The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This one, you may remember, was one of the titles I was challenged to read last year by my work colleague BD, after he had enjoyed it. I have only just got around to reading it earlier this year after finding this copy with a very attractive cover picture. I knew of the story but had never read the book, Wilde's only novel, and was keen to do so.
Set during the Fin de Siecle high society in London, the artist, Basil Hallward has been painting the young Dorian Gray's portrait, a young and very beautiful youth circulating the aristocratic scene. Basil has become quite obsessed by Dorian because of his looks, and also his innocence and naivete. On the last sitting for the painting Lord Henry Wotton arrives at the house, an enticing socialite who thrives on excessive experience and aestheticism, being rich and therefore able to do so. His life of indulgence has bred a cynical and manipulative man and on meeting the fresh faced Dorian, he entertains himself by determining to introduce him to a more hedonistic lifestyle and viewpoint, a thrilling prospect for the young man, and against every beseechment from Basil to leave him uncorrupted. They talk about beauty and youthfulness, and in a moment of overwhelming madness after seeing his perfection in Basil's painting, Dorian wishes that the painting would take on the ageing and ravishments of life so that he can keep his youth.
"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in this whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" (Ch2 p29)
Lord Henry's influence shapes the young Dorian's life from then on, and each selfish act is recorded in the painting. Dorian first notices a sneer at the corner of the mouth after he has cruelly let down a young woman and realises that the request has been granted, the picture will record his life while his looks will remain untarnished. This knowledge, a form of redemption against anything he may wish for, alongside Lord Henry's encouragement to experience every pleasure regardless of consequence, leads Dorian on a very dark and shady path, ending in a life of depravity and selfish disregard. The painting, now hidden in a locked room, grows hideous and deformed, while Dorian remains unaged and beautiful. The consequences are far reaching, on those around him, but also his own torments as he swivels out of control altogether.
There are many lessons in this novel, warnings of excess, the preoccupation of image, although Wilde denied any didacticism. Being a supporter of the Aesthetic movement, he believed that art was useless and should only be admired for it's own sake. There is a lot to support this movement in the novel (and indeed in his other works) because it deals with the importance of beauty, and certainly it is Dorian's looks that allow a certain amount of acceptance despite the rumours that surround him. It is only those who are immediately affected by his behaviour who shun him, but no one actively calls him to count amongst the fashionable and the rich. Wealth and good looks seem to provide him with an exemplary pass.
Cleverly, and enticingly, we never find out about some of the acts that have led various former friends (and their sisters's) to avoid him, never speak of him, and in some cases bow out of their mutual circles in a form of escape. This is most profound in the contents of a piece of paper passed to a former close friend in order to blackmail him into providing a gross and terrible service to get Dorian out of a messy situation. We never find out what is written, and it is all the more powerful in it's absence. What on earth had occured between them? It is never spoken of, but you know it will have been indecent, amoral, and probably illegal, with the other man possibly not knowing what he had got himself into before it was too late.
I also loved the details that betray Wilde's own attitudes. Basil's fawning over Dorian's perfect beauty reaches levels of eroticim and idolatory that are way beyond any formal friendship. It is obvious that Basil has been lying awake fantacising about the young man. Then there is the interesting portrayal of women. There are virtually no realistic women characters in it. The young actress, Sybil Vane, is given the most floor time, but comes over as a caracature out of a cheap romantic melodrama, all swoons and grand gestures. Other women are portrayed as pretty furniture, slightly batty and unaware of the goings-on that surround them, only serving to plump up the personalities of the men in their life (probably quite truthful for the times). Lord Henry's observation of the female sex sets the scene.
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." (Ch 4, p 53)
Wilde's deliberate portrayals of the female characters serves to question whether he wanted to bring attention to their disregard in society at the time, or did he find them as tedious as his male characters seem to?
The first few chapters are very wordy, endless conversations between the three men, but it was after this that the plot drove it forward, becoming morally lower and lower than ever imagined, with quite a few nasty twists along the way. There is one particularly unforgettable scene that remains vividly seated in my imagination for its downright ickyness. As I say, a lot of it is left to the reader to imagine, and therefore is a lot worse than any book that provides the details.
Likewise the morality of the book goes in circles. There is no question as to Dorian's actions being bad, but what drives it is less clear, and the depths that he reaches, providing internal misery and torment in equal measure with indifference and disregard. I never knew at any time why Dorian grew into such a dislikeable monster, but I did enjoy reading about him.
A brilliant classic, with an endlessly questionable narrative, full of nuance and polarity, providing eons of discussion afterwards.
LitLovers provide a Dorian Gray reading guide with discussion questions for reading groups.
If you are ever in Paris, I recommend a visit to Pere Lachaise cemetary, where Oscar Wilde's lipstick kissed tomb is amongst many other amazing monuments to the famous and artistic personalities interred there.
Finally, on being asked about any autobiographical conotations in his novel, Wilde had noted in a letter,
"Basil Hallwood is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps."

