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Book Review: The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd

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The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde is Peter Ackroyd’s fictional review of the writer’s life and achievements presented in the form of a journal.

A journal is being written by a lonely man in a Paris hotel room. It starts, for its sins, on 9 August 1900. There was nothing auspicious about the date, no connection to former grandeur or glory. But there has been a chance encounter, on a rare excursion outdoors, with three young Englishmen. They recognise the journal’s author, one Oscar Wilde, and they refer to him as “she”. It is an event worth recording, an event that prompts recollection and reflection on a life.

Oscar Wilde’s life was lived in public. Through exploration, then success and fame, and finally via notoriety and disgrace the author occupied a public mind. His talent was immense, his desire to exploit it almost single-minded and his success phenomenal. In an era when stardom in the modern sense was being invented, Oscar Wilde played the stage, published, courted society and self-promoted. He pushed at boundaries, sometimes not for reasons of art, but merely because they existed. He was, after all, an outsider, an Irishman of questionable parentage, but dressed elegantly in a frock coat and mingling with the highest.

He thus became a star for a while, a centre of attention, a media figure. This was nothing less than celebrity in the modern sense, except, of course, that in his case there actually was some talent and ability in the equation. He was famous primarily for what he did, not for whom he became. But then there was a change. The fame was rendered infamy by publicity he could no longer control. And that downfall killed him. A final journal entry on 30 November 1900, recorded from the author’s mumblings by a friend, Maurice Gilbert, records the event. Oscar Wilde had fallen while in prison, and had sustained an injury to an ear, an injury that festered.

Early on in his recollections, Oscar Wilde recalls George Bernard Shaw saying that, “An Englishman will do whatever in the name of principle.” Wilde’s qualification was that the principle was inevitably self-interest. It is a beautiful metaphor, because as a talented – even gifted – young Irish writer, Wilde was promoted and enjoyed success while ever he bolstered others’ positions. The moment he sought an assertion of his own right, however, he was disowned. Celebrity can thus rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, but only on their terms.

And it was their terms that eventually killed him. The sybaritic Bosie encountered, the desire for things Greek aroused, Wilde found himself drawn into a society he could not resist. But he remained a self-confessed voyeur, and never became a participant. He thus remained forever the outsider, on the periphery of even his own vices. But he was eventually pilloried for what he became in the public eye to stand for. It remained only a state to which he aspired, if, that is, we believe him.

The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde thus hops repeatedly across the boundary that separates a public and a private life. Eventually the two distinct existences become blurred. Because one is always trying to be the other, with neither predominating. Peter Ackroyd’s book is a masterpiece with much to say about thoroughly modern concepts such as populism, celebrity, fame and identity.

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