Gore Vidal Vidal, Gore (Vol. 2) - Essay

Vidal, Gore (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vidal, Gore 1925–

An American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and raconteur, Vidal is the author of Myra Breckinridge, Visit to a Small Planet, and The Best Man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The best among the eight novels which Vidal published from 1946 to 1954 is The Judgment of Paris, a remarkably sound work, written when he was twenty-five. Of great scope and frequent depth, The Judgment of Paris is successful because in it the author combines delight in satire and in perfect sentences with several interesting literary conventions. The framework of the novel is a retelling in modern terms of the Greek myth of Paris, who was asked by Zeus to choose the most beautiful of three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The hero is an American "innocent" touring Europe to complete his education and to be polished by the older culture, a device found in such works by Henry James as Daisy Miller (1879) and The American (1887).

Moreover, the style of The Judgment of Paris is seemingly appropriated from two nineteenth-century British conventions: as in the brief novels of Thomas Love Peacock, characters are assembled for no other purpose than to talk together interestingly; and, as in the novels of Anthony Trollope, the author addresses his audience in the "dear reader" asides that invite participation in the actual building of plot, character, and theme. These elements are united in a novel that operates successfully on two levels—the serious, on which the story is worked out; and the comic, on which the entire theme is mocked. (p. 84)

Gore Vidal has deserved a better hearing from literary critics than he has received. A group of curious factors has influenced the course of his critical reputation: youth, frequent publication, financial success, being a "public person," and using traditionally forbidden subject matter. None of these factors should affect critical judgment of a literary work; but, in Vidal's case, critics stand strongly condemned—for cowardice. (p. 125)

There is Williwaw, the first novel. Vidal wrote the story of army sailors facing an Aleutian storm and their own conflicts when he was nineteen; but the clipped, understated prose still works. There is The City and the Pillar, destined to remain in print for the instruction of a fascinated nation. (However, the revised 1965 version will be the text.) There is The Judgment of Paris, Vidal's Peacock-like novel-as-dialogue, marred by only the young hero's opting for love. Finally, there are Julian and Washington, D.C.—novels that demonstrate that as late as 1967 hatred of the absolute and attraction for intellect at work still operate in Gore Vidal. Were the author and his ideas more deeply valued in the United States, that country would not need so desperately to hear his voices. (p. 133)

Ray Lewis White, in his Gore Vidal, Twayne, 1968.

Vidal's new book [Two Sisters] is a scrapbook held together with the dried glue of reminiscence. It hardly holds….

Vidal is a deceiver, and the new book is devious. But despite his deceptive appearance as a gamy gadfly, the narrator serves a deeper purpose. The true feeling of the book is the awareness of advancing age. Beneath the banality is Vidal's sense of defeat as life passes him by. He writes, "the thoughts of middle age are short short thoughts." He attempts to compensate for their brevity by being abstruse.

Two Sisters is a gossipy, depressing excursion into Vidal's lost past. In his latest book, Gore Vidal is a contemporary Narcissus winking into a shallow pool.

F. Anthony Macklin, in America (© America Press, 1970; all rights reserved), September 5, 1970, p. 129.

In addition to the novels, plays, and screenplays, Vidal over the last decade has also produced a constant stream of political and literary essays, whose nearly forgotten form he has mastered and stamped as his own. One way to rile him, indeed, is to suggest, as many of his friends did to me, and as I obligingly did to him, that he is a better essayist than a novelist….

What wounds, it seems, is that Vidal realizes that except for a brief period in the forties, he was not taken seriously as a writer until he had made a name as an essayist and, yes, as a journalist. What wounds even more, I think, is that many critics even now refuse to take him seriously as a writer of fiction and wish he would concentrate on what they think is his true vocation as intellectual commentator. For someone who considers himself pre-eminently a literary man, a descendant of James and Proust, that is an opinion not to be borne lightly. Vidal not only reads reviews of his work, he also remembers them, broods over them, and turns them over and over in his mind long after they have grown yellow and brittle….

The fact is that Vidal Novelist had an unusually long apprenticeship. The early books, the eight that preceded Julian, are workmanlike enough, but they are curiously flat and undefined, without any of the zest and bitchy vitality Vidal shows in even the most ordinary conversation…. [But] when he did return [from television] to the novel a decade later in Julian, he brought to it the flavor and the energy of his own person. He is still an overly intellectual novelist, but now his subjects are more in keeping with his particular novelistic shtik. Julian is one of the best historical novels since Robert Graves's I, Claudius; it is a vigorous, authoritative recreation of fourth-century Rome seen through several first-person accounts. Washington, D.C. is much less successful, partly, I think, because Vidal has always been uncomfortable with the conventional third-person narrative. Though he knows the Washington power game better than any other novelist, the plot creaks, and the characters move around awkwardly, self-consciously, and finally, unbelievably….

In Myra Breckinridge, however, Vidal created a comic masterpiece, and what were faults in the earlier novels—a coldness and a passionless analysis of love and sex—became major virtues….

Not for nothing has he read and reread Evelyn Waugh, who laid down the rules of satire for Vidal's generation. Like Waugh, Vidal can create brilliant comic types, and he has an uncanny ear for absurd dialogue, which he reproduces with unfailing accuracy. In Myra, Vidal at last had found his voice as a novelist.

