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Book Review: Wilde Times (or Sodomy in the Time of Victoria)

By Chance

September 17, 2010 at 7:54AM EDT

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I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race last season with a group of friends when one of the younger contestants on the show proclaimed he’d never heard of Oscar Wilde. All the queers in my living room gasped. To be fair, I probably wasn’t much younger than this poor, naïve boy when I discovered Oscar Wilde myself. The first thing of Oscar’s that I read was The Importance of Being Earnest. After that, I read everything else he ever wrote. At least, I thought I did.

If you’re unfamiliar with the life and work of Oscar Wilde, don’t feel bad. However, he really is an important author and figure in gay history. Think about this. In 2010, so many of us take being out of the closet for granted that we have no problem campaigning for equal rights, protesting anti-gay establishments and posting our sexual proclivities everywhere from Facebook to Manhunt. For a moment, though, try to imagine London, 1893. Sodomy was illegal. The mere accusation could destroy your reputation, your business and even land you in jail. Which is exactly what happened to Oscar Wilde. In 1895, Oscar was convicted of gross indecency (being a sodomite) and sentenced to two years of prison and hard labor. Being incarcerated in 1895 was no Chi Chi Larue video, either. It destroyed Oscar and ended the career of a literary genius.

So, it’s within this world of criminalized sexuality, underground gay networking and aestheticism that a curious book called Teleny was born. Widely believed (though never officially proven) to be written collaboratively by Oscar Wilde and his circle of cohorts, Teleny tells the tale of a forbidden and passionate love affair between Rene Teleny, a brilliant pianist, and Camille Des Grieux, a young aristocrat. The novel itself is uneven, the prose floral beyond description and much of the eroticism is lost due to the overly clinical descriptions of the acts and the anatomy involved. However, there are moments of brilliance, moments of pain and moments of great longing for equality and recognition. The narrator speaks very eloquently of the concept of being born gay and wanting to share openly the love and companionship that straight couples enjoy. Pretty radical for 1893.

But that was then, and this is now. Enter Jon Macy. A member of the early 90s “black and white boom,” Macy’s work includes Tropo, Nefarismo and, most recently, Fearful Hunter. Macy has taken Teleny, in all its uneven, floral, yet erotic glory, and has turned it into a lush and literary visual masterpiece. As a graphic novel, Teleny and Camille keeps the original story and the best of its rich language, but gives it a more cohesive narrative. The writers of the novel strain at times to describe the passion and intensity of the relationship between the two men. Macy’s art, passionate and free-flowing, at times animalistic and supernatural, fills in where mere words fail. It’s as if Teleny had been waiting a century for Jon Macy to come along.

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Rendered in stark black and white illustrations, the artwork beautifully portrays the often dark and foreboding story. The blacks creep across the page, pooling on the floor here, silhouetting a building there. Shadows and tuxedos and blood all share the same color and disappear into each other with gorgeous fluidity. The artwork is as seductive as the story, pulling the reader in, teasing, playing, hiding, then only revealing what is absolutely essential from panel to panel, page to page. 

I got a chance to speak with Macy briefly at Comic-Con and breathlessly told him how I savored and studied each page and felt the book should only be read alone and by candlelight. So vivid is the world Macy constructs, and the threat of exposure so daunting, just the experience of reading the book feels wicked and forbidden. It’s a very sensual reading experience.

That’s not to say this is purely an erotic book. On the contrary, Teleny and Camille displays and reveals human sexuality of all kinds, from the grotesque to the sublime. There are extremely disturbing scenes throughout, yet they provide a fascinating observation of the dangers of sexual oppression. Whether you find yourself in a brothel or cruising in a park, it’s not because society accepts you, that’s for sure. Yet, amidst the danger and extremes, there is the almost otherworldly devotion and sexual connection in the relationship of Teleny and Camille. They are literally telepathically connected, except when they need it most, when a few words of explanation could save lives. 

Oh yes, Teleny (and Teleny and Camille) is a tragedy. A hopeless ending is perhaps the only ending the authors could envision for the characters (and themselves). When someone as prominent as Oscar Wilde can be locked away, there’s little reason to believe things will ever get better. It’s unsettling, especially for a modern audience, and clearly it bothered Macy, since he adds an epilogue reimagining the ending. It’s a bit audacious, and not entirely necessary, since I believe the reader is wholly aware of the time and place of the book. What it does do, however, is tell us a little more about Macy himself and how much he clearly cares about the source material, its authors and all the readers over the years who’ve read the forbidden book in secret. The alternate ending is a gift to all of them. Macy gives them the better life they couldn’t possibly have imagined for themselves.

Macy’s Teleny and Camille was years in the making and stands as both a great accomplishment in the graphic novel genre and a major contribution to gay literature. It will introduce the book to a whole new generation of readers and, hopefully, will also lead readers (and young drag queens on TV) to Wilde and his contributions to gay history and culture. Plus, as it was perhaps always meant to do, it will undoubtedly inspire great lust and wickedness in its readers along the way. I think Oscar would approve.

Teleny and Camille is available from Northwest Press or wherever forbidden 19th century gay erotica is sold.

NOTE: You can meet artist Jon Macy at the Official Teleny and Camille Release Party at the Bottleneck Lounge in Seattle on Saturday, September 18, starting at 7:00PM. You can get more information on the Facebook event page.

NOTE II: I have a copy of Teleny and Camille to give away to the first site member to post an Oscar Wilde quote in the comments section. If you don’t have a favorite, feel free to Google one. Once you start reading the wit and wisdom of Oscar, you won’t be able to stop.