Excerpt: 'Great Dates with some Late Greats' by David Finkle
Peter Fellowes’s Story; or, Oscar Goes Wild
The temporary Paris rental that Con Dooley put me on to for the time away I needed in which to clear my head of several depressing new haven developments—divorce after a steadily downhill five years not the least of them—was five flights up (the quatrième étage) and included no elevator. The retreat was at the back of a Seventh arrondissement building and overlooked a small garden with a small stone patio, a white wrought-iron table and two matching chairs. Other than a few chatty birds, no one seemed to occupy it while I was in residence.
Not entirely true. One afternoon, I looked down the five floors and saw a woman seated on one of the chairs, reading a magazine. A small tea service was on the table. From where I viewed her, she looked like madame Recamier come to life, but she wasn’t.
She was just a (presumably) French woman reading a magazine. The view, populated or not, was more interesting than the rental’s interior. From the way it was furnished, I assumed the owners never inhabited it but merely derived income from temporary leases. The living room was shabby, as was the bedroom, with a closet containing sheets, pillowcases and towels, all yellowing with age but clean and laundered, I assumed, by whoever previously occupied the space. The kitchen appliances were remnants of an age when French design was in a less advanced state.
Nevertheless, it suited my not-too demanding purposes. An inveterate worrier and recent early retiree, I could indulge those constant preoccupations as well as work there as long as relative quiet ruled.
Mainly, it was someplace from which I could depart for more interesting surroundings and to which I could return when my interests or my drearier ruminations on any particular day of the open-ended days that I was in residence held sway.
If I worked in the morning on the family business obligations I’d assumed despite continuing disputes with my contentious younger and still working brother and sister, I could go to the museums or the parks or the sidewalk cafés or nowhere special in the afternoon, which is what I was doing on a reasonably mild, though slightly overcast, November afternoon, a slightly overcast November afternoon typical of the weather since I’d taken up residence. I was still diligently probing my attempt to take a new control over my life when, having just rounded the corner from rue Bonaparte into rue des Beaux-arts, a Paris street on which I don’t think I’d ever been, I suddenly saw Oscar Wilde coming towards me.
I mean the real Oscar Wilde, who was traveling on his thin legs at an impressively fast clip, walking stick flailing in front of him, scarf flowing in the mildly gusting wind he and November were churning up around him. A green carnation dotted one of the lapels, accentuating his pigeon-breasted chest.
Had this moving image (in two meanings of the phrase) come to my attention in 1899, I might not have taken particular notice. It was widely known that Wilde was staying at the Hôtel d’Alsace on the south side of this very street. It’s the hotel in which he died and which is now known to parvenus as the luxuriously unprepossessing L’Hôtel.
On the other hand, I very well might have taken note of him in 1899, since he was the famous, not to say the notorious, Oscar Wilde. But here it was several years into the twenty-first century. The playwright-poet-essayist-“somdomite” (that’s the marquis of Queensberry’s misspelled assessment) had been dead since November 30, 1900.
I’d been sent into the world much later and was still alive and on the self-imposed lam on what I suddenly realized was November 30, nothing less than an anniversary of Wilde’s demise. So as the apparently exhumed and reconstituted Wilde passed, I thought to stop him and say how much I admired his plays, especially The Importance of Being Earnest.
Yet I stifled the urge. he looked too much like a man on a mission for whom even hastily uttered praise would be an imposition. More to the point, even if this were the hand-to-heart Oscar Wilde, did I want to start with him? Okay, so it’s Oscar Wilde, I said to myself. You’ve seen him. He may have seen you. Now forget it. Go on your way. Honoré de Balzac or Charles de Gaulle could be in the next street. You can look at them, too, and keep walking.
I gave Wilde wide berth—wider berth, considering his girth, than I might have had to give a slimmer personage. He breezed by me like a heifer—I mean zephyr. Only his flowing scarf brushed my shoulder. (“Oscar Wilde’s scarf just brushed our shoulder,” voices inside my head shouted like a music-hall chorus.)
And that was that—oblong-faced, full-lipped, small-chinned Oscar Wilde surged on.
Or so I thought, for behind me I suddenly heard a plummy voice call in English, “You, sir, hello!” I stopped without turning, certain the salutation, coming from whomever, couldn’t have been meant for me, yet slightly apprehensive that it may have been. Again and closer I heard, “Yes, you, sir!”
I assumed it was Oscar Wilde speaking, but I had no idea to whom. It wasn’t to me, I continued hoping. Hoping against hope, for just then I felt—and looked down to see—a gloved hand on my arm, tugging me to turn around.
