In one of his more prescient observations, made nine years before his death in exile and disgrace, Oscar Wilde noted: “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”
Fortunately for Wilde’s smoke-wreathed, absinthe-scented ghost, his latest biographer betrays little more than a deep tenderness for his subject and a tantalising imagination.
Javier de Isusi’s graphic novel, The Divine Comedy of Oscar Wilde – which won Spain’s national comic prize at the end of October – offers a sepia-tinted recreation of the writer’s final three years in Paris after his release from Reading gaol.
Though his wit remains sharp, the Wilde of Isusi’s book is a bloated, and occasionally vomit-spattered, man of liquid breakfasts and empty pockets, forever in search of escape as he wanders towards death under the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth.
For Isusi – who was so deeply influenced by Wilde’s children’s stories that his first book, written at the age of seven, was called The Ogre and the Mouse – the comic is partly the result of an attempt to reconcile the man who wrote The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant with the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“They both fascinated me; one for his light – even though the stories were sad – and the other for his darkness,” says Isusi.
“The text is so moving that I thought to myself: ‘Anyone who could have written this had to have done more than just ended up a semi-alcoholic nothing.’ There had to be more than that.”
Isusi spent five years poring over biographies of Wilde and reading the accounts of those who had known him best, so while The Divine Comedy of Oscar Wilde is a reimagining of the writer’s life between 1897 and 1900, it is firmly rooted in real-life encounters.
As well as the inevitable meeting with his former lover Bosie – more properly known as Lord Alfred Douglas – there are appearances by the Spanish poets Manuel and Antonio Machado, the author André Gide and the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The story is interspersed with interviews with Wilde’s friends and confidants, who speak directly to the reader. Some are candid; some reticent.
Bosie reflects on his relationship with Wilde, noting that both his beauty and his reputation suffered the fate of Dorian Gray’s likeness after he outlived the writer by almost half a century.
“I grew old, as you can see,” he tells the reader as he ages rapidly over three panels. “To him, I was always young and beautiful but, for 45 years, I had to endure what time and life had done to my portrait.”
Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross, meanwhile, raises the question that haunts every would-be Wilde biographer: “I could tell you many things but what’s the point? The world already has what it wants of Wilde: the perfect tragedy of someone who ascended to the Olympus of glory only to be cast down into a hell of humiliation and destitution. Why should I want to convince anyone otherwise?”
The book’s climax imagines an impossible encounter with another poetic titan.
After getting drunk with Toulouse-Lautrec and narrowly avoiding one of the painter’s bullets – not to mention attempted blackmail by a sex worker – Wilde contemplates, and then decides against, pitching himself into the dark waters of the Seine.
It is then that he hallucinates a conversation with Arthur Rimbaud.
Rimbaud, dead for eight years, asks Wilde a not unreasonable question: “When are you going to stop masturbating over your own image?”
That scene, says Isusi, is at the core of the book.
“There are similarities between Rimbaud and Wilde: the two were born just four days apart; both stopped writing and wrote nothing but letters during their final years, and both were exiles, although in very different ways. Wilde was forced into exile but Rimbaud took himself off into exile.”
The poète maudit’s apparition pushes Wilde towards a hell and purgatory where, in drawings heavily influenced by William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, he revisits his trial and imprisonment.
When he emerges, Wilde is finally able to separate his life from his work and, as Isusi puts it, “look almost happily on death. I wanted to show that things may look as though they’re falling apart from the outside, but perhaps inside, you’re living something far more liberating.”
The belated arrival at Wilde’s deathbed of a character who has symbolised innocence suggests the writer has finally found a measure of peace. The boy crowns him with laurels and quotes the last words spoken in The Selfish Giant.
Given Isusi’s abundant love for Wilde, he seems an unlikely Judas. But has the book made him feel like one?
“I’ll leave that up to the reader, but I don’t think so. As Wilde pointed out, a work says a lot about its author. This is about how I want the end of Oscar Wilde’s life to have been.”