“More or less, a prophet” — it’s not wrong or even weird of me to say that even though Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite writers I’m actually far more fascinated by him than his work. If I could master the paradox approach I would (and would probably drive all my friends crazy if I haven’t already), but I know I’ve got the shameless-if-mocking egotism down. And why not (he said preeningly).

Back in 1988 one of my high school gifts to myself was Richard Ellmann’s exhaustive biography, a book I still treasure and occasionally reread all the way through, though often I just dip into it here and there. This year, though, I’ve had opportunity to read two further books which I’m glad exist that give me a slightly broader picture of things. Earlier this year there was Douglas Murray’s Bosie, a long overdue portrait of the spoilt, complex character so ineluctably tied together with Wilde in the final years. It’s his description of Wilde I’m using as the headline here, and Murray finally fills out the more-complex and more-heartbreaking than imagined story of someone who fought any number of demons, personal and public and often horribly unnecessary, to his grave.

Meantime, from a few years back is Gary Schmidgall’s The Stranger Wilde, which I’ve just finished reading. It’s a personal project if ever there was one — he doesn’t engage in imagined dialogue with Wilde or anything (thankfully) but it balances out a study of Wilde as public and private and liminal figure, as imagined and reported and self-analyzed, with observations from nearly a hundred years later as to his situation, his milieu, his life and attendant glories and downfalls. As such it’s a good take on many subjects not usually found in the formal biographies — the amount of parody material he covers from Punch alone is a welcome joy, reproducing many cartoons and etchings — as well as filling in more details of his life, making, for instance, a good case for some sort of formal relationship between Wilde and the now obscure, then successful American playwright Clyde Fitch.

It’s also reflective of Schmidgall’s own heart-on-sleeve approach, however, embracing a more direct and sometimes fierce reaction against the world around him circa the early nineties and what it entailed for gay life. Intriguingly, Schmidgall himself never identifies directly as gay in this book — he does honor and dedicate the book to a deceased uncle of his who was — and while that might not seem important he certainly values and engages with questions of gay identity to a thorough degree. At one point he essentially breaks away from his analyses to indulge in a diatribe against the 1986 Bowers V. Hardwick Supreme Court case, overturned years after the book’s publication by Lawrence and Garner vs. State of Texas. Thus dated, it’s a telling reflection over a state of mind and place in time, and one is immediately tempted to wonder how this book would be written for this year, where the legal framework had changed but a newer hot-button issue can come to the fore. One suspects Schmidgall would feel the need to rewrite just a bit, finding something in Wilde’s work to tie to questions of gay marriage — but given Wilde’s own acerbic responses and discussions of marriage, it would have been a more loaded approach.

Perhaps the most forceful — if forced — vision/intrusion of Schmidgall onto the world of his subject is his at once delightful and curious digression into wondering what an ‘Oscar today’ would be like, portraying an aging, comfortable book reviewer who (now projecting a bit into a new decade) would have been a perfect guest for Oprah and her book club and Charlie Rose, witty and famous for being famous, and whose many observations on society, as Schmidgall takes almost extreme care to lay out, might be as applicable now as then. I understand the impulse — I often think the same thing about my own personal nineteenth-century literary lodestone (and, regrettably, Wilde-hater, though due to his work rather than himself, which is refreshing) Ambrose Bierce.

It’s not the only thing about the book, thankfully, and I think it’s a fine addendum to the Ellmann text, something that steers away from biography to create a collage portrait in words, from friends and enemies and more in between, at least from those who left any remembrances or commented along the way, a small slice of those people who would have known him. A good read that tells as much about the author as the subject — but then the author argues reasonably enough that such was the case with Wilde’s own works.