Tag Archives: Gore Vidal

Suddenly lost summer

Robert Hughes, Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron — this has been a grim summer for writers, and readers. In the case of Vidal and Hughes, it’s marked the loss of two role models and lodestars, writers whose work I followed for instruction as well as entertainment. They did what all great writers do — lead by example — and if my work has any quality at all, it’s partly because I remembered what it was like to have them reach out from a printed page and command my attention. Some artists work that magic with paint, or musical instruments, or physical precision and beauty, but they did it with ink on paper, and anyone who has felt that magic wants to join in its making.

With that in mind, I suggest you download James Wolcott’s essay on Gore Vidal’s passing, then get together with some writer friends, or think about the writer friends you never met in person, but got to know through their work. People who’ve never come within earshot, but whose voices are as clear and familiar to you as your own family. 


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Gore Vidal

At some point back in the Sixties an interviewer asked Gore Vidal if his first sexual experience had been heterosexual or homosexual. “I was too polite to ask,” Vidal responded. A perfect smackdown, encompassing all the inimitable Gore Vidal qualities: aristocratic hauteur (“The subject does not offer personal disclosures,” Vidal once said), dismissal of sexuality as a defining trait (a frequent theme with Vidal), and effortless wit, with an oafish question serving as the launch platform.

Gore Vidal, who died this past week at the age of 86, was a fast man with an elegant quip, and in some of the articles about his death one might think he’d done nothing more than crack wise on television. But this joke is worth mentioning because Vidal’s insistence that humans were naturally bisexual, and therefore homosexuality was no big deal, was drastically at odds with postwar American society and warped his career in many ways. Though he hated the term “gay,” Vidal’s gayness (and his obvious impatience with fools) barred him from the political career he obviously would have enjoyed. His matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality in The City and the Pillar (1948), his third novel, generated an uproar that almost choked off his writing career — Orville Prescott, the preeminent book critic of the period, refused to review or permit anyone else to review the book in the New York Times. The blackballing sank Vidal’s next several novels, both the good (The Judgment of Paris) and the bad (A Search for the King, Dark Green, Bright Red), but the resourceful author turned to writing potboiler mysteries and plays, one of which, The Best Man, remains one of the best studies of American politics yet written.

He put himself back on the map in the mid-Sixties with a trio of novels that established the three main concerns of his career as a mature novelist: historical fiction, Julian (1964); the start of his seven-novel American epic, Washington D.C. (1967); and Myra Breckinridge (1968), postmodern gamesmanship and  satires on sexual roles. Woven through all this work was a stream of essays on politics, writers, politics, sexuality, politics, and politics. And, of course, he took his epigrammatic wit to television. Vidal realized early on that the public was more interested in authors themselves than their work, and he was a consummate performer, playing picador to Norman Mailer’s raging bull and goading William F. Buckley Jr. (Vidal’s mirror image in many ways) into threatening to punch  him out on live television. Before long, television would cease to pay attention to intellectuals of any sort; Vidal saw the window of opportunity closing and made the most of his time.

It was a bit of a sore point with Vidal that he was widely considered an essayist first and a novelist second. His editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, called him the American Montaigne, and in fact the novels often read like extended arguments — essays by other means. But the essays were never less than transfixing, and sometimes they were brilliant. His political writings regularly touched off firestorms: “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (published by The Nation with the softsoap title “Some Jews and The Gays”), started as an outrageously funny response to a Midge Decter gay-bashing piece in Commentary, then ended with the suggestion that Jews, blacks, and gays were natural allies against the evangelical tide just beginning to swell in the Eighties — this was, needless to say, before evangelicals toned down the Christ-killer talk and loudly embraced Israel as a necessary step toward the Rapture. Vidal enjoyed baiting neocons like Decter and Norman Podhoretz, and his casual scorn (he referred to critic Hilton Kramer as “a Tel Aviv hotel”) often led to him being accused of anti-semitism, a canard that has resurfaced in many of the articles pegged to his death.

