GLR September-October 2022

fact not to scare away potential readers, but to signal that an occasional trip to a dictionary may be necessary. He is also not at all shy about referencing pop cul ture icons, including the Beach Boys, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Radiohead, and Joni Mitchell. He is delightfully unabashed in his enthusiasm for and amazement at cer tain classical composers. And he humbly admits when some of the musical mira cles he writes about “remain impossible to describe.” Nor does he draw back from looking candidly at his own career as a composer and a queer artist. Having majored in literature at Har vard, Aucoin devotes an entire chapter to his love affair with Walt Whitman (“more operatic than opera itself”), whose life

tion that Aucoin pays to librettists, the dramatists who write the book upon which an opera is based. He notes that the “precarious journey from speech to song” that every opera composer undertakes is a collaboration that, as composer John Adams once said, is “next to double mur der-suicide.” His chapter on Igor Stravin sky’s opera The Rake’s Progress pays homage to its principal librettist W. H. Auden, whose “Houdini-esque dexterity” Aucoin praises. Franco Maria Piave, who selflessly collaborated with Verdi on ten operas, is also singled out. The book in cludes an interesting verbatim conversa tion with Sarah Ruhl, the librettist for Aucoin’s opera Eurydice. The Impossible Art ends with a mag

That night

in East Lansing carved my dad’s initials on my right arm Alex’s deeper on my left. Not that I loved Alex more I’m right-handed. C RAIG C OTTER

and poetry became the basis for his 2015 opera Crossing. He loves Whitman’s fanatical optimism, his awareness of “the blaz ing sacredness of all things,” even as he confesses to disliking “the sheer badness” of some of Whitman’s poetry. He’s also re freshingly forthright about the deficiencies of Crossing , calling it “an embarrassingly obvious self-portrait.” One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the atten

nificent examination of Mozart’s masterpiece Le nozze di Fi garo, which Aucoin deems a work capable of transcending opera’s impossibility, indeed a work that “achieves an aerial view of the human soul.” That chapter, “Music as Forgive ness,” the shortest in the book, left me full of gratitude—to Aucoin for writing so beautifully and to Mozart for writing so heartbreakingly.

Wilde Up Close and Far Away

F OR A 19TH-CENTURY author, Oscar Wilde is astonishingly pres ent in today’s culture—far more mentioned and quoted than even a perennial favorite like Mark Twain. This, I believe, is due to a combination of factors. Wilde was an important artist who had a dramatic life, and his personal drama and his writing are intertwined in ways that seem to illuminate each other. Indeed, while Wilde famously said (or was quoted as saying) that he put his genius into his life

UK) and Nicholas Frankel’s The Invention of Oscar Wilde . Both Sturgis and Frankel are distinguished writers, Sturgis as a biog rapher of fin-de-siècle artistic figures (in particular Aubrey Beardsley) and Frankel as a Wilde scholar. Sturgis’ book is explicitly framed as a response to Richard Ellmann’s 1987 Oscar Wilde , the book that set off the modern wave of Wilde scholarship and still profoundly informs most people’s (and scholars’) view of Wilde. Ellmann’s


OSCAR WILDE: A Life by Matthew Sturgis Knopf. 864 pages, $40.

THE INVENTION OF OSCARWILDE by Nicholas Frankel Reaktion Books. 272 pages, $25.

and only his talent into his work, I would argue that the two to gether can be seen as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk , with many thematic connections between Wilde’s self-creation and his artistic creations. Add to this Wilde’s ambiguousness on many points—his nationality (Irish or English), his religion (Catholic, Protestant, or “Pagan”), his politics (socialist or not), his sexu ality, and so on, and the result is a many-faceted and elusive subject. Consequently, there is never a year without new books about Wilde, each generally emphasizing (or over-emphasiz ing) the importance of one of his many aspects. Last year was no exception. Two books came out that at tempted to encompass the whole of Wilde’s story: Matthew Sturgis’ Oscar Wilde (which appeared three years earlier in the Andrew Lear is the founder of Oscar Wilde Tours and We Were There, a nonprofit organization focused on LGBT history. 32

book was completed during his terminal illness and undoubt edly for that reason contains many small factual errors. Stur gis aims to correct these and to incorporate into a cohesive biography the large amount of Wilde scholarship that has ap peared since Ellmann, and the new evidence that it has un earthed. Sturgis also objects to Ellmann’s intermingling of biography and literary commentary; he aims to tell Wilde’s story without seeing it as a literary work—the story of a fate foretold in Wilde’s writings—but rather as a historical narra tive, a series of factual events each of which might have turned out differently and led to a different story. The result is an extremely detailed and cautious work, as monumental (and monumentally long) as Ellmann’s. It contains a large amount of information that was not previously available to the lay public. This is especially true with respect to Wilde’s trials, but the book contains countless details that will fascinate

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