IN Algiers in 1895, Oscar Wilde procured for Andre Gide a flute- playing Arab boy, primarily in order to amuse himself and his favourite, Lord Alfred Douglas. As Gide climbed into a carriage with the boy, fidgeting and procrastinating, Wilde looked on, triumphant. Gide, in fact, had already experienced his initiation with another Arab lad in the sand dunes of Sousse, Tunisia; but that was a fleeting, fumbling, private affair. The boy had initially marched off in despair at Gide's seeming inability actually to do anything when push, as it were, came to shove. When Gide met Wilde, he was still pondering the implications.
Before then, the two writers had met only in the Parisian literary circles in which they were both establishing themselves during the 1880s. After Algiers, however, the Irishman became a permanent, looming intellectual presence in the French writer's mind. Wilde appeared, faintly disguised, as a number of secondary characters in Gide's early novels; the protagonists are drawn out through their reactions to the Wildean figures. Gide, meanwhile, began to chart his own real- life maturation against his various moral responses to Wilde's decadent- aesthetic pronouncements.
Jonathan Fryer's Andre and Oscar reveals previously unexplored similarities between the two. They both had powerful, slightly dotty mothers whose influence on them was decisive. They both came from established families, which hindered, at least in the beginning, the extent to which they could practise their unconventional philosophies. They both chose to marry, despite being homosexual, and both genuinely loved their respective wives, albeit with gay abandon. They both preferred young boys to grown men, when they had the choice - Wilde went in for the tough blond things who strutted their stuff around Piccadilly Circus, Gide for the lithe, charming Arab kids who, then as now, formed little groups around foreigners.
Fryer's book is fashionably focused on this last area. Perhaps it is fashionable distaste for such matters that compelled him to write that Gide's "paedophilia" seems "not to have taken on any physical dimension". This is like saying that Casanova never really acted on his heterosexuality. And it is a little embarrassing to see Gide defended from what he himself considered to be the aspect of his character he should, above all else, be honest about. Fryer also states, somewhat paradoxically, that "nowadays" it would be cautious Gide, and not outrageous Wilde, who would find himself standing in the dock. That is incorrect, too, since Wilde lost his virginity to Robbie Ross when the latter was a year below the current age of consent, and the boys Wilde wined and dined were frequently younger than that - as when he became involved with a 16-year-old who had been smuggled into London from Bruges to be installed in the Albermarle Hotel. According to Oscar Browning, the pederastic Victorian public-school master, "on Saturday, the boy slept with Douglas; on Sunday he slept with Oscar. On Monday he slept with a woman at Douglas's expense."
Fryer also writes, as though it was not particularly controversial, of Douglas taking a boy-lover named Ali in Algeria, whom he cruelly whipped after the boy was said to have been sleeping with women. Gide informed his own mother, of all people, that even when that relationship ended, the child was not still in his teens. Ali has been written about before. But Fryer further claims, this time controversially, that Douglas told Gide he was looking forward to seducing Wilde's nine-year-old son, Cyril, as soon as he got the opportunity. It is not suggested that Wilde raised any objection to this sort of talk; nor does Fryer himself raise any objections. Unlike most of Wilde's friends, Douglas didn't have to pretend to be decadent, and most readers will sigh with relief that the relationship between Wilde and Douglas ended, however terrible the circumstances, before little Cyril could face the potential consequences of the latter's advances.
Indeed, much of the material in Andre and Oscar challenges Wilde's reputation among liberals as a gay icon. If Wilde and Douglas are seen as gay liberators, do their supporters also approve of the activities of child-sex tourists? Or an age of consent for homosexuality so low that it might as well not exist at all? Or the sort of flirtation with the sons of one's married lovers Douglas was keen to indulge in? If the answers are no, such liberals need radically to examine their casual support for everything Wilde stood for. If it is yes, then why are they not challenging current laws against paedophiles? Fryer does not grapple with these points.
The more conventional aspects of Gide and Wilde have, of course, already been documented in numerous biographies. Fryer tries to overcome this difficulty by focusing on the mutual fascination that existed between them, and on their mutual friends, in an attempt to offer new perspectives. When Wilde was in prison, Gide bombarded Douglas with letters demanding information, and eventually they met up in Italy. When Wilde later settled in Berneval, Gide made a point of travelling there unannounced to see his old friend.
The book also contains an absorbing and original subtext, considering the experiences of both writers' wives . And it successfully and intriguingly recreates the vast network of homosexuals in countries like Italy and Algeria, where pederasty was known to flourish - what others have called the seduction of the Orient and the Mediterranean; what these days is referred to, rather less eloquently, as international sex tourism.
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