Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance
Gyles Brandreth, a BBC broadcaster, public speaker and prolific author (24 volumes and counting), knows something about popular biography, having written books about John Gielgud and Charles and Camila. Now he's taken on a murder mystery involving Oscar Wilde. The book, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance, starts with a quote from Wilde's contemporary, Max Beerbohm: "What a lurid life Oscar Wilde does lead--so full of extraordinary incidents. What a chance for memoir writers of the next century!" One needs look no further, in fact, than Richard Ellmann's magnificent biography of Wilde, 20 years in the making. Brandreth's book makes you wonder if Brandreth even read Ellmann's biography--or anything else about Wilde aside from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. In Death, Wilde finds the murdered body of a young boy he "knew." The body then disappears. Wilde requests help from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gives Wilde a run for his money both in quips and brilliance. The narrator of this mystery is another historical figure, Robert Sherard, a friend of Wilde's who wrote multiple biographies of him. Ellmann's description of Sherard tells you all you need to know about Death: "bumptious, wrongheaded, uncomphrehending." Though the book tries hard to inflame the passions of literary nerds by dropping in "real" quotations and Dickens references, the humor is amateurish. The best thing about Death is that it sent me scurrying back to Ellmann. >> Speaking of beloved writers, critic John Leonard, an early champion of Toni Morrrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, died this week. Leonard embodied my favorite literary quote: "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading." Here's how Leonard talked about authors of books he loved. "From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock, and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy, and amazing grace. The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them ... We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish."