Reviewed by Hayden Thorne
It’s fairly common knowledge now that Teleny’s authorship continues to be debated among scholars. Was Oscar Wilde truly a part of the novel’s creation? If so, which scenes or chapters did he himself write? John McRae’s introduction (a very worthy read in itself) to the only annotated and unabridged edition (published by Gay Men’s Press) explores the fascinating process that gave birth to the novel. The “round robin” method of creating a book that’s a “celebration of uninhibited sensual passion between men” certainly explains the stylistic inconsistencies throughout the work.
Teleny’s plot is fairly straightforward: Camille Des Grieux, a wealthy young man, finds himself intensely attracted to René Teleny, a gifted pianist. Des Grieux struggles against his passion but in the end is forced to acknowledged his “aberration.” What follows next is textbook romantic fiction of the time regarding the lovers’ union and the consequences of their passion as well as Teleny’s excesses.
Even to non-academic readers, the stylistic inconsistencies are evident. The novel’s an aesthete’s pleasure ground, with descriptions that are elaborate and sensual and simply bursting at the seams. Teleny is, in many ways, an aesthetic – a decadent – exploration of love between men as well as the relationship of artist/lover and muse/beloved. Purple prose that seems to run on forever shifts into occasional elegant language, so that explicit sex scenes vary from chapter to chapter.
Heterosexual erotic scenes, while written with similar stylistic shifts as homosexual scenes, are still treated unequally throughout. These are almost always defined by grotesque – even disturbing – imagery and an attitude of distinct loathing, which, in turn, raises the same-sex love scenes to nobler heights erotically. One needn’t wonder at that. Strip the novel of its excessive, florid prose and descriptions, its elaborate exploration of artist and muse’s psychic connection, and its angry defiance – what’s left at its heart is a romance between two men.
Des Grieux and Teleny are classic heroes of the genre. Camille Des Grieux, while not exactly a wide-eyed waif, still fits the mold of the less experienced of the pair. René Teleny, conversely, is the tortured artist with mysterious gypsy blood, who enjoys the company of both men and women in bed. The novel’s accounts – often long and very, very elaborate – of the psychic bond between the two may draw a few sniggers and eyeball-rolling from contemporary readers. All the same, the baroque quality of these scenes doesn’t take away from the romance. In their overdone way, these scenes can satisfy fans of love stories with the element of inescapable fate or destiny woven tightly into the plot.
On the whole, Teleny is a fascinating read – though perhaps not completely enjoyable for those easily squicked, thanks to a few disturbing scenes involving a brothel, a rape and suicide, and an orgy. The method by which Des Grieux’s story is told (a dialogue between Des Grieux and another character) is also a bit messy, at times awkwardly breaking flashbacks with present conversation. However, its enigmatic authorship, its open defiance of Victorian mores, and its decadence all work together to give the book its unique, albeit bizarre, allure.
There are two published versions of Teleny, the circumstances behind the varying editions being covered in detail in the book’s introduction. The edition released by Gay Sunshine Press (1984) makes use of the “London version,” while that published by Gay Men’s Press (1999, New Ed) makes use of the “Paris version.” I read the GMP edition because it’s claimed to be the only unabridged version of the novel that’s currently in print.