Nicholas Frankel. Masking the Text: Essays on Literature & Mediation in the 1890s. High Wycombe, England: The Rivendale Press, 2009. ISBN: 9781904201144. Price: US$65.00/£55.00[Notice]

  • Chris Snodgrass

…plus d’informations

  • Chris Snodgrass
    University of Florida

Invoking Oscar Wilde’s notion that art operates like a mask, Nicholas Frankel’s new book seeks to demonstrate that the decade of the British 1890s was “singularly preoccupied with ‘masking’ its texts,” and its writers and artists “exploited art’s inseparability from the physical media in which we encounter it” (22). Much of Frankel’s strong work over the past decade has been based on the premise that no literary or artistic work is independent of its material medium, and in this book he again focuses on the “mask-like structure” of dialectical performativity embedded in the material surfaces of nineties “decorated” books (17), the process by which their material manifestation constitutes a large part of their meaning. Over the course of his book the terms “mask” and “mediation” turn out to be much more amorphous and much less definitional than we probably expect, and properly speaking, the book is less about “masking” or “mediation” in some distinct or specific metaphysical sense than about the self-consciously fabricated and dynamic aesthetic interaction between a text’s ideas and its physical presentation. There is a great deal to like about this book, not least its unusually high production quality (aside from a few typos) and very reasonable price. Frankel’s intensive research, exceptionally methodical argumentation, keen talent for incisive close reading, and instructive use of literary theory are all evident throughout, and the book helpfully includes nearly forty illustrations. He is unusually effective at forging a range of evidence into clear crystallized themes, while avoiding in the process the reductionism that has often marked the scholarship of this period. But particularly noteworthy and delighting is how Frankel nimbly sprinkles into his discussions numerous semi-arcane details, imaginative non-routine allusions, and incisive explanatory notes. Although perhaps questionable in terms of scholarly purity, many readers will also appreciate the fact that his textual citations of the primary works pragmatically reference mass-market editions or common paperback reprintings. Frankel’s rhetorically skillful introduction builds on Wilde’s 1885 essay “Shakespeare and Stage Costume” and its conception of art’s “masking” function to show how nineties “decorated” works broke readers’ blind faith in some innate self-sufficient meaning and introduced them to more transactional and performative planes of meaning. Along the way Frankel affirms paradox as a central structural feature in the decade and astutely corrects the frequent misreading of British l’art pour l’art that inappropriately emphasizes self-containment rather than interactivity — not original insights, perhaps, but very important ones nonetheless. The first formal chapter provides a sort of meta-example of one of the book’s themes, arguing that Christopher Millard’s collecting of Wildean works and scholarship was itself a transformational literary medium. The collector acts as “a guardian of the flame” (36), who “re-authorizes” literary texts “not simply as material things but as works of literature whose historical value would eventually be incommensurate with their exchange value” (38) and thus “renew[s] a world that threatens to disappear irretrievably” (40). The second chapter, dealing largely with Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr. W. H., makes the case that forgeries (material lies or fictions) “are ultimately a greater vehicle for understanding than fact alone” (47). Several of Frankel’s claims for forgery seem quite a stretch, such as the assertions that forgery forces us “into acts of startling historical imagination” (47) or that “theory or criticism works much like forgery, momentarily detaching us from the empirically verifiable” (58). Nonetheless, the chapter gives a very fine, skillfully integrated, corrective analysis of Wilde’s novella, showing it to be less about the art’s “truth-telling function” than the “fluctuating nature of belief, the status of proof, and the relationship between belief and knowledge” (49). The …

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