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Imagine a collection of erotic tales penned anonymously by Oscar Wilde and friends. The stories come from a round-robin writing game and the participants are Victorians with various degrees of writing talent. But instead of a party game pastime, where the stories gets racier as the drinks go down, this book was a secret endeavor, passed hand to hand by participants, unsigned.
And Victorians, known for putting doilies on everything, are no less decorative when writing erotica.
I appreciated reading Jon Macy’s framing introduction to his graphic novel version of Wilde and friends’ book Teleny and Camille (Northwest Press). He describes his struggle with making the flamboyant, lush language appeal to modern readers.
About Wilde and his circle, he says:
They politicized their aesthetic. They broke all convention. They were the original fags. They were poets and aesthetes, carrying sunflowers and dressing flamboyantly. They shocked society and posed a threat to the status quo. Every gay stereotype we have today comes from these men. …How do I show how cool they were without the props of their time making them seem ridiculous to modern readers?
Macy’s book is more intriguing because of this struggle. Debauchery is always interesting, but erotica that reads as ridiculous or antiquated does little to pitch tents.
The story line follows Camille, who is introduced by his mother to the moody, gorgeous pianist Teleny (alive in modern day, these guys would certainly mope in their rooms to the Smiths or Joy Division). Their love affair is passionate, Grecian, flourished with the naturalism of Art Nouveau… and secretive. Ah, secretive.
For modern Facebook folk, secrets may be more mysterious than sex. But the world of mistresses, brothels, shirtlifters, and back door clubs was a part of how Victorian society worked, their version of ask, don’t tell.
Different chapters follow the two lads to brothels and the salon of their adventurous gay acquaintance, Bryancourt. Dalliances are gay and straight, erotic and shocking. Macy’s drawing style handles it all and manages to be both sexy and fantastical. While the main story line is gay, to Macy’s credit, neither the drawings nor the plot shortchange the women characters. Though more roughly drawn than Beardsley, Macy’s style harkens back to the graphics of Art Nouveau, with its stark black ink pen lines, and its references to nature.
Although Teleny and Camille do find true love, we wouldn’t now equate Victorian with prude if Victorians didn’t balk at sexual freedom. Someone has to pay for all this decadence; and the ending of the original writing doesn’t bode well for our heroes. Macy can’t bear to end the story on such a sad note, and so in true choose-your-own-adventure style, he comes up with a happier finale for all. And it works, especially for a book that was concocted of many people’s fantasies…why not add one more?
Readers interested in Macy’s work should also check out his graphic novel Fearful Hunter, a sexy tale of boys, Druids, and wolves. More information on both books available at his website.