How Green Was My Carnation

The God of Mirrors, by Robert Reilly, is a soapy little novel about Oscar Wilde. It basically goes through the historical record imagining what each triumph or disaster might have felt like. There are lots of Wilde epigrams and assorted flotsam throughout the book, not always placed in a way which makes sense (there’s an allusion to the Marquess of Queensberry looking like a misshapen dwarf at the court of the Spanish infanta, which is… an unusual choice given that the dwarf is the hero of “The Birthday of the Infanta,” and the weirdness of the choice doesn’t seem deliberate).

The overwhelming impression is that this is a novel about a large pack of alcoholic egotists, in which the least-egotistical one (Robbie Ross doesn’t count) is destroyed by the least-alcoholic one. Lord Alfred Douglas seems to stay creepily sober no matter how much he drinks. Somewhere he must keep a Breathalyzer of Dorian Gray.

On two subjects dear to my heart the novel is mixed. Its treatment of the Church is even less satisfying than in the recent movie Wilde: Catholicism comes up toward the beginning, to create atmosphere, and then gets forgotten for a very long time. The God of Mirrors brings it back at the end but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. (Reilly does give you a sense of the absurdity of the sheer number of Catholic conversions in this story! Seriously, he doesn’t even get to the part where Lord Alfred Douglas also dies a Catholic.) You get a hint of Wilde’s insistent, recurring identification with Jesus–an identification which had lots of different meanings depending on when and in what mood he was writing–but it doesn’t really add up to anything. There’s a bit toward the very end where Wilde seems to discover the God within, which echoes the book’s title but seems to give egotism something too close to the last word. (The actual ending is ambiguous but at least suggests that Wilde reached for and found something outside his own overblown self.) I think anyone reading this without much preexisting knowledge of the decadent movement would wonder why on earth people suddenly are all becoming Catholics, I mean where did that even come from?

The book does give you a really strong sense of the undertow of alcoholism, the way it allows the Wilde character especially to postpone taking necessary actions. Some people might find that a reductive and psychologizing explanation for how he managed to get himself embroiled in Douglas’s feud with his father, but it’s written pretty convincingly here. You feel the exhaustion and the desire to watch the concerns of the moment dissolve with the ice: Wilde is like the girl in the Elliot Smith song, who “fights problems with/bigger problems….”

So, you know, light entertainment about personal tragedy and redemption.

About Eve Tushnet

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