The Later Fiction of Gore Vidal: 1962-2006

cover In 1964, with the publication of Julian, Vidal re-emerged as a best-selling and critically praised novelist. He would continue to publish fiction regularly for the rest of his career. During this same period, he has published numerous books of collected essays and has earned a second reputation as a trenchant commentator on politics, history, literature and culture. Vidal never returned to writing introspective, contemporary novels of the sort he did for a brief time in the 1940s. Rather, he became known as a historical novelist more concerned with ideas than psychologies, and also as the creator of some wild, satirical, post-modern narratives, including Kalki, a novel of a death cult that made a nice companion piece to his 1954 novel Messiah. Finally, this period of his career saw the emergence and completion of his American Chronicles, seven books that occupy their own place in his canon.

Three (1962)
Vidal returned to the novel in 1964 with the publication of Julian, which he began to write in 1959 and had somewhere in his mind as early as 1952, when he completed Messiah. (That novel's protagonist, Eugene Luther, talks of writing a book on the Roman emperor Julian.) By 1962, Vidal had completed the early portions of the novel, which he published in Three, along with the complete texts of Williwaw and A Thirsty Evil. In Three, the excerpt from Julian is titled "Julian the Apostate: The Beginning of a Novel." Little of significance was changed in these early chapters other than a tightening and revising of the prose.

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Julian (1964)
For his return to the novel after a 10-year absense, Vidal embraced a form for which he would become renowned. Julian the Apostate was a Roman emperor, circa 4th Century A.D., who tried to rout Christianty from the empire. Vidal tells Julian's story through the eyes of three narrators: Libanius of Antioch, who in his time was a prolific writer of letters; Priscus of Athens, whose writing (if any) has not survived; and Julian himself, for whom Vidal constructs a fictional memoir. As Libanius and Priscus - buth true historical figures - exchange letters and notes about their late friend Julian some 20 years after his death, the emperor's memoir fills in the gaps unknown to the two men.

This vivid, exciting historical novel immediately established Vidal as a master of the form. Filled with decades of the author's love of antiquity and the knowledge of his vast reading about it, Julian was a huge best seller and returned him to the A-list of popular American novelists. He would write about Roman imperial history once more, in 1979, with a screenplay about the bloodthirsty Emperor Caligula. But the film, produced by Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine, was a high-class, hard-core disaster, despite the presence of such stars as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud.

Myra Breckinridge book cover

Myra Breckinridge (1968)
After two novels that delighted the book-buying public, nobody expected what came next from Vidal: In the character of Myra Breckinridge - nee Myron Breckinridge - Vidal creates a ribald parody of sexual morality and identity. Myra's adventures in Hollywood leave nothing to the imagination - "The Rape of Rusty" in Chapter 29 in unparalleled in Vidal's canon - and her narrative voice is the most wicked and bristling ever heard from Vidal. The book was an enormous best seller, banned for a time in Australia, and edited for publication in England, where they removed explicit references to anal penetration, and where Vidal had to switch publishers from Heinemann to Blond) for this one book, returning to Heinemann for his next novel. It turned a corner on Vidal's public image and created for him a startling, challenging new persona.

In 1987, Vidal republished Myra Breckinridge in a hardcover edition called Myra Breckinridge and Myron, bring it together with its 1975 sequel. He made minor revisions to Myra for this reissue but "considerable" change to Myron. This two-book volume also appeared in England boasting: "For the first time, the unexpurgated versions." Presumably, between 1968 and 1987, anal sex came back into vogue in our Mother Land.

Two Sisters (1970)
This is a strange little book. The cover calls it "a memoir in the form a novel." The title page calls is "a novel in the form of a memoir." It's "then" and "now" passages jump back and forth in time to form a sort of autobiographical roman-a-clef about Vidal's private and literary life, including a passage that recalls Jimmie. And then, stuffed in the middle of the book, Vidal presents a play, written by one of his fictional characters and set in ancient Greece, called "The Two Sisters of Euphesus." The Marietta Donegal character of the novel - who begins by revealing her breasts and lying about her age - is a thinly veiled parody of Anais Nin.

Myron (1975)
An unsatisfying and overly contrived sequel to Myra Breckinridge, this novel finds Myron anatomically a man, although Myra is still inside him and keeps coming out. When Myra tosses Myron's body inside a B-movie, pandemonium ensues. This book was published during a time of censorship alerts in the U.S. So as a parody on this state of affairs, Vidal removed "dirty" words from the books and replaced them with the names of the Supreme Court justices who ruled in the majority on the "community standards" pornography decision. Thus he writes in his introduction: "I believe that these substitutions are not only edifying and redemptive but tend to revitalize a language gone stale and inexact from too much burgering around with meaning." When he revised and republished the book in 1987 in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, he restored the offending words, saying that the time had passed for such things. The British edition of this two-book volume also restores some graphic sexual references that Vidal was forced to remove for the original U.K. publication of Myra in 1969.

