Robert Tanitch’s Round-up of Books No 4 (2018)
Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (Head of Zeus £25). Oscar Wilde wrote the most famous and wittiest comedy in the English language, The Importance of Being Earnest. It premiered in London 1895. A few weeks later he was arrested on a charge of gross decency and sentenced to two years hard labour. He lived out the rest of his life in exile and died destitute in Paris in 1900, aged 46. More books have been written about Wilde than any other playwright other than Shakespeare. His life has been staged and filmed. When he came down from Oxford in 1878 he said he would be famous and if he couldn’t be famous he would be notorious. It is doubtful if his fame would have been such had he not gone to prison. His fame and notoriety are inseparable. Sturgis’s biography is the most detailed I have read, full of new information.
Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn (Oxford University Press £20). The first thing to say is that though it shows how Oscar became Wilde, this is not a biography. If you want a biography you have to read Sturgis. Mendelssohn concentrates on what happened to Wilde on his lecture tour in the USA in 1892(sponsored by D’Olyl Carte to boost sales for his touring production of Patience) and how much his epigrammatic plays and their dandies were influenced by the repartee and Dandies of the Christy Minstrel Show. There are some unfamiliar and fascinating plates of cartoons which confirm that Americans put Irish and Black in the same category.
Writers: Their Lives and Works (Dorling Kindersley £20). From Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer through to Shakespeare, Moliere and Austen and on to Dickens, Dostoevsky, Zola, Wilde, up to Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Orwell, Kundera and beyond. There are striking full page portraits. The accompanying pictures and succinct commentary make it a delightful book just to dip into or to refer to specifically.
The Penguin Classics Book by Henry Eliot (Penguin £30). Alan Bennett said a classic is a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have. I owe a lot to Penguin Books. They were (and still are) an essential part of my literary education. They have made so many classics available and at a price a student could afford. Every title in the Black classic series has an entry and is illustrated by its original cover design. One of the pleasures of this book is looking at the changing covers for the same books. The choice of image is spot on every time. The text is wise, lively, witty and masterly in the succinctness of its information with lots of key quotes which whet the appetite to read more. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book to have as a reference to all the books you have read and not read, a charming and easy way to be instantly better informed.
Messing About in Quotes by Gyles Brandreth (Oxford University Press £9.99) A Little Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations rounds up the wits: Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Mae West, Groucho Marx, Sam Goldwyn, Dorothy Parker Woody Allen are always good for a laugh and there are lots of laughs, familiar and unfamiliar, on every page from many others wits. Who said “If you want to succeed in politics you must keep your conscience well under control?”
Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare by Geoff Dyer (Penguin £7.99). Dyer writes amusingly and lovingly about the Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood film, Where Eagles Dare. How do you rate the movie? Steven Spielberg has amazingly cited it as his favourite war movie. It’s all right to love this preposterous Boys Own Adventure stuff when you are a teenager but there comes a time when you have to grow up. Or do you? Having read Dyer I am thinking of revisiting the film and finding my inner-teenager.
Dark Star by Alan Strachan (I.B. Taurus £25), a major biography of Vivien Leigh, a great actress and a great beauty, gives a vivid account of her stage and film career, her affairs, particularly her marriage with Laurence Olivier and also her spectacular breakdowns. The brilliance of her acting is fortunately preserved on screen in two definitive performances: Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Key roles include Sheridan’s Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, Thornton Wilder’s Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Bernard Shaw’s Cleopatra, Paola in Jean Giraudoux’s Duel of Angels, Lady Macbeth (much admired by John Gielgud, who rated her very highly), Anna Petronova in Chekhov’s Ivanov. Her bipolar disorders and the attempts to sedate her during the filming of Elephant Walk and during the Broadway run of the musical Tovarich make for compelling reading.
Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights a Journey into Dining Hell by Jay Rayner (Faber & Faber £5). Instead of spending a fortune on an awful meal you could stay home and read Rayner’s criticisms of restaurants and have a really good laugh. He is very witty.