Review: Teleny and Camille by Jon Macy

Teleny is the haunted musical genius that everyone desires but no one has truly touched… until the fateful night that he senses Camille’s presence in the audience. The wealthy young man is instantly seduced by Teleny’s dark beauty and smoldering melancholy. This groundbreaking and powerful early gay novel, written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his anonymous circle of writers, is now re-interpreted as a graphic novel, in all its lush, pansexual excess.

Review by Hayden Thorne

When I first found out about Macy’s graphic novel adaptation, I was elated. I read Teleny a while ago and was moved – in so many different ways – by the book. Yes, there’s the breathless, passionate love story between Teleny and Camille, but along with that come scenes of ugly excesses (heterosexual and homosexual), tragedy, and grotesque surrealism, the last item oftentimes bursting at the seams with detail piled upon bizarre detail and written in pretty florid prose. The novel, believed to have been written by Oscar Wilde and a number of other writers (of varying talents) round robin-style, is groundbreaking in its open defiance of Victorian morality. Its uneven narrative style – alternating between painfully purple and elegantly subdued – weakens the story in some instances, but the rawness of emotion and the sincerity of these writers’ efforts in celebrating same-sex passion while condemning hypocrisy also add to the book’s strength, solidifying its place in the gay canon.

It’s very much a visual book, which, to me, makes it an ideal candidate for a graphic novel adaptation.

Macy’s graphic novel opens with a modern day dialogue involving the artist himself and a friend. Here Macy shows us the difficulties posed by the novel – more specifically, the challenge of making gay men from over a century ago accessible to a modern day audience. There were, after all, limitations to the way they communicated homosexual passion. They had to use metaphors and references to historical figures. There was also the problem of the visuals in the novel and how a twenty-first century artist could translate those without undermining the narrative’s social commentary, considering the pornographic nature of the book.

Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends decided to put down on paper a story so pure in its reveling in homosexuality that it was not just pornography, but a rallying cry for how they wanted to change society.

They were poets and aesthetes, carrying sunflowers and dressing flamboyantly. They shocked society and posted a threat to the status quo.

Every gay stereotype we have today comes from these men. They politicized their aesthetic. They broke all convention. They were the original uppity fags.

It’s impossible to include all of the scenes in the book in an adaptation, so a delicate balancing act needed to be made. In the end, Macy manages to capture the energy and the dizzying emotions through some carefully chosen scenes. In fact, I’ll go further and say that this adaptation of Teleny is practically minimalist in approach without sacrificing the essentials that shaped the narrative and its emotional impact.

And this is the great part about illustration. It captures, in one or two panels, a scene or a pivotal moment in the story that would’ve taken several paragraphs of text to convey.

I’m glad – very glad – to see that Macy didn’t hold back in not only showing the celebration of Teleny and Camille’s romance (angst and all), but also those very important scenes that are antithetical to the physical, emotional, and even spiritual connection these two men have. The brothel that Camille and his school friends visit as well as Briancourt’s symposium are two remarkably vivid scenes of sexual excesses that lead to tragedy. There’s also Teleny’s affair with the Countess, which is a quieter and more personal foil to Teleny’s relationship with Camille.

The chapters that never made it to the graphic novel are mostly found in the middle of the book, and to me, skipping them doesn’t really take too much away from the story’s main point. Those chapters, after all, are mostly about Camille and his desperate and ultimately disastrous efforts at playing the heterosexual card in order to avoid acknowledging his love for Teleny. Wilde and his circle made a point about the extremes that gay men were forced to go in order to play by society’s rules and how they sometimes came at a high price. In Camille’s case, the price is paid by his doomed servant.

If leaving those scenes out proves to be detrimental, the effects are really minimal, and that’s being nitpicky. Camille, for instance, in his desire to commit suicide by jumping into the river, might appear to be overreacting to seeing Teleny with Briancourt or to seeing the depressing nighttime cruising in a park. Before that point in the story, after all, he’s been tested heavily and painfully, but we don’t get to see it in the graphic novel.

But like I said, that’s being nitpicky.

As for Macy’s artistic style, I find it sensual and bold, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and certainly appropriate to the story. And as though to mimic the shifting narrative styles of the book from florid and purple to beautifully elegant, Macy’s art changes just as easily, from lovely to grotesque but remains, on the whole, decadent and lush.

And just as Macy uses a preface to tell us about the difficulties of a modern adaptation of a classic novel, he also appends an alternate ending after giving us the original conclusion. To explain this unusual approach, we’re back to seeing Macy and his friend discuss the depressing nature of so many gay novels that end in tragedy.

It’s like we’re too damaged to even dare imagine being happy.

With that, he offers us an alternate conclusion to Teleny and Camille’s love story. Whether or not modern day readers will take to this is ultimately an issue of individual taste, but the context is certainly important. Given the ongoing desperate attempts of social conservatives to demonize the LGBT community, one can consider the more hopeful ending to be just as defiant a celebration of same-sex love as the original novel and its darker conclusion.

Read the first chapter

Author’s Website
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3 Responses

  1. Thank you Mr Thorne, that was the best birthday present I have ever been given. A review from outside the comics industry by an expert in their field is a remarkable gift.
    You know I struggled with the maid scene. At first I was against it because it just seemed misogynistic, but after reading the Oscholars reevaluation of Teleny it struck me that it really is the Gay Victorian commentary on heterosexuality. Camille can’t just go through the motions of having sex with women -to be truly straight he would have to take on the brutish ways of the times. Teleny is a fascinating book and I hope my own work sparks more discussion about it. Thank you again for the very kind words. JM

  2. My apologies for the wrong honorific I was just overly excited and not paying attention.

  3. Hi Jon,

    Firstly, LOL, no worries on the honorifics. :D Secondly, happy birthday! Hope you had a good day.

    The maid scene was pretty horrible. When I read the book, I saw it as a criticism of heterosexual men and how animalistic they can be toward women. Now that you raised your point, I’m also wondering if it’s also a kind of a defense of women as well, being used as mere playthings or sexual objects.

    I’m not an expert on graphic novels (though I love them and read them every so often), so apologies for not being technical about the art, the layout, etc. ^^;;;; But you put together a great book, and I’m thrilled that someone tackled Teleny. It just seems to be the perfect book to adapt into a graphic novel.

    Congratulations!

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