OSCAR WILDE by Louis Kronenberger


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Kronenberger obviously finds Wilde a congenial subject, perhaps too congenial. ""Oscar"" inspires him to all sorts of brightly buffed aperÇus and Attic sallies--some of them quite lovely, like ""art that congeals art"" or the observation that, save for The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde may be said to have ""found English comedy a corpse and left it a harlot."" For the rest, Kronenberger provides a brisk, short, straightforward survey of a career more remarkable than anything it produced. He makes no exaggerated claims for the fairy tales (""imperfect,"" but surprisingly successful on their own narrow terms) or Dorian Gray (which he finds unquestionably powerful but, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, ""sui generis to a fault""); the comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan is ""the most fashonable possible trash""--i.e., ""a catharsis of piffle and poppycock"") or De Profundis (""empurpled, self-commiserating"" despite much that is moving). Only Earnest is treated as an unqualified success, and only the admittedly flawed ""Ballad of Reading Gaol"" is singled out as a work of ""humane impact."" These sane and prudent artistic judgments are matched by Kronenberger's even-handed chronicling of success and downfall. He neither elevates Wilde's blind and self-destroying arrogance to the status of martyrdom nor withholds admiration for the dignity and generosity the man fitfully achieved in his great suffering. If one often wishes for more ambitious and penetrating psychological or literary analysis, one must remember that Kronenberger does not aim to provide more than an extremely intelligent introduction. This brief study (the most recent entry in J. H. Plumb's Library of World Biography series) strives for quiet felicity rather than rigorous adventure, and succeeds almost too well.

Pub Date: July 13th, 1976
Publisher: Little, Brown