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World Book Night 2013

It was a great day in Liverpool for World Book Night and I got to do some booky things myself.
I gave out my books, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink this year. I chose it because I felt it was an important book to read, historically and socially, as well as a touching human story. It gives you a lot to think about and I hope those who got a copy get something out of it.
After work I headed off to St Georges Hall which had a marketplace with various stalls, cafe and book swaps, and there were talks and discussions too. We couldn't get tickets for the popular speakers, the advance bookings went quickly for Jeanette Winterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, but there were some drop in sessions and we listened to a talk about the history of the Central Library, which is due to reopen next  month, and also political literature in Liverpool from Steve Binns MBE.
I also got to meet Simon from Savidge Reads which was lovely. My first encounter with a fellow book blogger. Simon has an excellent and very popular blog and has recently moved to the area. He writes for various publications and is actively involved with the literary scene in Liverpool now, indeed he has been working on some of the sessions for the Liverpool Literary Festival In Other Words which is now underway. Among other things we were chatting about The Kite Runner which is getting its European stage debut in this summer, coming to the Liverpool Playhouse from the 13th June. Both of us are fans of the novel. We also both chose The Reader as our giveaway this year.
I came away with a WBN book too... Damage by Josephine Hart. I was trying to be so good.
I hope your WBN was good fun, I would love to hear how yours went.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

World Book Night and the Liverpool Literary Festival 2013

 There are two very exciting events coming up for us bookish types, one specifically in Liverpool and the other around the UK and also in the US too. Both kick off on Shakespeares birthday, the 23rd April.

World Book Night has lots of events planned with many many books being given away to encourage the delights of reading. This year I have copies of The Reader by Bernard Schlinck to hand out, a book I am excited to be introducing to people who get a copy.
There are flagship events in London and Liverpool and many other local events around the country. To view an interactive map that lists World Book Night Events 2013 near you use the link.

I know that Waterstones in Liverpool One has book giveaways planned. I am hoping to get along to St Georges Hall during the daytime where there will be a marketplace with stalls, competitions, bookswapping and a literary themed cafe. There are talks and debates in the evening, some are drop in, some are ticketed, which also mark the start of the Liverpool Literary Festival In Other Words where there will be events around the city until the 19th May, including the grand reopening of the newly refurbished historic Liverpool Central Library. For the full list of Events for In Other Words Festival 2013 in Liverpool use the link.

Maybe I will see you at one of these gatherings in my home town, and I will certainly be reporting back here to tell you how it goes. Here's hoping that WBN goes down well for everyone who is getting involved, and I know a fair few of you who are, book bloggers and others too.

Friday, 5 April 2013

March Roundup

We have already left last month behind by quite a few days, although the weather here in the UK does not show any signs of warming up yet. The bitter cold has meant staying by the fire still, sometimes with a good book. Here is how my reading life took shape during the month of March...

Read - one and a half books
Completed - The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Currently Reading -
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
Literary Genius edited by Joseph Epstein
Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari
TBR Pile - no novels added so it is currently at 127 (according to goodreads), but I did get a copy of The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater, a lovely book that can be used for inspiration in your own kitchen or as a bedside book to dip into.
Challenges - I finished The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which was part of #5 of my challenges to myself this year, to read 1 or 2 titles that came from our literary holidays. This one was my lucky dip prize from our Jane Austen holiday in Hampshire (2010) and a recommendation from that trip.
Also I am reading Eve Green by Susan Fletcher which won the 2004 Whitbread Novel of the year, to comply with #8 of my own challenges to read a prizewinner.
Wishlist Additions -
Pure by Andrew Miller
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Harvest by Jim Crace
The Stranger Child by Alan Hollinghurst
The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan
Ahabs Wife or The Star Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
Discoveries -
Some excellent articles on the net this month...
The death of writer Chinua Achebe prompted a lot of tributes, including
- Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist and poet in pictures
- Chinua Achebe 'a mind able to penetrate the mystery of being human'.
Then to tie in with St Patricks day there was Books of the Irish
A discussion about What is World Book Day?
Some positive news for the future of our bookstores, at least in the US, with A Novel Trend: Independent Bookstores on the Rise
A lovely article in The Guardian about Virago publishing - Has Virago changed the publishing world's attitudes towards women? and A New Study About Which Authors Have Ignored Women The Most.
I love a good list so the Lonely Planets Worlds Greatest Bookshops caught my eye.
Also Folio Society named as sponsor of fiction prize to rival Booker
About book blog reviews in Beyond Good and Awful: Literary Value in The Age of the Amazon Review in Time Entertainment.
An article in The Nation Irritable Reachings: On John Keats on his life and poetry.
A website that collects together many different articles, including literay and bookish subjects at The Electric Typewriter
And finally, the curious and the bizarre...
- Edible Book Cakes in pictures
- Bed Bugs found in Kzoo Library Books
Events -
The Liverpool Literary Festival is gathering speed, due to start on 23rd April in various venues in the city, celebrating the Written Word. To see the Writing On The Wall Literary Festival 2013 program use the link.

Lets hope it starts to warm up a little soon, I need to get out in the garden...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye