And carrying on the book/blog dialogue I now come to a novel that is organised as a personal blog – The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd.
OK. Here it is. Peter Ackroyd was born in the same years as I was. The same year as Martin Amis. So there we are: The Great, the famous and… me.
We won’t talk (much!) about young Amis – it’s not that I’m jealous (Really I’m not – not very!) but the truth is that I haven’t yet read an Amis novel that I enjoyed. There have been bits and pieces that have been clever (good) but there have been other pieces that have been clever-clever (not so good). I don’t believe he would be so well admired if he had not been so well connected. It’s true that for many years I absolutely refused to touch anything by Amis but once, finding a collection of articles and book reviews (The something Inferno I seem to remember the title went – just checked, memory is good: ‘The Moronic Inferno’ is the title) I found myself dipping into the book and not just enjoying what I was reading but being pretty damn impressed too. So, that’s Martin out of the way, my genuflections done.
Peter Ackroyd is a different matter. He is a heavyweight in every sense. And his obsession is with London. I once tried his novel Hawksmoor but didn’t get on with it at all – too Gothic, too fantastical. But his Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is a different matter altogether.
First of all it requires an extraordinary courage and, yes, enormous intellectual confidence, to consider telling Oscar Wilde’s story from his own internal perspective. Consider what that means.
Oscar was a genius – so you have to portray a character that has the thoughts of a genius (who else but a genius would consider it?)
Oscar was a master of the epigram so you have to be master of that form too. It must spring naturally from the mental peregrinations of the character. Here is one – original to Oscar or to Ackroyd I couldn’t tell you : “Some people drink to forget. I drink to remember. I drink in order to understand what I mean and discover what I know.” Me too.
Oscar was well read in Latin and Greek – so you too have to show off knowledge of Latin and Greek literature.
Oscar was well read in the literature of his times and of the generations earlier than his – so must you be too.
Oscar was living in Paris and knew it well, with all its literary, political and scandalous goings on – so you must too.
And there is the technology too – the state of lighting, transport and so on.
Think of that task – and of course you must not be aware of what is to come – the impending future – not even hint at it.
It is an extraordinary task. And Ackroyd delivers perfectly. If you can find this book read it. Oscar is at the end of his tether when the book opens, stranded penniless in Paris after the great scandal with Lord Alfred Douglas. Day by day there is a new entry in his blog-log-diary. He reviews his past, he struggles with his present. And it is sad, and there are early references to the wallpaper and…so it goes. Ackroyd cleverly avoids being obvious.
My edition is the abacus paperback (abacus? How calculating! I know abacuses: the fingers that flick the wooden beads back and forth in their rows as they add up the bill. And it is the sound – clack-clack as the fingers negligently fire them back and forth – who on earth thought the abacus was something to name a publishing company after?) The back cover has some reviews and testimonials – ‘a pastiche of the highest quality’ says an anonymous critic of The Listener. A pastiche? This is not a pastiche. This is the truth.
Have you noticed, as I have, that when people accuse you of some vice, it is a near certainty that they themselves are more guilty of that they accuse you of. By inverting this law, we can see that the names of things are chosen to hide the truth (which is the opposite) – With this key our media can be renamed thus: The Times (The Stolid Past); The Guardian (The Intractably Complacent); The Observer (The Posturer); The Telegraph (The Snail); The Spectator (The Blatherer); The New Statesman (The Old Fogey).
If you have better suggestions do let me know.
Jonathan Chamberlain is author of Dreams of Gold, the comic novel of the London 2012 Olympics