{ feuilleton }

Avatar

• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal

teleny1.jpg

Bibliothèque Libertine edition (1996).

The quintessence of bliss can, therefore, only be enjoyed by beings of the same sex… Teleny

More Wildeana, and yes, it’s that painting againTeleny is an authorless and explicitly homoerotic novel often attributed to Oscar Wilde although what evidence there is regarding its creation points to it being the work of several hands. It was published in a limited edition by Leonard Smithers in 1893 then subsequently reissued in a variety of editions which, being illicit and copyright-free, suffered excisions and textual amendments. Smithers was a good friend of Wilde’s and in addition to being Victorian London’s most prominent pornographer (a sign in his Bond Street shop window proudly declared “Smut is cheap today”), also financed The Savoy magazine and kept Aubrey Beardsley solvent after the artist’s commissions dried up following Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895.

The convoluted history of Teleny begins with its mysterious origin, recounted here by Beardsley scholar Brian Reade in Philippe Jullian’s 1969 Wilde biography:

Charles Hirsch, a Parisian bookseller, came to London in 1889 and opened a shop in Coventry Street where he sold Continental books and newspapers. Wilde was a frequent customer of his, and Hirsch used to obtain for him Alcibiades enfant à l’Ecole and The Sins of the Cities of the Plain. Many of these were reprints of well-known works of this character. Towards the end of 1890 Wilde brought into the shop a thin paper commercial-style notebook, wrapped up and sealed.. This he instructed Hirsch to hand over to a friend who would present his card. Shortly afterwards, one of Wilde’s young friends whose name Hirsch had forgotten by the time he recorded the incident called at the shop and after showing Wilde’s card took away the packed-up notebook. A few days later the young man came back and handed the manuscript to Hirsch, saying another man would call and collect it in a similar manner. In all, four men seem to have taken away and returned the manuscript, and the last left the wrapper undone. Succumbing to temptation, Hirsch opened the parcel and read the contents of the notebook, the leaves of which were loose On the cover there was a single word TELENY; inside about 200 pages of a novel which appeared to be a collaborative effort. No author’s name was given. The handwritings were various; there were conspicuous erasures, cuttings-out and corrections. Hirsch believed that some of the writing was Wilde’s. In due course Hirsch gave the manuscript back to Wilde. He next came across Teleny when he found it had been printed by Leonard Smithers in an edition privately issued and limited to 200 copies, with only the imprint ‘Cosmopoli’ at the bottom of the title page, and the date 1893. In this printed version, Paris had been substituted for London as the scene of the action, and there were certain differences of detail. There was an added sub-title Or the reverse of the Medal, and the Prologue had been cut out. When Hirsch got to know Smithers in 1900, he asked about the book, and was told that Smithers had wished not to upset the self-respect of clients by leaving the story with a London background. There was also Des Grieux. A Prelude to Teleny which was announced for publication by the Erotica Biblion Society in 1908. One can go over the names and literary mannerisms of some of the better-remembered persons in his circle in 1890, but to associate any of them with the authorship of Teleny would be difficult. Copies of Teleny in the 1893 edition are very rare indeed. The British Museum has one, but those in private possession have been reduced in number no doubt by executors and others who considered them unfit for anything else than fire. A new edition was brought out by the Olympia Press of Paris, and in it Wilde was definitely, but mistakenly, credited with the authorship; and an expurgated version was produced in paperback form by Icon in 1966, with an introduction by Montgomery Hyde.

Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) is convinced of Wilde’s involvement whereas Richard Ellmann firmly dismissed the notion. Some of the dissent is perhaps a result of competing agendas, in McKenna’s case a determination to establish a firmly gay persona for the author. McKenna explores Wilde’s sex life in detail, something which Ellmann frequently skates over. Ellmann, meanwhile, has a better grasp of Wilde’s literary prowess and evidently thought that Teleny didn’t adequately match the rest of the author’s work. I remain agnostic on the issue whilst being struck by the frequent use in Teleny of flower metaphors which the narrator deploys when describing the object of his affection. Having recently read McKenna’s book (which quotes throughout from Wilde’s letters), and re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s impossible to avoid Wilde’s continuous recourse to flower imagery when referring to people or even items of furniture. The most famous instance of this was his description of Aubrey Beardsley and sister Mabel in a letter to Ada Leverson: “What a contrast the two are—Mabel a daisy, Aubrey the most monstrous of orchids.” On the debit side I’d say that Wilde is unlikely to have invented the central relationship between Camille de Grieux and his Hungarian lover, René Teleny. McKenna’s book also makes it clear that Wilde preferred younger men, particularly teenagers, and would no doubt have outlined a different story had he been the sole originator.

teleny2.jpg

left: Gay Men’s Press edition (1986); right: La Musardine edition (with Egon Schiele cover, 2009).

