St. Louis, Missouri
...and the guy says, "With a lawn as big as yours, you really need a riding mower." I smiled, knowing I had the perfect counterargument to his sales pitch. "That's ok, I have an iPod and I just started The Count of Monte Cristo."
As the words left my mouth I realized I just forfeited any chance I had that this guy would treat me as a man and a brother. In the horsepower-and-self-propulsion world of your average lawnmower shop, literary discussions are not the ticket to respect. I imaged the thought that was forming under his feed cap: "What a dweeb."
Instead, his jaw dropped, his eyes popped and he said "That's a great book! I read the unabridged version, and there's a lot of detail, but it's just fantastic!"
A few weeks later I was catching the train to work. A guard I've become friendly with was supervising the restocking of the vending machines. My train wasn't for a few minutes so I made a detour. After a few casual remarks about the weather the guard noticed the iPod clipped to my jacket and asked what I was listening to. I said The Count of Monte Cristo, with that same shrinking feeling I had at the lawnmower emporium. But the vending guy stood bolt upright, his eyes wide and his hair a-bristle: "That's a great book!"
I was now convinced I was the only person in the universe who hadn't read The Count of Monte Cristo. And thanks to John Lee and Audible, that flaw in an otherwise blameless upbringing has now been repaired.
Yes, it includes everything I don't like about 19th Century novels (Jane Austen excluded): it is sloppily, even glutinously sentimental. It is overwrought. It is insanely improbable. It is Gothic. It is Romantic in that overly-ripe, Victorian/Dickensian way that gets under my skin.
And it is also one of the greatest books I have ever read. Or listened to.
For all its improbabilities it is true to life. For all it's sentimentality it almost moved me to tears. For all its Gothic cloak-and-dagger antics it is a profoundly, even beautifully Catholic work of literature. It is a big, baggy story full of cul-de-sacs and blind corners, memorable characters and quotable sentences. Yes, the good people are a little too saintly and the bad ones a shade too bad. But what holds it all together is the Count himself. What he suffers, what he does and, finally, what he learns about revenge, forgiveness and redemption are well worth the 56 hour journey. And the lawn looks really good, too.
John Lee's clean, clear delivery seldom falters. In a six-part audiobook I needed to back up and re-listen only a handful of times to catch something I'd missed. Sometimes the male characters get a little mixed, but that's to be expected in conversations where 4 or 5 are speaking at once. And an invaluable aid to keeping the story straight is supplied by Dumas himself. Since the novel was originally serialized, he's always reminding us of when we last saw a character he's reintroducing to the story--knowing that the newspaper with that vital information has long since been wrapped around a fish in a Parisian gutter.
I got this one on sale, but even at full price it is a bargain.
Someone, one of those big-brained chaps no doubt, like Darwin or Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy, once said that trying to describe the pleasure of reading Wodehouse was like trying to describe the perfect dry martini. Similarly, someone else equally brain-burdened likened any attempt at criticizing a Wodehouse story to taking a spade to a souffle.
Just so. Therefore I'll limit myself to saying this story is standard Wodehouse fare, which means it's a cut above most other humor you're likely to find out there. Another tour of life among the inane and the earnest, the lovelorn and the broke. Of course, it all comes out right in the end. The fun is seeing how that happens. And the fun is also hearing Jonathan Cecil narrate how it happens. Like Frederick Davidson, Cecil gets Wodehouse and never overdoes it, giving the words and the humor the right, light touch.
There are books you like. There are books you enjoy. There are books you admire. And then there are books that go off in your head like a bomb. Or, rather, fireworks. Bombs can only destroy. Fireworks illuminate. And I haven’t felt this illuminated by a book since I listened to Michal York reading Brave New World—a work that pales in comparison.
Like many people, I used to docket Oscar Wilde as a mere maker of glittering, memorable aphorisms and observations. And, indeed, his conversational flourishes can tickle us with their humorous dexterity:
“My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant”.
