Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Wildean Sampler

The Canterville Ghost and Other Stories, by Oscar Wilde, Read by Donada Peters, Blackstone Audio, 2006

If you ask people to name books and/or stories by Oscar Wilde, most can provide The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest with little prompting. Perhaps De Profundis or Lady Windermere’s Fan can be dredged up from memory in the well read or even The Ballad of Reading Gaol or An Ideal Husband. Even fewer could name the several short stories, many of them for children, Wilde penned well before the establishment of his popularity and acclaim.

Of the nine selections included in Blackstone Audio’s The Canterville Ghost and Other Stories, the last four are the best known of his children’s fairy tales (all from his first collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories) while the first five are tales meant for adults comprising the whole of his third book, the collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

As a children’s author, Wilde is charming, but his charm is at half mast while he tries to form his stories around semi-socialist pseudo-Christian morals. The point of instructing children in the value of sharing in “The Selfish Giant” mars our delight at the rather unpleasant title character’s winter-bound garden with a stigmata-inflicted child Jesus who takes him up to Paradise. “The Happy Prince” has not nearly as preachy a feeling and has a tragic quality worth of Hans Christian Andersen, though without his undercurrent of viciousness (to which, say what you will, children flock to like flies to honey). The statue of the Prince convinces a swallow to devote himself to flying off with all the gems from his body to poor people throughout the city. The Prince is so devoted to his charity that he kills the swallow ultimately. It’s a moral with a bad aftertaste, at least if you like birds.

Likewise kind of nasty is “The Devoted Friend” which features little Hans who is constantly being taken advantage of by his “friend” the Miller. The Miller constantly badgers little Hans to perform little favors for him in return for a broken wheelbarrow the Miller is always promising to bring but never gets around to doing. It is told by a linnett to a water rat, the hearer not understanding the moral, not caring for morals, much like myself. This story too is most like Andersen’s fairy tales for its willingness to go to extremes.

Yet even for their moments of bitterness, there is a saintly sweetness running throughout these fairy tales. There is something about the sentimentality, though, when read in the winter that makes their simplistic moralizing and easy emotional tug rather seductive. One would do best to read such things in bed under several piled duvets while soft puffy flakes of snow drift down lazily. Children’s stories in general tend far more often toward the sermonistic, but Wilde’s children’s tales do so grossly at times.

Because the packaging of this collection was intended to draw people in through horror associations (reasoning that strikes me as strange), the first two stories helpfully keep up the impression. The title story is an amusing parody about an American minister’s family who move into a haunted manor who are neither impressed nor frightened by the haunt. The matter-of-factness and blunt acceptance of the American family provide an amusing antidote for many ghost stories.

The following story of their first meeting is quite illustrative:

At eleven o’clock the family retired, and by half-past all the lights were out. Some time after, Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at the time. It was exactly one o’clock. He was quite calm, and felt his pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued, and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened the door. Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

`My dear sir,’ said Mr. Otis, `I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper from some of our most eminent native divines. I shall leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to supply you with more should you require it.’ With these words the United States Minister laid the bottle down on a marble table, and, closing his door, retired to rest.

For a moment the Canterville ghost stood quite motionless in natural indignation; then, dashing the bottle violently upon the polished floor, he fled down the corridor, uttering hollow groans, and emitting a ghastly green light. Just, however, as he reached the top of the great oak staircase, a door was flung open, two little white-robed figures appeared, and a large pillow whizzed past his head! There was evidently no time to be lost, so, hastily adopting the Fourth Dimension of Space as a means of escape, he vanished through the wainscoting, and the house became quite quiet.

He is foiled not only by the plainness of the American minister, but even more humiliatingly by the twin sons who pelt him with their pea-shooters and leave buckets of water booby-trapped over doors for him. These failures are repeated over and over, leading to the ghost to become quite high strung, nervous, and under the weather. Eventually, he is helped in his melancholy by young artistic Virginia Otis.

This story was Wilde’s first professionally published prose and demonstrates how long he was possessed of his wonderful wittiness. There are very few comic writers who make me do more than smile a little as I read them, and this one had me chuckling out loud. The self-satisfied seriousness of the ghost is pricked and his deflation undermines all the story’s wonderfully skewered Gothic touches with true comic relish.

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” features a dynamo of fashion named Lady Windermere though apparently not the same character who later appeared eponymously on the stage. While the preceding story was one of Wilde’s straight comedies, full of witty little elements, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is a bit more serious in the beginning, though there are your typical Wilde dialogues.

Told by a fortune-teller at one of Lady Windermere’s parties that he will one day kill someone, Lord Savile decides that such a thing should be accomplished at least prior to his marriage. By the time Lord Savile begins to act on the prophecy, the story has moved to logical absurdity on par with Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.

Amusingly, however, after being given the prophecy, Lord Savile reasons thusly:

The only question that seemed to trouble him was, whom to make away with; for he was not blind to the fact that murder, like the religions of the Pagan world, requires a victim as well as a priest. Not being a genius, he had no enemies, and indeed he felt that this was not the time for the gratification of any personal pique or dislike, the mission in which he was engaged being one of great and grave solemnity.

The tale’s ending was as delightfully perfect and twisted as all of Lord Savile’s attempts to satisfy the prophecy.

“The Sphinx Without A Secret” is rather like a story without a point. Of all those included, it least seems worthy of Wilde, though the “sphinx” in question did demonstrate a common enough dream. A young lady rents a room in a boarding house, but only as a nice quiet place to go and sit and either read or silently contemplate the world without expectation. She is Virginia Woolf without the passion for writing, enjoying the independence of a room of her own.

The strangest of the stories is more like an essay wrapped up in a tale as Wilde tries to convince us of the truth about who was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s sonnets. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” resembles at least one other work of Wilde’s in having a major plot point revolve around a painting.

The story is a delightful little conversation between two friends, the narrator and his older companion Erskine, about Erskine’s friend Cyril Graham who was a devotee to a theory by Thomas Tyrwhitt. Claiming that the various puns on “Will” and “Hues” throughout the sonnets were in fact naming someone, the theoretical Willie Hughes, Cyril Graham strove to prove Tyrwhitt’s speculation correct. He even went so far as to commission a forged portrait to bolster his own belief. The story is full of quotes from the sonnets and would read a bit easier and clearer if you familiarized yourself with those verses beforehand. While it was a compelling listen, I gather its clarity is greatly improved by seeing the page before your eyes. Nevertheless, it is exactly the kind of nearly impossible to prove hypothesis I find completely enchanting.

All in all, Wilde’s short stories are exactly that, short, too short to really let his powers flower fully and to really get up to speed. Each is amusing in its own way, each is a satisfying little treat, each will entertain you and pleasantly pass the time, but they are rather like bon-bons. One or two is just enough to satisfy a craving. Eat the whole box and you’ll be full, but you’ll wish for something a little more thorough in the future.

Reader Donada Peters does quite a decent job with these tales. Her Canterville Ghost is suitably gloomy while her Lord Savile drolls out his conversation in the rather elegantly dandyish fashion we expect from Wilde. She reads the adult stories as you’d read something to adults and makes a bit more emphatic effort of it when she gets to the fairy tales. Too many poor-acting readers apply the styles of the second to the first. No fear here.

No comments: