Gore Vidal Essay - Vidal, Gore (Vol. 22)

Vidal, Gore (Vol. 22)


Gore Vidal 1925–

(Also wrote under pseudonym of Edgar Box) American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

Vidal often draws on historical and political sources to comment on modern society's lack of values and corrupt institutions. His work in all genres is marked by his brilliant technique and urbane wit.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War II.)

John W. Aldridge

Gore Vidal, at twenty-five, occupies and enviable position in American letters. Not only is he the youngest of the group of new writers whose first books began attracting attention right after the war, but he has already produced as large and varied a body of work as many of his contemporaries may be expected to produce comfortably in a lifetime. (p. 170)

Williwaw—written when Vidal was nineteen and still in the Army—was a slight and unpretentious book about the war. It was done in the clipped Hemingway manner; the sentences appeared to have been telegraphed and then pasted over the page. But there were no signs of Hemingway's purposeful understatement, his suggestion of hidden layers of immense unspoken meaning. The approach was literal and bald, the props had been carefully cut away rather than concealed, and the emotion was so rigidly controlled that one had the impression of reading a book which had only just managed to get written. Yet there was evidence of real, if premature, mastery in the handling of the central situation—the struggle of the men to bring their ship through the williwaw—and more than an intimation of potential insight in the brief characterizations. Vidal seemed to have learned early the trick of the narrow scope, the tight portrait. Where most young writers try to grapple with an outsized situation and too many characters and succeed only in revealing their youth, he apparently saw the advantage of leaving certain material alone until he grew up to it. His characters, consequently, were purposely unrealized, made up simply of a very few deft touches that gave the illusion of a total, although shadowy, outline. (pp. 170-71)

But the real power of Williwaw lay in the faithfulness of its intention to its impact, its tone to its material. In the williwaw—a violent storm common in the Aleutians—Vidal found the perfect instrument for making dramatic the emotion around which the novel was constructed and for which his terse style set the key. The truth of the war for the men who lived in its boredom but were denied its dangers was purposelessness. The contrast between the excitement and terror of the storm and the utter indifference of their reaction to it was thus the supreme, ironic example of that purposelessness. (p. 171)

[Even] at its height the storm fails to be an activating force. To be sure, coordinated effort is required to save the ship, and individual differences are submerged in the struggle; but the change is only temporary. As soon as the storm is over, the monotony resumes, and the conflict among the men moves toward its inevitable climax as if nothing whatever had happened….

The final effect is similar to that of The Naked and the Dead—utter futility. But where the parts of Mailer's story anticipated a protest in the conclusion, Williwaw moves logically through the futility of its parts to the climaxing futility at its end. The childishly simple plot, the elemental action with its emphasis on one or two concrete emotions, the absence of all ideas, and the carefully underdone prose are excellently suited to the type of world which the novel presents. (p. 172)

The sure technical control and simple amorality of Williwaw is preserved through the first half of Vidal's second novel, In a Yellow Wood. The numb purposelessness of men at war is now transferred to the exhausted and uneasy world of the war's atermath and centered in a young man who came out of the war drained of personality and interested only in losing himself in the business routine. Like the men of Williwaw he is doped on a continual round of mechanical acts which serve to insulate him from the complexities of the life around him…. The story of Robert Holton's morning reads like the itinerary of a desensitized Leopold Bloom; and in the style in which it is described, Vidal once again finds the perfect medium for the utterly purposeless and banal.

But the sudden intrusion of Carla, Holton's wartime lover, midway in the novel sends deep tremors through his detachment; and as this occurs, the style is required to take on a burden that is beyond its powers. The technique that served so well as a journalistic device for reporting concrete simplicities and drugged actions of external people now begins to crack and loosen as the story demands a shift to the abstract ideas and emotional states of internal people. For Vidal, the entry of Carla obviously meant an opportunity to introduce a theme, make an ideological point, and to show a contrast between the dead world of Holton and the intensely alive and struggling world into which Carla attempts to entice him. But the two worlds really have nothing to do with one another. Not only are they basically incompatible but Vidal cannot manipulate his style into bridging the gap between them.

To reinforce the weak purchase he has on his theme, Vidal introduces a third character, George Robert Lewis. In sharp contrast to Holton, Lewis is an extremely sensitive homosexual who is profoundly aware of the human need to find spiritual fulfillment in something greater than the self. It is through Lewis that this need is finally developed into the central theme of the novel…. But such a theme cannot be adequately objectified in the cold and mechanical style with which Vidal wrote the first half of the novel, just as the idea it signifies cannot be made meaningful to the cold and mechanical person Vidal has shown Holton to be. The result, therefore, is that the theme is superimposed on the style and the idea is superimposed on Holton's life. While the style toward the end of the novel maintains the monosyllabic pace which it set in the beginning, it is now reinforced with long passages of rhetoric inserted at intervals through it. These passages … carry the theme, but since they remain outside and above the action, they are merely undigested assertions. They never touch the dilemma of the characters, which has already been revealed on the active level, because Vidal cannot make them concrete in terms of the style in which he has previously described that dilemma.

The style is as clearly Holton's prison as his conventionality is supposed to be. If we assume that the Frost poem from which the novel's title is taken contains the key to his predicament as Vidal sees it, then we must assume that Vidal intends us to accept Holton as paralyzed in the act of choosing between two divergent roads, a life of timid security as a businessman and a life of Bohemian freedom and love with Carla. But from the picture we are given of Holton in the first half of the novel we conclude that he is firmly committed to conventionality long before Carla arrives to give him the opportunity of choice. The style which is so perfectly suited to his emptiness also prevents him from being anything more than empty; and he must develop into something more if we are to accept the idea that he was tempted, even momentarily, to choose Carla's way.

To do what he wanted to do in In a Yellow Wood, Vidal needed a subtler and far more flexible technique, one that would serve as the formula not only for Holton's sterile purposelessness but for Carla's affirmative ideal. He also needed a point of view, a set of values, through which he could make his theme dramatically meaningful. But the emptiness that is behind these...

(The entire section is 3032 words.)

Peter Green

[In Julian] Gore Vidal has resurrected that unacknowledged humanists' culture-hero, Julian the Apostate—though perhaps "resurrected" is an unfortunate word to use in connection with the Emperor who called Christians "Galileans" and their churches "charnel-houses."…

Vidal has one rather ambiguous advantage …: unlike most Emperors, Julian wrote a great deal that was not only sedulously applauded during his lifetime, but actually survived for posterity. (p. 21)

No reader can get very far into Julian's platitudinous, mock-classical prose without realizing that as a Hellenistic man of letters (which he liked to consider himself) the Apostate was a dead flop. Any intelligent...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Walter Allen

[Julian] brings together and dramatizes more effectively and with much greater authority than ever before preoccupations that have been present in [Gore Vidal's] fiction almost from its beginnings. Indeed, despite the complete dissimilarity of ostensible subject, form, period and setting, Julian in a real sense recapitulates the themes and attitudes of The Judgment of Paris, which appeared in 1952.

That novel was a modern version precisely of the judgment of Paris, who, in Vidal's pages, is a young American in Europe tempted in turn by beautiful women representative of power, wisdom, and love respectively….

Not entirely obscured by the wit, the irreverence and...

(The entire section is 723 words.)

Newgate Callendar

Edgar Box was the pen name of Gore Vidal, who wrote [the mysteries, "Death in the Fifth Position," "Death before Bedtime," and "Death Likes It Hot," in the early fifties], and then dropped the genre. Each features the public-relations man Peter Cutler Sargeant III. Each has characters who move in relatively high society: great ballet dancers, Washington moguls, East Hampton Social Register types. Box/Vidal tried to get a breezy style … into his Sargeant, who is dragged into murder willy-nilly. The writing is a bit forced, a bit dated, but the three books are nevertheless rather charming period pieces. Some social commentary is present, though the author does not carry things to an obsessive point, as does his...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Charles Berryman

In more than thirty volumes of novels, stories, plays, and essays Gore Vidal … has exposed and ridiculed the power of superstition from the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century to the destructive force of various religious cults today. In each of the last three decades of Vidal's career, one novel stands out for its satire of religious superstition. In the fifties Vidal published Messiah (1954) which mocks Christianity with the success of a death-worshipping cult that spreads quickly over a savior-hungry world; in the sixties he published Julian (1964) which dramatizes the last intelligence of Greece and Rome as it is challenged and destroyed by the dark power of Christian dogma; and in the...