I did. What was the alternative—pulling away rudely? Couldn’t do it, much as I wanted. As I turned to face him, Wilde released me. He placed both gloved hands atop his tooled-silver walking stick, now planted firmly on the pavement, and looked me directly in the eye.
Oscar Wilde was, I realized with no small astonishment, addressing me with intent. He said, “My good man, when a stranger speaks to you, it’s only polite to listen, even if what you’re hearing isn’t worth listening to. It’s the courtesy the pursued owe the persistent.”
I was stupefied. Oscar Wilde—wearing a double-breasted velour jacket, cap at a jaunty angle and knee breeches as out of step with fashion as they were odd in his own time—had, I think, just described me as “pursued” and himself as “persistent.” More than that, he’d declared courtesy owed him. The extent of my debt, the extent of his persistence, I had no way to gauge. I was at a loss for words.
He was not. unsurprisingly. “I had to talk to someone,” he said. “I could not look at the wallpaper in that hotel for another minute. I can forgive dullness in my friends, but dullness in wallpaper is thoroughly unacceptable.”
I was speechless, thinking Oscar Wilde had just made physical contact with me—actual physical contact. Saying nothing, I rubbed my arm where he had gripped it with more force than I might have expected. To him, my lack of response to the wallpaper sally was unsatisfactory. He gestured with a gloved hand that he expected a reply, was impatiently waiting for it.
I said the first thing that came to me, relieved that something—anything—had formed. “If the wallpaper got on your mind so much, couldn’t you look out the window for a while?”
Taller than I had imagined Oscar Wilde would be and making the most of his height, he said, “You must never look out a window. You have no idea who might be looking in.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way but didn’t say as much, nonplussed as I remained at having fallen against my better judgment into brief conversation with Oscar Wilde. Did I say “brief”? That’s what I thought then. Ha!
This time Wilde looked to be judging my silence. After a short lapse, he said, “The man who thinks to find diversion in others is peering into the scullery with hopes of locating the drawing room.”
I nodded my head to indicate I was in total agreement, not that in my nearly six decades I’d ever seen the inside—or, for that matter, the outside—of a scullery.
“Furthermore,” he pressed on, both his hands again on the walking stick, his gaze now directed somewhere above my head, “art is in the eye of the beholder—as long as I am the beholder.”
Damn, I thought, Oscar Wilde is talking to me about art. I wonder if he ever talked this way to Aubrey Beardsley.
At that point, he paused and looked at me blankly. I jumped to the conclusion that our more or less one-sided colloquy had drawn to a close. Relief overtook me. Hesitantly, I muttered something like “Thanks for the advice”—if indeed advice it was—“and goodbye.”
I thought to leave him but stalled long enough for his gray (Dorian-gray?) eyes to come to life again. He said, “‘Goodbye’ is the saddest word in the English language—unless you include ‘hello.’”
Then he did something curious. He indicated he was about to continue his walk and, with the walking stick, signaled that I should accompany him. I could only assume he didn’t recall that when he stopped me, I was heading in the opposite direction.
What was I to do? if Oscar Wilde invites you—even tacitly—to accompany him on a promenade around Paris, do you think it over? Do you graciously beg off? Do you gratefully but firmly bend low and execute a crisp about-face? Do you question whether or not he is Oscar Wilde?
For me, the answer to all those questions was yes, but that’s not what I said. Much as I wanted to—or did I?—I knew I wasn’t going anywhere special, just taking my own spur-of-many-moments route to see what I might see.
So what did I do, my resolve thawing like ice cubes in hot coffee, I reversed the direction in which I thought I’d been going and fell in step with him. It was a lively step, and sensing—wrongly, as it turned out—the time had come for me to hold up my end of the unexpected dialogue if I was acquiescing to it, I said, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
I wasn’t just whistling “La Marseillaise.” It had turned into a beautiful day. The sun had come out, the wind had abated. Though the November chill was still present, it seemed less biting. The buildings behind the bare, stretching trees looked as if they’d been incised into a Paris-blue sky across which only a few gauzy clouds floated.
Wilde—looking at me as if to take a measure of my deepest shallow thoughts—said, “Remarking on the weather is the quickest way to reveal an impoverished mind. There’s nothing more unnatural than communing with nature. To be at one with nature is to be at odds with the rest of the world. Anyone who prefers solitude to companionship is putting frivolity before wisdom. A man who watches his words sees little and says less. Those who preach morality rarely practice it. Travel broadens the mind, but so does remaining at home with a good book. Modesty is a virtue meant to be admired in others.”