Or titillate us with their utter cynicism:
"Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything."
"Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "and when they grow older they know it.”
Or simply stop us in our tracks with a subtle distinction that has never occurred to us before:
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference."
"Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry.
We laugh at Wilde’s humor, admire his penetration or relish his audacity—and we take a moment to try to commit what we have just read to memory. But Lord Henry Wotton coins so many aphorisms that, early on, I began to tire of them—the excess of brilliance and scandal, the detonation of so many conversational hand grenades in my ears, made me wonder if Wilde were nothing more than what he seemed in his photographs: a gifted dandy, the petted aesthete who lived on the surface of life, a committed spectator, much like his creation, Lord Henry.
And when, in the book’s preface, Wilde asserts that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” I assumed he was setting forth a principle that would inform the book I was about to hear. That I was entering a world where Art was never good or evil but just well- or ill-wrought—a world were, as Lord Henry says, only ugliness is a sin. Like many other readers before me, I assumed wrong.
The more I listened the more Wilde’s assertion in his preface perplexed me. From the evidence of the story it is absurd: one of the major influences that corrupts Dorian Grey (and this story is all about the power of influences) is a book, lent to him by (who else?) Lord Henry. As the story unfolds it becomes abundantly clear that, for all Lord Henry’s wicked witticisms, the real sin is the studied avoidance of ugliness.
In fact, it was the sheer weight of Lord Henry’s endless aphorisms and sophisticated cynicism, at first so charming, that gives us the first indication that our trio of friends (Lord Henry, Basil Hallwood and Dorian) have the wrong end of the stick. Though amusing, Lord Henry’s dicta are unworkable; though others refer to it as a, “philosophy” it fails to hang together in any coherent way. As the book progresses, Basil Hallward and even by Dorian himself tire of the endless, empty effusions; they grate on their nerves as much as they grated on mine. (What an artist Wilde is—to create in the reader the same visceral frisson of annoyance his characters are feeling.) Predictably, Lord Henry, like so many destructive thinkers before and after him, dresses up his point of view as courageous: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” The real danger, of course, is that he is half-right. We really are here to realize our true nature. But that realization can only be achieved by serving others, not by primping and pampering ourselves. So when Dorian adopts Lord Henry’s empty tenants (“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”) the consequence of trying to live out his unworkable ideas is a life that is unlivable.
Yes, Wilde was a flamboyant aesthete, a bad boy who made his reputation saying what we all think but never dare to say—and saying it far better than we would ever be able to. But he also died a Catholic convert, received into the faith he had felt drawn to since his undergraduate days. Yes, some books are neither moral nor immoral. But The Picture of Dorian Grey is not one of them.
I’m not going to spoil your chance to experience the arc of this story firsthand. It is a masterly performance throughout, both by the writer and the reader—Simon Vance was the perfect choice, from the timbre of his voice to his ability to read Wilde’s words as familiarly as if he had written them himself. He reinforces the power of the work he is reading. And there is power here—enough to change your life; or at least make you take a good long look at it. A book about a portrait that reflect the moral corruption of it's subject becomes a mirror for us.
And, now that it’s all over, I think I may have a line on the reason Wilde wrote what he did in his preface. After its publication he spilled much ink defending his book from those who thought it was immoral. But rather than reiterate the audacious ideas in his preface this self-declared aesthete, who had often borne the banner of art-for-art’s-sake in the public square, offered instead something very different:
“Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Grey—a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.”
While writing Dorian Grey, Wilde confessed, “I felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent.”
In his preface Wilde could very easily have been playing a part—at one point in the novel Dorian observes that we are never more at our ease than when playing a part. But there is another possibility. Fearing that his moral was too apparent and that his art had been compromised, he may have been simply trying to throw his readers off the scent.
He needn’t have worried. There is great art and great truth in this book, which will be evident, as Wilde said, to healthy minds. In fact, he blended art and truth so well that perhaps this book might even heal unhealthy ones. As he once observed, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”