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Kalki (1978)
Teddy Ottinger, lesbian aviatrix and part-time journalist, becomes personal pilot to Kelly, an ex-G.I. from New Orleans who's an expert in chemical-biological warfare from his time in Vietnam. Together with a few followers, he declares himself the reincarnation of the Hindu god Kalki and becomes leader of a religious cult that takes on a world following. But Kelly/Kalki has a deeper purpose: He wants to destroy all of mankind and repopulate the world with his progeny. This is a dark, imaginative, engaging novel of religion and culture, and something of a companion piece to Messiah, although not quite as original or captivating.

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Creation (1981, 2002)
With Cyrus Spitama - the blind, 75-year-old Persian ambassador to Athens, and the grandson of Zoroaster, the last earthly prophet of the Wise Lord - Vidal creates his most worldly historical narrators. Cyrus lived at the time of "creation" - that is, when culture as we know it was born in Greece, Persia, Bactria, India and Cathay, the lands we visit as Cyrus dictates his memoirs to his young nephew Democritus. A faithful Persian, he has very little good to say about the demi-civilized Greeks, who forbid discussion of astronomy and who still worship the ancient gods, which amuses Zoroaster's monotheist kin. (Cyrus doesn't fear Greek insults because they save their best ones for each other.) As a 7-year-old, Cyrus stood beside his grandfather at the moment of his death at the hand of invading Turanians and heard the dying Zoroaster speak the actual words of the Wise Lord. Therefore, as a devout Zoroastrian, he cannot tell a lie - which makes him a conveniently "reliable" narrator through whom Vidal can debunk conventional history as he wishes.

Creation opens at a long-winded lecture given by Herodotus, not yet known as "the father of history," about the Greek-Persian wars. Naturally, he gets everything wrong, but Cyrus, a foreigner and a diplomat, cannot correct him. A friend to Darius the Great and Xerxes, and a contemporary of Buddha, Confucius, Pythagoras, Pericles and many others, Cyrus shares his lifetime of historical encounters with his eager nephew, retelling the story of the Greek-Persian wars and setting the record straight on just about everything. Are we to believe that the bright but incompetent young Socrates was the mason who botched the repairs to the front wall of Cyrus' home? Or that the poet Aeschylus died when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and, with deadly accuracy, bombed it with a turtle? Cyrus tells us these things with the kind of cool Vidalian elan that's hard to contradict. He's also Vidal's most sincerely devout religious figure, although after traveling the world and seeing so many other sincere (if misguided) religions, Cyrus confesses that he's not sure which theology is the true one. And of course, Cyrus' observations on politics echo into our own time - and through Vidal's own essays. (We are told, for example, that the Greeks were the only people who let their sex lives interfere with their politics.)

For Vidal, this novel marked something of a return to ancient Greece: Among the papers in his archives at Harvard is a 13-page film treatment (never filmed) from the early 1960s titled "The Golden Age." It opens with the trial of Socrates - "the jury consisted of 500 male citizens of Athens" - and goes on to tell a story about Pericles, the Athenian statesman who lived in the 5th Century B.C., the same era as Creation, in which Pericles is a character.

Vidal reissued Creation in a "restored" hardcover edition in 2002. Back in '81, Vidal's long-time editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, felt the novel was too long and cut four chapters from it. The episode precipitated the demise of Vidal's relationship with Epstein. Twenty years later, Vidal had moved to a new publisher, Doubleday, which agreed to restore the missing chapters and reissue the novel in hardcover.

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Duluth (1983)
Vidal calls Myra Breckinridge and other post-modern novels like it in his canon his "inventions" because of the imaginary worlds he creates. This novel, which has a popular cult following, takes place in a mythical American city called Duluth, where every aspect of American life, climate and landscape is represented. But "Duluth" is also a TV series where people from the town of Duluth go when they die. With this loopy premise, Vidal cuts loose on American culture. The story is inconsequential to the endless spray of biting jokes about the American Way of Life. But the jokes seem repetitive after about 30 pages, and the book doesn't really seem to go anywhere.