Everyone who discusses Teleny, however, is agreed that its prose is far more finely-wrought than much general writing of the period, never mind the era’s pornography. The sexual description is powerfully erotic and gives the lie to that canard (perpetuated by the egregious Auberon Waugh and his annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award) that describing sex is almost always a mistake. Describing anything poorly is a mistake, the challenge is to do the thing well, and Teleny describes the encounters of its pair of lovers better than many writers would manage today.

teleny3.jpg

Genuine (left) and pastiche (right) Beardsley designs.

With such an intriguing work it’s always a boon if there’s further discussion on the subject, and the Wilde connection pays off here with a whole section of the Oscholars website being devoted to the book. Of particular note is John McRae’s introduction to a revised and textually corrected edition published in 1986 by London’s Gay Men’s Press. Jason Boyd, meanwhile, argues that the book could never be wholly attributed to Wilde. Also present is a page showing different cover designs for the various editions, some of which are shown above. As well as the inevitable Wilde portraits and Beardsley designs there’s the surprise appearance of Flandrin’s Jeune Homme Assis au Bord de la Mer on several editions. Other pages at Oscholars include plates from an illustrated edition of the book whose publisher and illustrator, Uday K Dhar, forbid reproduction elsewhere, an all-too-common example of copyright paranoia which ensures the audience for their work remains a limited one. By contrast, artist Jon Macy has an entire site devoted to his comic strip adaptation of Teleny. His black and white drawing and attention to detail combine to make his book another item for the shopping list.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive
The recurrent pose archive

 


 

Posted in {art}, {beardsley}, {books}, {comics}, {design}, {gay}.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

 


 


 

9 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by Evan

    gravatar

    This book has been coming up a lot lately in my circles. Thanks for all the context you’ve provided.

  2. #2 posted by Evan

    gravatar

    PS-

    1) I’m looking for an edition as close to the complete original as possible. What would you recommend?

    2) On the cover designs page, I cannot accept cover #19. It’s just too ridiculous– not delightfully absurd, not deliciously campy, merely ridiculous.

  3. #3 posted by John

    gravatar

    Hi Evan. The Gay Men’s Press edition edited by John McRea was the first which returned to the original publication. GMP went out of business a few years ago but the most recent printing is still on Amazon and seems to be…#19! Maybe you could make a new cover for it?

  4. #4 posted by littleaugury

    gravatar

    Wilde fascinates-thank you for this indepth look at the story behind the story-its fitting that a novel of erotica should be linked to Oscar. I must say He would be at one of those proverbial dinner tables of- “if I could dine with-so and so”-perhaps He would be all required. I have the new clothbound Penguin copy of Dorian Gray awaiting a read. I was overwhelmed with the number of people viewing my latest Barry Lyndon post which I see was your generous link to it on
    Coudal recently. It did skew the statistic counter for months to come-many thanks, LA

  5. #5 posted by John

    gravatar

    Yes, I think Oscar would be worth twenty other dinner guests, he was always described as being the focus of attention and he loved to talk.

    That Barry Lyndon ad was a great discovery, I’m not surprised the Coudal people liked it.

  6. #6 posted by Evan

    gravatar

    Update–

    After comparing edition #19 to the 1984 Gay Sunshine Press edition, I think the latter is superior. The Gay Men’s Press edition, complete with Warholian arses, does not include the prologue (which is, admittedly, unnecessary).

    The Gay Sunshine Press edition indicates the sections added later by Leonard Smithers, and one could skip those if wished. Most of the Smithers additions are entirely redundant and poor attempts at wittiness, but there’s a lengthy passage that Smithers added during the scene in which Camille follows Teleny and Bryancourt to Ye Olde Cruising Ground. That was read with glee.

  7. #7 posted by Evan

    gravatar

    Oh, and Macy has released his graphic novel. I’ll be reviewing it for an as-yet-to-be-revealed publication.

  8. #8 posted by Evan

    gravatar

    My mistake- the GMP edition does include the prologue, but it’s at the end. There’s also a glossary for some of the mythological and Shakespearean references.

  9. #9 posted by James

    gravatar

    I have just come across a 2nd edition 1906 Teleny by Smithers does any one know of another than the one in the British Library

 




 

tracker

 


 

“feed your head”