An anthology of Gore Vidal's writing doesn't quite tell the whole story
"THE ESSENTIAL GORE VIDAL." Edited and introduced by Fred Kaplan. Random House. $39.95.
Reviewed by Harry Kloman
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte, Sunday, Jan. 31, 1999
How do you condense 24 novels, half a dozen plays, hundreds of essays, and a few dozen other screenplays, teleplays, and short stories into less than 1,000 pages that convey the "essence" of a literary life that's spanned half a century in its own right, and even longer if you consider the author's youthful encounters with distinguished world figures in their final sunsets?
The answer to that literary conundrum is The Essential Gore Vidal, an anthology of writing by an author who has spent 35 years chronicling America's decline from democratic Republic to war-driven empire - and his entire adult lifetime trying to get America to cast of its old tired ethics about human sexuality and nonsensical "Sky-God" religion.
That, in essence, is the portrait of the artist that emerges from The Essential Gore Vidal, which will certainly please the casual reader of the author, but which may leave the well-schooled Vidalian feeling anything from dismay to disbelief at the anthology's inclusions and omissions.
Read this weighty tome and you'll get a rollicking good sense of Vidal's beautiful prose and of how relentlessly he believes in the themes that have marked his prolific career as a successful writer and failed politician. That should be enough from an author who's chosen to write from an intellectual rather than (for lack of a less banal word) emotional point of view.
But there is more to the 73-year-old Vidal than his intellect, and he has written novels that reverberate with echoes of his guarded inner life. Alas, those passages are missing from The Essential Gore Vidal. Including them would have better traced the book's pivotal theme: The dissolution of the passionate, conflicted young romantic, and his phoenix-like re-emergence as the passionate, intractable social reformer.
Thus we get no samples of Vidal's early, long-forgotten, autobiographical novels, In a Yellow Wood and The Season of Comfort, two somber, moving dramas that show Vidal struggling with his personal history and his inner life. They have long been out of print in the U.S., and Vidal claims he dislikes them. But The Season of Comfort recently re-emeged in a new hardcover edition in England, so clearly Vidal doesn't find to be so awful that he's banished them for all time.
Together with a passage from Palimpsest, his revealing 1995 memoir, these two seminal novels would have reminded posterity of the young, intimate, melancholy Vidal, who soon gave way (by the mid-1950s) to the intellectual heckler, political beast and pop-cult voyager.
Nor do we get to taste any of his wonderful 1954 novel Messiah. This book is often called "prophetic" because it concerns a common man (an undertaker, actually) who becomes a religious figure. But where Messiah is indeed Vidal's first novel to rout the demon Christianity - a theme to which he would return many times in novels and essays - it is, more compellingly, about the selling of a human image by means of modern advertising techniques.
Most startling of all, this collection contains more than 300 pages of essays that make up nearly one-third of the book. On the one hand, it would be foolhardy to present Vidal without a sampling of his trenchant, witty, provocative essays, for which he is almost better known - or at least more highly esteemed - than for his novels. On the other hand, Vidal published United States, a 1,300-page anthology of his essays, in 1993, and it seems rather unnecessary to reprint so many of them here.
All but one of the 25 essay in The Essential Gore Vidal also appear in United States. A sampler of 10 essays from among these 25 would have sufficed. They essays might even be sprinkled throughout the book, allowing them to accent the fiction whose themes and ideas they share. For example, Vidal has said he wrote both Myra Breckinridge and the essay French Letters: Theories of the New Novel after a period of reading French literary critics in the mid-1960s. Both are products of that reading - the second chapter of Myra nakedly mocks the scholarship - and placing them together would have nicely complemented the book's already somewhat scholarly approach to its subject.
The consequence of these choices - so many essays included, so much early fiction omitted - makes The Essential Gore Vidal a volume that largely reaffirms the public perception of the author as a political novelist, a splendid essayist, and a long-time crusader for acceptance of human sexuality in all of its permutations.
From the early Vidal, we begin with a homoerotic passage from The City and the Pillar, which altered the course of his career when he published it in 1948. That's followed by the novel's two ending: From 1948, where the tragically romantic Jim kills his long-desired lover; and from the revised 1965 edition of the novel, where he merely rapes in an act of misguided, unrequited love. Next comes an early short story with homoerotic undercurrents. Finally, we get two engaging passages from The Judgment of Paris, a subtly erotic novel that demonstrates the first full blush of the more mature, arch tone that would become Vidal's most distinguishing and recognizable voice.