(The entire section is 1504 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

Creation: 528 pages of small type. As I picked up the heavy book, I knew terror, for I am that rarest of reviewers who actually reads every word, and rather slowly. What I saw on the first page was disquieting. With an obviously bogus protagonist, Vidal must depend upon the cunning of his narrative gift to propel these characters through great events, and not only must he describe the sweep of military and political action but also give us close-ups of Darius, Xerxes, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Confucius and many more. The detail is painstaking and generally authentic. The naïve portraits of the great men convince rather more than subtler work might have done. This is not at all bad, except as prose. His...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Paul Theroux

["Creation"] takes the form of the memoir-autobiography of one Cyrus Spitama, a half-Persian, half-Greek grandson of the prophet Zoroaster.

Spitama regards himself as a "counter-historian," which is not a bad description of Gore Vidal, who has offered his own interpretation of Roman and American history in such novels as "Julian," "Burr" and "1876," not to mention his numerous graceful essays. "Myra Breckenridge" had a historical dimension, too, even if it was only the movies; and "Kalki" can be seen as a kind of history of the future. But "Creation" is different from any of these. It is wider-ranging and more ambitious; it is much more learned; it entertains by giving a bystanders' view of great...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Jon Manchip White

Gore Vidal's new novel [Creation] is nothing if not ambitious…. Consider, to begin with, the territory covered….

Mr. Vidal cuts a wide swathe, both in time and space. We follow the career of Cyrus Spitama from his seventh year to his seventy-fifty, and among the cities and civilizations we visit are Susa, Persepolis, Babylon, the colonies of Ionia, Sardis, the Harappan culture of the Dravidians on the river Indus, the Jain settlement on the Ganges, and sundry kingdoms and dukedoms in China: a vast and teeming panorama.

And this is merely the outer shell of the book. Its core and essence consists of a discussion of ethics and religion, a prolonged examination of the...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Stefan Kanfer

Few American writers can display the virtuosity of Gore Vidal: saline essays on popular arts and letters; our best political play, The Best Man; intimate analyses of politics, ranging from his observations chez Kennedy to the limitations of Ronald Reagan; futuristic visits to a small planet; revisionist appraisals of America's past imperfect in Burr and 1876; and, of course, the sexual vaudeville of Myra Breckenridge, Myron, and, though he has shrewdly disowned it, the film Caligula, loosely based on his conceptions.

And yet … and yet. I know of no writer with comparable gifts who elicits so little critical response…. This exclusion is due mostly to the writer...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Paul Ableman

Gore Vidal has always been interested in origins. In Julian, he dealt with the origins of Christian Europe. In the Aaron Burr trilogy he looked at the origins of modern America and in the two Breckenridge books he examined, in satirical vein, the origins of gender. In the present work [Creation] set in the age of Pericles, which had a greater abundance of prophets and thinkers than any other period, he explores the origins of almost everything….

This is a very long book but, considering its vast scope, it is not nearly long enough…. Still, within the work's compass, Gore Vidal attempts to display, and illuminate, many of the political, theological, philosophical and...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Alan Hollinghurst

Creation is a novel that describes, creates and analyses history, and it is not the first of Gore Vidal's novels to do so. He has already devoted a lengthy trilogy to American history, and Julian, though set some eight hundred years later than Creation, shares the new novel's concern with history both political and religious in the ancient world. Both books examine critical ways in which ideas of a more or less religious kind impinge on and determine political and imperial growth. Julian's apostasy could have prevented the development of the Christian Church and radically affected the progress of the Western world, and the novel captures a period of ideological instability. Similarly, in...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)