Wilde's novel mirrors the times we live in
Ireland is in a mess, but the written word may ultimately save us from our woes, says Joseph O'Connor
In his poem The Given Note, Seamus Heaney describes an old Irish traditional air coasting out of the atmosphere 'on loud weather'. There's been plenty of loudness in Ireland recently. We're living through days of fury. Yet the work of storytellers and writers, of filmmakers and musicians, has been finding a way through the swamp of recession, just as punk did in its time and place, and rap, and gospel, as the blues bubbled up from the Mississippi. The wrecked Dublin of my adolescence was re-energised not by any politician, but by the explosion of music and creativities that was detonated in the late Seventies.
One descendant from those times, one really intelligent thing done by local government, is Dublin's now annual One City One Book campaign. Like most brilliant ideas, it's fairly simple: as many people as possible are encouraged to read the same great novel by a Dublin writer during this month of April, in book clubs, in schools, in families, wherever. Multiple copies are made available through the city's libraries and all sorts of events related to the chosen book take place. Up and down the country, similar events will be taking place through the year, as more of us return to reading than ever before.
This year's Dublin choice is particularly fitting, and those who chose it should be congratulated for the subtle appropriateness of their choice. That great Dubliner Oscar Wilde wrote only one novel but what a strange and beautiful masterpiece it is. The story of a man who trades everything important he has in order to look good to the world. He is handsome and ever youthful, and like a Celtic Tiger celebrity he is famous for doing nothing, but in a locked room upstairs in his expensive house, a portrait of him is slowly decaying. Like all great novels, it manages the alchemy of somehow being about our own era as well as the one in which it was written. If we want to know a little more about what has happened in our country over the last 15 years, we might look at The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Wilde's masterpiece gives us a world of appearances, façades, perfect exteriors. But behind the success story is a faint odour of corruption, a sense that something is deeply wrong. Everyone knows it. Nobody says it. Many of Dorian's friends ignore the evidence and look the other way; even assist him in a monstrous crime. Every page of the book crackles with relevance for our own recent times. Dorian's is the world of what our bishops call 'mental reservation', of the falsely taken oath, the convenient forgetfulness. It is an attitude to life which Wilde summed up, devastatingly, as knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Wilde's most bittersweet dramatic confection is The Importance of Being Earnest. But thankfully he was a man who had the Irish quality of hating all earnestness, and so the book is brilliantly funny. The pretensions of fashionable society are ruthlessly mocked, and it works wonderfully because the mocker is an insider too. A finely-dressed ancestor to Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, Wilde knows that there is nothing as ridiculously funny as snobbery. But for all the non-stop wisecracking, for every brilliant paradox, Wilde is showing us a picture of ourselves. He once remarked, in perhaps the most revealing line he ever wrote: "Behind the dandy's façade, I am at heart a moralist." But he knows we don't want to be preached to. He sugars his message with laugh-out-loud wit, perfumes what he has to say with the gorgeous richness of his prose, but when The Picture of Dorian Gray is finished, we are unsettled as well as thrilled and amused.
Ireland is in a mess. Old certainties are broken. But one treasure we continue to have is the extraordinary resource of the written word. And when all the lies around us are dust and old headlines, we'll still have it. It's then we're going to need it the most.
A novel, like a song, takes its chances alone. It needs the reader to bring it to life. What the reader does is the truly creative part of the relationship, for in the intimate act of empathy invited by the book, the little black inkstains called 'words' and 'sentences' are blazed into life by imagination. The One City One Book festival speaks to those of us who have been thrilled and changed by a story, and who need to be so uplifted again. In the brilliant choice of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel -- magically -- becomes a mirror.
Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on RTE One's 'Drivetime With Mary Wilson'. He will give a public reading this Wednesday at 7pm in the Central Library, Cork city.