I had a bit of a sinking feeling after the first few chapters of this book. The style at the start is light and witty with lots of drawing-room banter, but so much so that it becomes aphoristic to a fault. "Being natural is simply a pose"; "I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible"; "those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love; it is the faithless who know love's tragedies"...and so on and so on. The first one or two strike you as being interesting. After twenty or thirty of them in the space of a few pages, you begin to wonder if there is actually anything behind the clever-clever wordplay. (Ah, but "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances"
— OH SHUT UP!)
But. But. As the book goes on it begins to get thematically darker, and the writing starts to thicken up. One of the reviews here says irritably that The Picture of Dorian Gray
is really a play in disguise, but that's completely untrue for the second half of the novel, when the dialogue slows down and we have whole chapters of elaborate, decadent prose describing Dorian's investigations into sensual pleasures – jewels, fabrics, scents, drugs, French poetry, young men. Having just read Huysmans's À Rebours
it was pretty obvious where Wilde cribbed most of this from, and indeed À Rebours
plays an important role in this story, disguised as the unnamed "yellow book".
It is interesting to see exactly how this very French, very Catholic aesthetic gets transplanted into a Protestant English setting. Perhaps it's no wonder that the author is Irish – and Dorian himself, tellingly, finds his religio-cultural parameters shifting:It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him.
I started enjoying the book a lot more at this point. Strange words like orphrey
start getting chucked around, and Wilde takes us far away from his comfort zone of country houses and card tables, and into some surprisngly well-drawn and nasty dockside taverns and opium dens. The bons-mots
here are more spaced out, and struck me in context as being more thoughtful and interesting.‘Besides, each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion. It merely intensifies it. We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.’
...which sounds, as so much of Lord Henry's advice does, like something pathological; this quote would have made a nice epigraph for Lolita
. Occasionally I even agreed with him:‘Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.’
And then, just when I was starting to really enjoy the Gothic atmosphere and the looming sense of disaster – the book ended. Job done: a nice Victorian moral parable, with plenty of mood and plenty of wit. "The only thing worse than a book that outstays its welcome..." Lord Henry would no doubt begin – well you get the idea. You'll be thinking in Wildean epigrams for a while afterwards, but that is hardly a down-side.