If I seem to have become obsessed with the isomorphism of love and gambling, it is because, like an unexpected number in roulette on a particularly hazardous night, the subject just keeps coming up. Wherever I look, whether to a work of imaginative literature or to a story from real life, at once I note the love interest; and no sooner do I see it than I interpret it in gaming terms, finding in its outline the same mysterious shapes that have brought generations of serious men to ruin at Monte Carlo, Deauville, or Bad Homburg. Hence these interminable lucubrations.
The unabridged text of the infamous letter of nearly a novel’s length written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas from prison at Reading, excerpts from which I read in my youth in Russia as De Profundis, has been printed in a facsimile edition by the British Library and can be found in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. The book contains photographs. The one remarkable aspect of the Douglas affair that these images illustrate is the indisputable physical beauty of Wilde’s lover and nemesis. I cannot tell whether my saying so will render that judgment more objective, but the young man’s face seems to have been made up of fleeting likenesses to the leading actress of the day, the diva Lillie Langtry.
This is important because, obviously, in order to follow the mesmeric twists and turns of a love affair (such as those, for instance, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo), one must be persuaded that the attraction (such as that felt by a convulsed James Stewart for the semper idem of Kim Novak in her little gray suit) is plausible in the first place. And, in this strange case of more than 100 years ago, I am. I understand that Wilde was smitten and, in a rare leap of faith over the apparently insurmountable barrier separating heterosexual from homosexual sentiment, I even understand why. As for Wilde himself, in writing to his literary executor, he acknowledged that the unsent letter is “the only document that really gives any explanation of my extraordinary behaviour.”
Now, anybody who in his tender years ingested even a schoolboy’s modicum of the Edwardian paradox-monger’s aesthetics will know exactly what I mean when I say that, for Wilde the artist, beauty lay at the center of everything. In fact, notwithstanding his well-documented preference for capitalizing the words beginning with t’s and h’s—apparently because he liked the way these looked in his handwriting—his beauty-centered worldview obliged him to spell beauty invariably with an initial capital. Yet the letter to Douglas, harvesting what he perceives as the poisonous fruit of the four-year liaison between them, is, for the most part, an hysterical catalogue of Douglas’s alleged misdemeanors.
“You gambled with my life, as you gambled with my money,” the Reading prisoner, long declared bankrupt, goes on, “carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequence.” Indeed, as is often the case with love of the remembered kind, much bitterness attaches to the collection and recollection of expenses incurred, of gestures unappreciated, of kindnesses unrequited. “Between the autumn of 1892 and the date of my imprisonment I spent with you and on you more than £5000 in actual money”—something like one million dollars today. When, in a Brighton hotel, Douglas came down with the flu, “I got special grapes from London for you, as you did not care for those the hotel supplied.” Another time, he whines, “you insisted on my taking you to Monte Carlo, of all revolting places on God’s earth, that all day, and all night as well, you might gamble” while “I was left alone outside to myself.” As for their famous dinners at the Savoy, what with “the clear turtle-soup, the luscious ortolans wrapped in their crinkled Sicilian vine-leaves, the heavy amber-coloured, indeed almost amber-scented champagne—Dagonet 1880, I think, was your favourite wine,” these extravagances “all have still to be paid for.”
How to reconcile the persona of the prophet of Beauty, the scourge of Philistinism, and the martyr of Art with the tenor of this missive, which, to my ears, bears an uncanny resemblance to the family-court lamentation of some pasty-faced American girl with glasses who has put her husband through medical school only to have the future Marcus Welby, M.D., dump her for a roller-skating Mexican waitress named Lola? The answer, I think, is this. Temperamentally and intellectually, Oscar Wilde may have been many things, but he was no gambler.
Wistfully, he speaks of his frustrating “efforts” to “keep Love as the dominant note of my nature.” Would a gambler so bemoan his efforts to stay awake in a casino at 5 A.M.? No, only the gambler understands that his love—and, by extrapolation, all love—is as infinitely demanding as it is absolutely effortless. One may draw a parallel with good breeding, with tact, with manners. Would it occur to a man of the world to complain that, during the previous four years of his life, he has held the door open for women on 4,342 occasions and that, furthermore, his prodigious consideration has passed all but unnoticed? Would that make him rebel? Demand appreciation? Write wounded letters? “Its joy,” Wilde writes of love, “like the joy of the intellect, is to feel itself alive.” Why, then, does he not put his mouth where his money is, or was? Why does he wheeze about losing, about having lost, about never winning?
The other night, I went to the casino with £800. Two hours later, with my last fifty straight up on the number, 26 finally came. Then, like a summer storm out of a cloudless sky, it came again. Then 0, then 15, then all the zero neighbors. Twenty minutes later, feeling the heavenly smoothness of each biscuit, one by one, with the fingers of my left hand inside my jacket pocket, I counted that I had £9,000. Another 20 minutes passed, and the pocket was empty. Only the keys, a cigarette lighter, and some loose thread. As I was leaving, one of the managers came up and whispered in consolation: “Mr. Navrozov, you should’ve quit.” I jiggled the keys in my pocket. “Sean,” I said, “you know perfectly well that we don’t come here to make money. Those of us who do should have their heads examined. But for a few hundred pounds I’ve just had the joy of losing to you the princely sum of £10,000. What more can I ask?”
If Wilde had so reasoned, he would not have ended up in the slammer. Now that’s a paradox.