His essays weren’t all cut-and-thrust stuff: Vidal was a knowledegable and sympathetic booster of the works of Louis Auchincloss, Edmund Wilson, William Dean Howells, and Thomas Love Peacock. Contemptuous of academic theorists, Vidal took a nail gun to the inflated reputations of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon, hooting that their books weren’t meant to be read so much as taught. He also single-handedly rescued comic novelist Dawn Powell from the recycling bin of history. Many of his pieces drew on his insider knowledge of Hollywood, hard-earned through years of screenwriting and script-doctoring, most entertainingly in his essay about how the rules of filmmaking had shaped most of the novels on the New York Times bestseller list for a given week. 

In that essay (collected in Matters of Fact and of Fiction) Vidal doled out some of his highest praise to Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, part of her triptych about Alexander the Great, and a novel that could sit comfortably alongside some of Vidal’s own historical narratives — namely Julian, based on the brief life and even briefer reign of the apostate Roman emperor who tried to turn back the Christianization of the empire. Though his model was obviously Robert Graves, Julian is far more entertaining than, say, I, Claudius. Julian, whose arguments against Christianity were so strong that they continue to bedevil apologists, was the perfect mouthpiece for Vidal’s own views:      

Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god? A man not born when the world began? I am afraid it takes extraordinary self-delusion to believe such things.

There is, unfortunately, no getting around the fact that Vidal in his last years was more than a bit of a crank. He could still dissect the predatory imperialism of Bush-era America with merciless precision, but then would discredit himself with long stumbles into loony conspiracy theories about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. It made what should have been the triumphant capstone of his American epic, The Golden Age, into an embarrassing fiasco. When he made public his correspondence with, and respect for, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, many former admirers (myself among them) gave Vidal up as a lost cause. He wasn’t the first writer to go off the rails late in life: Christopher Hitchens (who began his career as a kind of Gore Vidal Lite) became a cheerleader for the Iraq invasion, and Saul Bellow endorsed an odious racist pamphleteer. But Vidal’s decline was most shocking: he had been so clear-eyed and articulate, so cuttingly funny.             

Among his novels, I prefer the historical works. Julian sparked my lifelong interest in the Byzantine phase of the empire — it also has an unexpectedly moving conclusion for such a cool-tempered writer. Creation takes off from the fact that in the Fifth Century BCE, a man with the right resources could have met and talked philosophy with Socrates, Buddha, Mahavira, Lao Tsu, and Confucius. (Vidal completed the tour by making his hero, Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of Zoroaster.) Given Vidal’s stoic temperament and dislike of religion, it was hardly surprising that Confucius came off the best. Washington D.C. never quite escapes the shadow of its model, Democracy by Henry Adams, but Burr and, especially, Lincoln, are bold, forceful works that upend popular notions about their subjects. I never much liked the postmodern game-playing works such as Myra Breckenridge or Duluth. Myron contained one great comic idea: inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller vs. California, which left communities to establish their own definitions of pornography, Vidal substituted the names of Supreme Court justices for the dirty words.

it’s too easy to compile a list of Vidal’s best, bitchiest quips. He outlived and outwrote his immediate literary peers, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, proved again and again his mastery of fiction and nonfiction, and played the role of intellectual gadfly in the days when mass culture still had room for intellectuals. If a writer should be judged by the quality of his best work, Gore Vidal easily passes that test. 

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Friday finds


All you need to celebrate Halloween the H.G. Wells way. (And the George Pal way, and the Oson Welles way, and the Hugo Gernsback way. . .) The image above, incidentally, shows Michael Condron’s sculpture of a Martian tripod in Woking, Surrey, where all hell breaks loose in the original novel. Check here for the New Jersey location used in the radio broadcast.

How about some literary costume ideas for trick-or-tweeding?

Halloween, B’more style.

Continuing our Halloween theme, it turns out that Dan Aykroyd based the Ghostbusters storyline on the psychic exploits of his own dad.

Novelists nominate books they think have been unfairly neglected.

A medievalist tries his hand at the Dante’s Inferno board game.

Taking on Knut Hamsun.

