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Oscar Wilde’s Paris tomb made safe from dangerous kisses

Oscar Wilde's renovated Paris tomb was unveiled on Wednesday, complete with a new glass barrier to shield the monument to the quintessential dandy from a torrent of admiring kisses.

Oscar Wilde's Paris tomb made safe from dangerous kisses
Jerry Raia

Kiss upon lipsticked kiss in honour of Wilde, who died penniless aged 46 in a Paris hotel room in 1900, has worn down the elegant tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery, as grease from tourist lips sinks into the stonework.

A large crowd of journalists and well-wishers turned out for the ceremony, under cold but bright winter sunshine on the tree-lined alleys of the famous burial ground, where fresh flowers were piling up.

The tomb, designed by modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein with a flying Assyrian-style angel, survived almost unscathed until 1985, except for the angel’s genitals being hacked off, according to the Irish Cultural Centre.

Then, the expense of cleaning operations to deal with increasing graffiti on the tomb led the descendants of Wilde and of his friend and executor Robert Ross to try, successfully, to get it listed as an historic monument.

The hope was that fines of thousands of euros for defacing the monument would deter fans of the author of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

But in 1999 the graffiti was replaced by a much more worrying phenomenon when someone had the idea of planting a large, lipsticked kiss on the tomb, sparking a craze for Wilde’s many admirers visiting Paris.

“The grease base of the lipstick penetrates the stone and long after the colouring pigments have faded, a grease ‘shadow’ is still visible,” the Irish Cultural Centre said in a statement.

The glass should shield the tomb, but one wellwisher had planted a rosy red kiss on a nearby tree.

Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, said he would have loved all the fuss.

“It’s not a good time for the world in general, with the financial crisis, but at least one country believes in culture and the people of Ireland have come up trumps,” he said.

“If my grandfather had been here he would have loved the attention. The attention has always been given over the last 30 years with notes and then lipstick but now art has to triumph over what the French call ‘degradation’.

“Inevitably people will try to climb over the glass, but glass is fragile and people will perceive it as such. Maybe one day we can take it down when the memory of kissing Oscar is gone,” he said.

Wilde left London after serving two years in prison for homosexuality, a crime in the eyes of Victorian society, and never regained the creative impetus that had made him a hugely popular, if controversial, playwright.

When the disgraced Irishman died of meningitis in a Paris hotel, famously remarking that “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go,” he was initially given a “sixth class burial” outside Paris.

His friends, in particular his literary executor Ross, managed to annul Wilde’s bankruptcy, buy a plot at Pere Lachaise and have Wilde’s body transferred to its more dignified and appropriately Gothic surroundings.

Ross’s own remains were in 1950 placed inside the tomb, which is a big draw but nevertheless fared better than the nearby much-abused grave of Doors singer Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27.

A ceremony to unveil the new Wilde tomb on Wednesday, exactly 111 years after his death, was to be attended by Irish and French officials as well as Holland and British actor Rupert Everett.

Everett, who came out as gay in the 1980s, starred in the 2002 film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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