Magazine article The Spectator

The Aesthete's Missionary Position

Magazine article The Spectator

The Aesthete's Missionary Position

Article excerpt

DORIAN by Will Self Viking L16.99, pp. 288, ISBN 0670889962

The idea of selling one's soul in exchange for eternal youth was not new when Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, but he claimed truthfully that he had given it new form. His Dorian is an exquisite young man of the 1890s, who takes literally Walter Pater's injunction to enjoy experience for its own sake. Though he indulges in every 'vice' his beauty remains unaltered, its ageing done for him by a portrait in the attic.

Wilde used the book to advance his position in the late Victorian argument about the relative merits of art and life, and taunted his critics by adding a preface with aesthetic aphorisms which haven't aged at all. `There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,' he wrote. `Books are well written or badly written. That is all.' `All art,' he concluded, `is quite useless.' The novel caused a sensation because readers had learned to equate this sort of talk with the encouragement of homosexuality, and London was full of gossip about Wilde's affair with the young poet John Gray.

Will Self has now come up with the risky idea of lifting Wilde's characters, plot and ideas and putting them down, almost unchanged, in the 1980s and 1990s. Where he has made changes, they are not always for the better. Pater and Wilde had to tip-- toe round the subject of gayness, but Self can kick it about in his period Chelsea boots, leaving nothing to the imagination, no orifice unplugged. From the start, his Lord Henry Wotton and Basil (Baz) Hallward are in open competition for Dorian's body quite as much as his soul. Instead of hints and allusions about 'vice', Self takes his Dorian on a trawl through the tumescent gay bars and bath-houses of London and New York. Always maintaining his air of boyish innocence, he becomes a deliberate spreader of Aids. …

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