No need to be skeptical about Martin Gardner.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery tale is playing out in court.

Gore Vidal’s sunset years.

How Paul Shaffer was crucified and resurrected by Bob Dylan.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a whining contrarian.

Maurice Sendak has three words for parents who think Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for their kids.

The Guardian harkens back to its coverage of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. A writer retraces the journey described in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s first big hit as a filmmaker, but his son ended up making more money off it than he did.

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Rawhead Rex

Glenn Kenny revives traumatic memories of the awesomely bad film version of Gore Vidal’s transexual epic Myra Breckinridge and the prominent place it gave to awesomely bad movie reviewer Rex Reed, whose best line — “WHERE ARE MY TITS?” — should be at least as well known as Ronald Reagan’s “Where’s the rest of me?” from King’s Row.

It’s all part of a rundown of movie critics who tempted fate by acting in movies themselves. It’s been years since I even thought of WCBS critic Leonard Harris, whom I remember as having been a few cuts above the Jeffrey Lyons/Gene Shalit types infesting the airwaves.

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The unkindest cut of all

With any good history book, there are two questions. The first: What happened? Which is the whole point of reading the book. The second: Did this have to happen? Which is the question any historian worth his reading glasses leaves in his wake.

The most interesting thing about the Christianization of the Roman Empire, which in turn cemented its place as one of the world’s dominant religions, is that it was far from inevitable, and could have been turned back had thing happened a bit differently. If, for example, a late Roman emperor named Flavius Claudius Julianus had not met an untimely end, not even two years into his reign, during a campaign against the Persians. Though his predecessor Constantine had declared toleration for Christianity, Julian opposed the “Galileans,” mocked their doctrines and worked to restore pagan practices. Had his project not been halted by that spear-cut, the history of the Empire and the world would have been quite different.

All this is the reason this new biography of Julian — Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World — will probably cause me to shove aside my summertime reference reading:

The battle that Julian picked—Christianity—was fought by the era’s greatest and most articulate thinkers. When the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in 313, he let loose a philosophy that was to pervade every aspect of political, social, cultural, and, of course, religious life right up to modern times. But that is all with the benefit of hindsight. Christianity did not become the official winner until seventeen years after Julian’s death. When Julian took the purple, the battle against Christianity was by no means over. The Christians were not a unified organization, splintered as they were into numerous groups; indeed, much of the empire was still pagan.

At a time when neither pagan nor Christian ideologies reigned supreme, the state of your soul was arguably the single most important issue of the day. Few were short of opinions on the last Roman emperor to oppose Christianity—seen most trenchantly in the way that he is still best known as the “Apostate,” the one who renounced Christianity—and it is of little surprise that both pagan and Christian apologists comment extensively on his reign, in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian. For most writers then, as now, Julian is either monster or saint. He was just as Napoleon was to the Italian poet Manzoni: “an object of undying hatred and incomparable love.”

When news of his death broke, one of the emperor’s closest friends wailed: “Gone is the glory of good. The company of the wicked and the licentious is uplifted. . . . Now the broad path, the great doors lie wide open for the doers of evil to attack the just. The walls are down.” At the same time, a former fellow student from the university in Athens trumpeted the death of “the dragon, the apostate, the great mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and mediated much unrighteousness against Heaven.” It is a cry that is as exultant as it is pitiless.

I was introduced to Julian through Gore Vidal’s novel, which remains my favorite among Vidal’s books. Vidal’s fiction can be a chilly affair, but his obvious admiration for the apostate emperor (and his scathing contempt for Christianity) warms every page. Julian was a prolific writer, and a good chunk of his work has survived, giving any researcher plenty of material to use. Vidal makes good use of it, along with the squabblings of two rhetoricians, Priscus and Libanus, who want to use the posthumous release of Julian’s works to fuel a last-ditch effort to unseat Christianity. This provides the novel with a surprisingly poignant conclusion.

I’ve just heard about an alternate-history fantasy novel that depicts a world in which Julian successfully re-paganized the Empire. Maybe I’ll read that one during my vacation as well.

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