Live from Golgotha (1992)
As with Duluth, the jokes here fly by faster than the "Amens" as a Sunday church service. The targets: Religion, history and media culture, especially the corporate-dominated commercial television networks. The story of this novel - which, like Duluth, is difficult to get through unless you simply read it for the jokes - has NBC discovering a way to go back in time to Golgotha and broadcast the crucifixion of Jesus live to the modern world. And it's a good thing: A 20th century computer whiz, known to them only as the Hacker, has begun to hack back in time, erasing the Gospel from its Jesus-era computer tapes, and thus obliterating the Messiah from future history.

Confused? So is Timothy, bishop of Macedonia and our befuddled narrator, who's been ordered by his boyhood lover, Paul - friend and disciple to Jesus back in the olden days, but now a short bald liar who gropes men without asking permission - to write down his memories of Jesus' life story PDQ before the Hacker can erase them all from the face of human history. And history could use an account of the true story of Jesus: In Timothy's memory, Jesus was "enormously fat with this serious hormonal problem - the so-called parable about the loaves of bread and fishes were just the fantasies of someone who could never get enough to eat." In fact, it's not even the real Jesus on the cross that day: It's Marvin Wasserstein, City College graduate, doctorate from MIT, and former chief executive of General Electric, which owns NBC, which is broadcasting the event live.

Despite this wildly imaginative (and thoroughly blasphemous) premise - or perhaps because of it - Live from Golgotha is a sit-com for highly educated religious and cultural historian. (How many people will recall that "Wojtyla" is the Christian name of Pope John Paul II?) Vidal stuff its with every quip and play on words he can muster, a few of them executed swiftly enough to provoke a smile. When someone tells Timothy, "I'm Jewish," Timothy muses: "[That's] a curious thing to say since it is hardly possibly in that matter to be 'ish'. Either one is a Jew or not, a hacker or not."

Although this novel brims with Vidal's knowledge of ancient history - which he routs as much as he explores - perhaps it's best to think of Live from Golgotha as part of a Vidalian trilogy of time-and-space-tripping inventions: Duluth parodies television and American culture; Live from Golgotha continues the parody of television and throws in religion and history; and The Smithsonian Institution (1998) picks up the notions of time travel and historical parody where Golgotha leaves off. The degree to which you enjoy the jokes will determine the degree to which you like these novels. But all in all, Vidal covers these issues much more concisely and provocatively in his essays.

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The Smithsonian Institution (1998)
Bringing together his "inventions" and his historical novels - and resurrecting Vidal's beloved Jimmie in the grandest way yet - this fantasy takes place in the the venerable old museum, where "T.", a young teen-age physics whiz from St. Albans School - the very school that Vidal attended as a boy - gets mixed up in experiments to alter time and change the past. By night in the Smithsonian, wax figures of historic people come to life, and "T." has an affair with Mrs. Grover Cleveland. "T." seems to be very much like the young Vidal himself, except at one point he alludes to knowing Vidal. So when "T." realizes that his tinkering with history will result in the death of his St. Albans friend at Iwo Jima - that's where Jimmie Trimble died - "T." travels back in time to save his friend. Thus Vidal uses this novel to save Jimmie from his fate - something he's been doing in his literature, one way or another, for half a century.

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Clouds and Eclipses (2006)
The short stories in this collection aren't really later works by Vidal. He wrote them all in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, and with the exception of the title story, all appeared in his 1956 short story collection, A Thirsty Evil. But Vidal withheld Clouds and Eclipses from the 1956 collection: He based the story upon an anecdote told to him by Tennessee Williams about Williams' family, and Vidal worried that publishing it might cause some embarrassment for his friend's kinfolk. Flash forward to 2005, when archivists at Harvard found the manuscript for the long-lost story as they prepared his papers for public viewing. The Harvard Review approached Vidal about publishing it, and the story appeared in the journal's issue No. 29 along with a note on the story by Vidal. Now, in September 2006, a publisher will issue this paperback short story collection, which includes Clouds and Eclipses together at last with the stories from A Thirsty Evil.

The title story concerns a minister, who's being blackmailed for a sexual indiscretion with a teen-age girl, and his young nephew, who bears witness to the old man's fiery penance. (In real life, Williams thought the incident, which happened to his maternal grandfather, may have involved a teen-age boy.) The title comes from Shakespeare's 35th sonnet about the good and the bad in everything: "Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,/And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud." It's all very discreetly told, as the times and the form demanded.

The Early Fiction: 1946-1956
The Pseudonyms: 1950-1954
The Later Fiction: 1962-2006
The American Chronicles: 1967-2000
Works for the Theater: 1956-1972
Essays, Interviews and Memoirs: 1963-Present
Writing About Gore Vidal: 1951-Present

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ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu