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...
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[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 novelist who sets out to impersonate him has my sincere sympathy, and Mr. Vidal is as bright as they come. He solves the problem, quite simply, by making Julian a far more witty and astringent writer than in fact he was, and by interspersing his memoirs with acidulous comments from two ancient and bitchy rhetoricians, who are planning to edit the Emperor's obiter dicta for posterity. These marginal glosses are by far the most amusing part of the book, since in them Julian's weaknesses are exposed with uncommon vigor: his bogus mysticism ("that craving for the vague and incomprehensible which is essentially Asiatic"), his superstitious dabbling in arcane hocus-pocus, his priggishness, his prejudices, his inflated sense of grandeur....
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[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 fun, the deliberate surface lightness, The Judgment of Paris contains a vision of the twilight of the gods, or rather, of the Christian god; through it there runs the feeling that the world is at a new turn of the great wheel, that one phase of man's religious history is ended and another slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. It is this vision, of a decisive change in man's orientation to nature and the universe, that is at the heart of Julian, and in the figure of the great apostate Vidal has found what seems an ideal persona through which to express his vision.
The novel takes the form of Julian's memoirs as dictated to his secretary during the nights of the disastrous Persian campaign. In this...
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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 opposite number William F. Buckley Jr. in his mystery novels.
Newgate Callendar, "Crime: 'Death in the Fifth Position', 'Death before Bedtime', and 'Death Likes It Hot'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1979, p. 17.
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The idea behind ["Views from a Window"] is one of such obvious wit and utility that one can only marvel at the fact that no one seems to have tried it before—but people undoubtedly said the same thing about the invention of the wheel. Gore Vidal, who has been interviewed by just about every publication claiming some connection to literature during the past 20 years, has selected the choicer tidbits from many of the interviews and arranged them not in chronological order but according to subject matter.
Thus, instead of wading through a tedious sequence of separate interviews to get to the good stuff, we are treated to intelligible, discrete summaries of Mr. Vidal's views on sex (mixed), American higher education (negative), on book reviewers (negative raised to the tenth power)….
The interviewers' questions, on every subject from homosexuality to "autobiographical" novels, reflect interests that are as constantly inconstant as those of a fashion writer interviewing a designer about hemlines. The unconventional organization of this book reveals the transitory nature of contemporary passions about what ought to be enduring questions of art, politics and morals.
Mr. Vidal, however, is consistent; he believes the same things in 1980 that he believed in 1960. And even when—or especially when—he is being suspicious or downright insulting, Mr. Vidal seems incapable of uttering a dull English...
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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 late seventies he published Kalki (1978) which depicts the end of the world achieved by a self-proclaimed savior-destroyer. (p. 88)
The self-reflexive design of all three Vidal novels which dramatize his satire of religious superstition should be of most interest to critics exploring the techniques of Post-Modernism…. Vidal has developed the strategy of unfolding the story of a novel within the memoirs of a skeptical narrator. Messiah is presented as the memoir of a dying man long considered a heretic by the cult of death-worshippers he once helped to establish. The design of Julian is even more complex. The fictional memoir of the Emperor, himself the most powerful skeptic of the early Christian...
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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 reconstruction of history is painless and, I should think, most useful to simple readers. Yet there is a good deal of Pop-writing silliness, though Vidal's prose is generally correct, if uninspired, and though I suspect he is a writer best read swiftly by the page in order to get the sweep of his narrative style and the shallowness of mind. I realize my sort of slow reading does a disservice to this kind of book. But then I hope the author will be pleased to know that at least one person has actually read his very long novel. Few people will….
Setting out to propel his hero from interview to interview, Vidal has contrived a questioner with so anemic a private life and character that he is always free to memorize answers and to...
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["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 events and men, but it never intends humor. It argues the case for monotheism, but is, of course, firmly pre-Christian. (pp. 1, 32)
Mr. Vidal clearly enjoys discovering illustrious men in unlikely postures, and never more than in this novel. "No other man alive has traveled in as many lands as I," Spitama says. He has been a friend to kings, philosophers, emperors, generals and sages; a school chum of Xerxes, employer of Socrates ("I hired him to repair the front wall of the house"), and has sat at the feet of both the Buddha and Confucius. To put it mildly, Spitama is like the ultimate performer in that old Skippy Peanut Butter television show "You Are There." He is even as breezy and priggish as the historical narrators who...
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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 meaning of Creation itself: where the world and mankind originated, why they are as they are, and what their purpose is….
What are we to make of this grandiose work about a spiritual Marco Polo? First let me say that if in the final analysis it appears to be a failure, in an important respect it is a very honorable one. If it fails, at least it attempts, like most of Mr. Vidal's novels, to extend the range and subject matter of the novel in America, which tends too often to be narrow, timid, inbred, and self-regarding. At least Mr. Vidal seeks to break out of the suffocating ambit of much American fiction and afford his readers a glimpse of the greater world beyond.
Where Creation fails, I think, is...
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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 himself. Vidal has spent decades creating the persona of the Gentleman Bitch of American letters: cutting but not piercing, acidulous but not serious. (p. 34)
A pity. In fact, Gore Vidal is a serious man and an almost solemn writer. No one who was not soberly concerned with values, morality, and history could have attempted Creation. The book dodges sensationalism and studiously avoids sex … and concentrates on an epoch remote to all but scholars and undergraduates.
His arena is the fifth century BC, one of the richest periods of human and social development…. The possibilities are endless and so, nearly, is the novel that utilizes them. (pp. 34-5)
For a man who describes...
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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 historical phenomena which can be said to have at least prefigured everything that has come since. (p. 26)
Mr. Vidal is a fine writer and, as far as I can judge, a prodigious scholar but he has here set himself an insuperable task. It might have been possible to produce a survey of the 6th century BC world, and its chief currents of thought, in 500 pages. It is not possible, at the same time, to write a novel in which due weight is given to characterisation and plot. The scores of characters are expertly profiled but, inevitably in such a vast panorama,… [they] become costume figures prancing across a stage.
In a similar way, the narrator, Cyrus Spitama himself, although allegedly prey to varied emotions, never...
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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 Creation, the counterbalance of emergent oriental religions is caught at the moment when paganism was being overthrown, and the course of world civilisation to a great extent, conditioned.
Julian was also technically interesting in going beyond the I, Claudius autobiographical procedure to an autobiography interpolated and interpreted by records written from other viewpoints. The effect of this was both to intensify the feeling of actuality which is one of the main fascinations of the historical novel, and to create, from the plentiful and contrasting sources available, a historiographical demonstration of the merely partial reliability of such sources. It also brought into a challenging proximity the novel's...
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