collector Clement King Shorter, who used the initials “C.K.S.” when he wrote in The Sphere.

To “C.K.S.”

Of things I do not know the names,

For words I’m at a loss.

You know I am not Henry James,

I cannot write like Edmund Gosse,

No Granville Barker’s buskin mine

To tread upon the corns of law;

It is not mine with Max to shine,

I cannot dazzle Bernard Shaw.

Not mine Corelli’s glowing page

Nor yet the periods of Hall Caine,

Not mine a William Watson’s rage,

I am not Lucas come again,

Only for me the cap and bells,

The motley of a jester’s stock:

Alas I am not H.G. Wells,

I am not even H. Belloc.

Oh call me childish or inept,

Untaught, untrained, untiled.

Oh call me anything except

“The best of friends to Oscar Wilde.”

Is Jake Gyllenhaal the Reincarnation of Marcel Proust?

The Guardian today featured an article on an upcoming auction of documents related to French literature. One of the notable letters is from Marcel Proust who was taking time away from contemplating lost time to complain about his neighbors:

The most amusing letter in the collection, Bonna said, was from Proust to the son of his landlord…In the letter, Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbours’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: “Beyond the partition, the neighbours make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.”

As they brought up the subject of Proust, there is another historical resemblance in my continuing series I thought I might mention: