Category Archives: Classics

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Everyone has heard of Oscar Wilde, however I had never actually read any of his works. My brother recommended “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and when I came across this beautiful edition, one of the Penguin Clothbound Classics, I could hardly say no.

Originally published in 1890 as a serial, today’s text represents Wilde’s revised version republished as a novel in 1891. Despite extensive revisions, the novel was nonetheless subject to an enormous amount of controversy and outrage. This edition is peppered with annotations by Peter Ackroyd who both explains themes and cultural aspects of the time as well as demonstrates how significantly the element of same-sex romance has been downplayed, muted and even removed in comparison to the original publication as a serial.

Within the very first pages of this novel two things become swiftly apparent:

1. Oscar Wilde was a literary genius who took great joy in the beauty of the written word; and

2. Oscar Wilde was very romantically interested in men.

The story follows Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary beauty whose likeness is captured by his friend in a portrait. After a number of discussions with another friend Harry about the advantages to living a hedonistic lifestyle. Amid Harry’s jokes that Dorian would be better off to stay young and attractive forever, Dorian makes a wish that he could do exactly that and that his portrait age instead of him. Sure enough, his portrait begins to bear the scars of his increasingly selfish, immoral and excessive ways. What follows is the very Victorian depiction of the scoundrel spiraling towards his inevitable sticky end.

Inspired by this book to visit the National Portrait Gallery, I was disappointed to find out that I had just missed the "In the Flesh" sculpture exhibition. However, I did find this fascinating self-portrait of an Australian jackaroo-turned-artist who reminded me a lot of the narcissistic Dorian Gray.

Inspired by this book to visit the National Portrait Gallery, I was disappointed to find out that I had just missed the “In the Flesh” sculpture exhibition. However, I did find this fascinating self-portrait of an Australian jackaroo-turned-artist who reminded me a lot of the narcissistic dandy Dorian Gray.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a fascinating novel that is exquisitely written. It was a complete juxtaposition to my last reviewed book “A Fortunate Life”, even though both books are initially set only 10 years apart. Wilde is an incredible wordsmith and is a source many witty insights into life and art. Thematically, as I said, this book is very Victorian and is on par with Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot in its depiction of the breakdown of the classes, the emerging role of entrepreneurs and the industrial revolution.

The novel is peppered with literary allusions, and Wilde himself was clearly very passionate about aesthetics and discusses at length the ornamental value of particular objets d’art and Japonsime, various fashion styles and features of gardens. The first topic is something I learned quite a bit about reading the absolutely captivating non-fiction/family autobiography “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal. I know I’m not reviewing that book right now, but if you are interested in reading more about the Aesthetic Movement, it is an ideal place to start.

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I did, however, feel as though the book began to lose traction halfway through. Wilde seemed more interested in bringing to life his many thoughts and ideas, and incorporating the many things he had learned from his extensive reading, than furthering along the plot and so some events, particularly towards the end, seem a little startling and disconnected. The books at times reads almost more like an essay on the relationship between morality and aestheticism than a novel, but is nevertheless very interesting for it. I definitely felt as though I got a lot more out of it than I would have otherwise had I not read quite a bit of classic British literature, had a rudimentary understanding of the Aesthetic Movement and the assistance of Peter Ackroyd’s extremely detailed notes. Nevertheless, a wonderful edition of a brilliant classic, and definitely a book I am glad to have finally read.

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Filed under Classics, Penguin Clothbound Classics, Pretty Books

20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

This is a book that, although being very familiar with images such as Captain Nemo and the Nautilis, I had never actually read before now. After coming across two of Jules Verne’s novels in Canty’s Bookshop earlier this year, “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in special Vintage Classics editions, well, how could I say no?

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Part of a set of 5, the Vintage Sci-Fi Classics come with wild 3D covers and include your very own retro pair of 3D glasses. A little disappointingly, the 3D art isn’t quite as eye-catching as one would hope, but they still make for pretty books. Plus the glasses are rad.

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“20 Thousands Leagues Under the Sea”, originally published in French in 1870, is the quintessential sci-fi novel. When rumours of a monster sea-creature begin to abound, naturalist Professor Aronnax is delighted to find that not only is the supposed sea-creature a state-of-the-art submarine called The Nautilis that has just sunk the ship he was on, but he has been kidnapped and doomed to spend the rest of his life aboard it with his manservant Counsel, Ned Land the cranky Canadian and the mysterious Captain Nemo. What follows is essentially an underwater tour of the world culminating in discovering exactly what it is that propels Captain Nemo on such an endeavour.

This book is at heart a celebration of the exploration and technological achievements of the Western world. Verne revels in his own imagination, and the message that anything that can be done on land so can be done underwater. It reminds me quite a lot of Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, published nearly 150 years earlier. The novel abandons a typical story arc and instead is presented in a diary entry format more along the lines of where-we-went-and-what-we-did-there. The advantage that Verne had over Swift, however, was that his book actually contains a lot of scientific merit.

Verne constantly refers to the ingenuity of Captain Nemo and his submarine, and the learned and enthusiastic Professor Aronnax is the perfect conduit through which to appreciate the captain’s cleverness. The book does have quite a self-congratulatory tone to it because, of course, all of the enigmatic Captain Nemo’s ideas are in fact Verne’s. They are good ideas however, and Verne demonstrates an attitude towards racial and political equality that was quite before his time.

This is a quick, clever little novel that is fascinating in its treatment of science and global themes given it is over 140 years old. It is hard not to get caught up in the sheer enthusiasm of the book, and some of the scenes, such as when Nemo and Aronnax are wandering through the underwater kelp fields, are very immersive. An easy read, though (understandably) a little smug.

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Filed under Classics, Pretty Books, Science Fiction, Vintage Sci-Fi Classics