This outpouring not only made me feel as insecure as an undergraduate taking an exam for which he hadn’t prepared, but I found myself wondering if I should be scribbling notes in anticipation of an impending semester final.
Wilde, whose gaze had again drifted off as he spoke, looked back to me and realized he’d struck me dumb. He stopped walking, placed his walking stick against my right arm with a certain amount of pressure and said, “Nothing personal, you understand.”
He bowed his head, almost sheepishly, and confided, “I am compelled to speak in aphorisms.” Then the authoritative tone infused his treble-clef voice again and he issued, “Anyone who becomes personal on first meeting will all too soon become impersonal.”
We had reached rue Jacob, and he’d continued west for no particular reason I could discern. Also for no reason I could discern, he’d stopped at the southeast corner of rue Jacob and rue des Saints-Peres. He stood there as if analyzing a thought.
People streamed by, some taking us in—well, taking him in, for his garb—others paying little attention. Many of them were students issuing from or hurrying to the nearby Université René Descartes. Others were on the way to or from the facing post office. For all any of them knew, Wilde was wearing the latest retro fashions from the Yves Saint Laurent or Christian Dior or Chanel runway.
Wilde gave none of them more than a cursory glance and an upward tilt of his straight but not narrow nose. you might have thought something malodorous had wafted south from the river.
“I should explain myself,” he said, again in tentative mode. “I dispense epigrams as if giving alms to the needy. It is punishment for the sin of my not knowing at crucial moments in my life when aphorisms
ceased to be appropriate. The harsh sentence dates from my slander suit against the marquis of Queensberry. During the first trial, I was asked if I’d kissed a certain youth of my acquaintance. I replied, ‘Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy. I pitied him for it.’
“That was not the type of remark that goes down well in court. Though I did hasten to add—and I quote my usually quotable self—that at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously, and vice versa. It was too late.
“I also was asked to repeat what I had said to the marquis of Queensberry when he said to me and Alfred, Lord Douglas—Bosie—that ‘If I catch you and my son together again in any public restaurant, I will thrash you.’ I admitted before m’Lud that I had indiscreetly replied, ‘I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot at sight.’
“My verbal profligacy resulted, as you undoubtedly know, in four years’ hard labor within the thick and unforgiving Reading Gaol walls. One would assume that was sufficient payment of one’s debt to society, and although it was, it has been deemed by higher judges as inadequate payment of one’s debt to the universe. I’m paying it now by those same higher authorities condemning me to continue devising aphorisms—as you have witnessed these last few minutes.”
He stopped to wave a gloved fist at the bright sky and then to sink into thought. Then, regaining his composure—not to say his imperious glance—said, “Those who live to please others may have a point, but it’s a blunt point. Never ask listeners if they agree with what you’re saying—it’s sufficient that you agree with yourself. People say honesty is good for the soul, but they never specify whose soul.”
We had resumed sauntering and had turned on to boulevard Saint-Germain. Walking east, we were in the thick of the passing parade. Wilde maintained his pace, sometimes using his stick to nudge others aside. I did my best to keep up with him and even found myself, on Wilde’s behalf, giving apologetic nods to pedestrians whom his Wildean manners had irritated.
Apparently having assessed the contemporary styles swirling around him, Wilde said, “Women dress for other women—men dress for better or worse.” I figured that for him the fashions, such as they were on Paris streets, were not so much new as completely foreign.
He switched to scanning the buildings we passed and said, with a toss of one scarf end over his right shoulder, “I understand we must have architectural design but could not someone instruct us how to avoid having to looking at it?”
The throngs by which he blithely sailed must have eventually made some impression, because he blurted, “Other people are necessary to our well-being, but only just.”
We were approaching Les Deux Magots, and my cheeks were beginning to hurt. This was a result of the fixed smile I’d been offering that I suspected Wilde considered his due. Vigorously rubbing my facial muscles—a gesture he missed, because he was still looking away from me—I realized there’s such a thing as an aphorism-receptor limit, and, while I can’t deny my affinity for certain affectations, I’d reached the satiation point. An excess of bons mots was the spoken equivalent of an excess of bon-bons.
Furthermore, I recoiled at Wilde’s treatment of a thoroughfare about which I had extremely favorable feelings. It was just off the boulevard Saint-Germain—on the block-long rue de Condé—where I’d stayed when I first came to Paris. I liked walking the boulevard no matter what the weather—drizzling, sizzling—to remind myself of the effect the city had on me the first day I was able to explore it. Even the memory of a clochard (bum) I almost tripped over that introductory day filled me with nostalgia. He was the first man I’d ever seen napping on a sidewalk.