The largest fiction section of the book features passages from all six of the novels of American history, most generously from Burr and Lincoln. Together these six chapters reveal the scope of Vidal's historical project about the rise of the American empire, and they unite the narrative threads of his most important, recurring, blood relations in the six books - a sort of genealogical blending of fact and fiction. The passage from Washington, D.C is one of the most poignant in the novel - and perhaps even in all of Vidal's fiction.
Two longer works appear in their entirety: The Best Man, his realistic 1960 political drama, which was well-filmed in 1964; and Myra Breckinridge his first full-scale foray (from 1968) into post-modernism, or "metafiction" as some now call it.
The over-the-top sexual content of Myra once again redefined Vidal, and his deftness at this satirical fictive form led him to write several more "inventions," as he has come to call these books in his canon. Duluth and Live from Golgotha each appear briefly in the anthology - and excerpts from these two sporadically funny, thematically transparent novels are more than enough to allow you to sample their flavors without actually having to read the books.
Selections from Vidal's novels on religion round out the fiction offerings: From Julian, which takes place in the third century of the Christian era, the story's dramatic early turning point; and from Creation, set in the pre-Christian lands of Persia, Cathay and India, the narrator (a relentless name-dropper) reflects upon the various creation myths of his time, including his social encounters with Buddha and Confucius. These novels vividly recreate the treachery, duplicity and religious complexity of their worlds, and they're filled with Vidal's lifetime of reading about antiquity, which began in his grandfather's library when he was a boy of 10.
VIDAL'S LONG-TIME, ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN friend and literary rival, Norman Mailer, published an anthology last year, The Time of Our Time, and wrote his own introduction. In The Essential Gore Vidal, the author says nothing about his work. Instead, the distinguished English professor Fred Kaplan, of Queens College, provides a 20-page introductory essay, a rather detailed chronology of Vidal's professional life, and brief comments throughout the text before each thematically organized section of writing.
That was a rather good idea. Had Vidal introduced his own collection, he would surely have indulged in the kind of self-aggrandizement that makes him rather hard to take any more when he discusses his own work - and when he carps about how the academic world has viciously failed to inject him into the canon of important 20th Century literature.
On the whole, Kaplan contributes sound scholarship and sturdy accolades to The Essential Gore Vidal. Citing the myriad classical writers who launched Vidal's education in childhood, Kaplan concludes, simply and accurately, "Vidal is probably the most engaged universal reader of any American writer of the twentieth century." His deft sketch of the education of the juvenile Vidal forges a thoughtful foundation that ably place the subsequent passages among the author's massive canon.
In one long paragraph, Kaplan presents a most useful and unified reading of Vidal's six novels of American history, which begin in Revolutionary War times (with Burr, published in 1973) and end just after World War II (with Washington, D.C., published in 1967). He extracts, so succinctly, the themes that develop through the books that he makes them seem like one unified volume, whereas we know Vidal wrote them over 25 years - and didn't even know he had stumbled onto a "chronicle of empire" until he'd written the third book (1876, published in 1976).
Sometimes Kaplan's introduction is less helpful. He discusses Myra Breckinridge (1968) and its sequel, Myron (1974), as if they were one book, referring to them as Myra/Myron. But Myra was an almost accidental masterpiece, written in one month, and with a startling plot twist that Vidal asserts came to him from "out of the blue" when the book was half written. Myron, on the other hand, is a much more highly contrived sequel, quite obviously written in the glare of its predecessor's pop-cult and post-modern notoriety.
In the late 1940s, Vidal embarked on an audacious path as a young writer. If his work since then has largely been perceived as intellectual, then perhaps his readers need to turn his generous intellect into a passionate life practice. And if Vidal is correct about our culture being run by a wealthy, capitalistic, imperialistic, moralistic, white heterosexual corporate oligarchy, then we need to translate his lessons into action before it's finally too late. The Essential Gore Vidal is the weightiest salvo yet in the author's ongoing war to save what he has come to view as his dying, ungrateful nation.
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University of Pittsburgh