But how was I to shake Wilde? Even though it was possible he could easily go a few more blocks before he noticed I’d disappeared, I couldn’t just walk away from him.
“The only thing wrong with the lower class,” Wilde continued, dauntless and sniffing at the crowds surging by, “is that it exists. On the other hand, I have nothing against a lack of beauty as long as I am not exposed to it.”
Much as I was—well, flattered, I suppose you could say—at having made Oscar Wilde’s acquaintance and by implication to have been found not lacking in beauty, I felt more and more pressed to take my leave of him.
Conflicted and not wanting to be discourteous, I picked up my pace until I was slightly ahead and to the right of him. Catching his eye from that vantage point, I said, “Excuse me, Mister Wilde. I am enjoying our walk immensely, but I really must be leaving. I am supposed…”
I stumbled over what I was supposed to be doing. I could hear the uncertainty in my voice. Making matters worse, I was clenching my hands. They were sweaty.
He said, and with the perspicacity often attributed to him, “I never mind companions dissembling as long as I do not realize they are.” He had my number.
I was ashamed and embarrassed. To disguise that, I hastened to say, “Well, perhaps I’m not in that much of a hurry.”
He looked at me and said with a silver-spoonful of condescension, “A gentleman never hurries to the world—he waits for the world to come to him.”
To emphasize the significance of that observation, he slowed his stride and tapped his walking stick metallically on that particular patch of what I still thought of as the magical boulevard Saint-Germain.
I noticed we’d almost reached the rue Danton, down which were two book stores I knew. I suddenly longed to comb through shelves for anything that didn’t have Oscar Wilde’s name on its spine. But how to give him the old Victorian heave-ho? My attempt to beg off politely had failed. Were must be another way, I told myself unconvincingly. Hoo-ha! A thought came to me as if delivered by wingéd Mercury himself.
“I hope you won’t think me overstepping my bounds, Mr. Wilde,” I said, “but I’ve been mulling over your predicament.”
“In an intelligent person presumption must be actively encouraged,” he mused.
Despite the epigram’s coming at me like yet another steel arrow, I figured I should be encouraged by it. I said, “Perhaps I could help you with the aphorism problem.”
Halting again, he surveyed me head to foot and back again. “There is a solution,” he said, “but it’s complicated.”
I put on my sincerest expression, so sincere I could feel my raised eyebrows furrowing my forehead. I curled my tongue to say “I’m all ears” but decided a cliché was not called for.
He spoke with deliberation. “My chastising gods have willed that if I can transmit the phrase-making compulsion to someone with whom I’ve become acquainted, no matter how briefly,” he said, “I unburden myself of the habit for all eternity. I will have passed the affliction on. Then will I utter aphorisms only when I wish to, and I have been assured I will rarely wish to. Ah, but I am chagrined to say that so far I have never met the person.” He smiled a half-smile.
It was, I noted, the only time since we’d met that he’d turned up the corners of his mouth even that much. Wanting to offer solace, I said with no forethought, “Hope is the one thing we must hold on to when all hope is gone.”
Wilde stared at me as if branding me with his gray eyes. “What did you say?” he asked.
I repeated myself and added, “Defeat always comes from within.”
I had barely finished when just there, at the intersection of boulevard Saint-Germain and rue Danton, the man I knew—but only for no more than 45 minutes—as Oscar Wilde disappeared as rapidly as he’d appeared. He evanesced. He went up in a puff (I won’t say “poof ”) of mauve smoke. All that was left of him was the green carnation, falling to a soft, sad landing on the pavement.
“What begins unexpectedly,” I said aloud, “will often end just as unexpectedly.”
Only then, as I spoke to whomever happened to be within earshot, did I really hear myself. I heard the three observations I’d just made—the one about hope, the one about defeat and the one about expectation—and how I’d shaped them.
That’s when it came to me. They were aphorisms. I couldn’t deny it. They were epigrams. Having escaped from Oscar Wilde, had I taken him with me? If so, I instantly realized, I’d succeeded in getting my mind off my consuming troubles. I’d succeeded in settling my mind on a new one.
Once a worrier, always a worrier, but now perhaps I could at least convert my worries into deathless turns of phrase. Let’s see: There’s nothing wrong with worrying that additional worrying will not ameliorate. Or: When other people are worried, they undoubtedly should be. Or: It isn’t love that makes the world go round, it’s worry.
Say, this is fun. I’ll keep it up, and eventually I’ll have my own collection. I looked up and down rue Danton. The sun had come out. Paris was smiling at me.
Story excerpted from Great Dates with some Late Greats, by David Finkle, (Plum Bay Publishing; Original Trade Paperback, 2019. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.