Ironically, the voice was the same one that he uses in his essays, a mixture of amusement and outrage at nearly everything and everybody. Only the accent was different. The many voices of Myra were Vidal in drag. The voice of the essays is Vidal as he is, cool, patrician, stoical, with an arch smile masking a baleful grimace of rage. In Two Sisters, fiction and essay become one—with only partial success. Though the book has many superb comic moments and at least one fine comic figure in Murray Morris, the crudely crafty Hollywood producer, it does not hang together either as novel or memoir. It is Vidal playing games with mirrors and himself, and, not surprisingly, the only real character is Vidal himself, sitting under his lemon tree and watching the sun set from his elegant Roman terrace and every once in a while heaving a bored sigh, as if he had just been offered a 1968 Burgundy—when everyone knows that 1966 was a better year.

It is not that Vidal's essays are better than his novels. It is rather that his essays are more consistently good and that the qualities that limit him as a novelist are precisely those that a good essayist needs: a forceful intelligence, a cool detachment, an unpretentious, graceful style, and a sense of perspective that distinguishes the big from the little. If most of his fictional characters seem unbelievable, his judgments on real people are both original and irrefutable.

Gerald Clarke, "Petronius Americanus: The Ways of Gore Vidal," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1972, pp. 44-51.

Gore Vidal has written a needle-sharp and exceedingly funny pasquinade called "An Evening with Richard Nixon and …" That trail-off "and" turns out to be important, since it links President Nixon with Presidents Washington, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, and with such lesser luminaries as Agnew, Humphrey, Goldwater, Stevenson, Rayburn, Khrushchev, and Ngo Dinh Diem….

The weapon Vidal employs in flaying Nixon is an ingenious one: it is to have every damning word that Nixon utters be taken from the public record. In Vidal's view, Nixon is a man devoid of any principle—or even any motive—save that of running for public office and winning by whatever means happen to lie within his grasp. A terrible indictment, and it is only because it is presented to us in a theatre that we dare to laugh at what it reveals.

Brendan Gill, "For the Prosecution," in The New Yorker, May 6, 1972, p. 54ff.

Political theater of an antipodal sort is served up in Gore Vidal's An Evening With Richard Nixon and…. Like most of Vidal's writings and utterances, this pasquinade has a measure of wit and an excess of surface. In the present case, Vidal has agglomerated an adroit collage of Nixon's actual utterances without putting added words or feet in his mouth, and has thus created a cartoon of the President having fully as few dimensions as the original. He could not get around a little playwriting, alas, and hit on the tired judgment-of-history format, with Washington, Kennedy and Eisenhower summoned from the dead to pronounce quick judgment on Nixon and have a few swift Vidalian kicks administered to their own buttocks…. [The play] confirms Vidal as a member of that luckless band of lesser wits who have a knack for being right in the wrong way.

John Simon, "Eloquence in Spite of Words," in New York Magazine (© 1972 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by the permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 15, 1972, p. 70.

In An Evening with Richard Nixon and …, Gore Vidal has tried to write not a play but "A Political Circus," and he has made shameless use of political figures and his cynicism about them….

Vidal's avowed project is an interesting one, but his theme becomes virtually invisible behind the topical political fireworks….

The circus traces Nixon's career from one inept accident to the next…. [He] emerges as unattractive ("Even as a little boy you didn't want to pick him up"), devoid of ideas (Eisenhower asks for a week to try and think up one idea he contributed during his four years as Vice President), and stupidly insensitive (the most damning moment is when he meets with some protesting students in Washington and after a few harmless platitudes asks them about "surfing" and other ways they spend their time in college). However, he is never malicious, only compulsively eager to succeed and to cancel out his many failures. This makes him human and sympathetic. Furthermore, his weathering of past mistakes gives him invulnerability to criticism. As he says, "It takes an awful lot to embarrass me!"

The hoopla is at its best when it is being funny…. However, too much of the evening is not very funny, nor does it accomplish Vidal's deeper purposes….

Vidal proposes no solution. Presumably he finds no force in the government or in the electorate capable of implementing the policy he favors. As a result, his political circus depresses more than it amuses or provokes.

Henry Hewes, "Distal and Proximal Bite," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 20, 1972; used with permission), May 20, 1972, pp. 62-3.

There are various kinds of merit to be found in a theatre event. Gore Vidal's An Evening With Richard Nixon And—is not "drama" but I favor it…. There are obvious criticisms to be made—where's the surprise, the tension, etc.—but I enjoyed the visit. All the speeches given George Irving to speak as Nixon are verbatim quotes. Isn't that enough to cause shudders and laughter?…

I … found all [Nixon] said in Gore Vidal's transcription fascinating and frequently funny…. Contemporary politics in general is a self-made mockery—to some a comedy, to others a tragedy. Other attitudes may be assumed but, to begin with, the first impression is natural. In any case, for all its frivolity, An Evening With Richard Nixon And—has more substance than most of the "art" Broadway now has to offer.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, May 22, 1972, p. 669.

Gore Vidal is [a] dramatist who wants to look daring without daring very much. Like Emile de Antonio (Millhouse) and Philip Roth (Our Gang) he has produced an anti-Nixon polemic whose effect—at best—is to make anti-Nixonites feel better about themselves. He has collected an enormous number of self-indicting statements of Nixon's, and instead of issuing one of those The Wit and Wisdom of … volumes, he has elected to make a play of them. Or to try.

The result is an ungainly, superheated pageant, with Washington sitting in judgment, with Eisenhower and Kennedy as commentators, on a long series of anti-Nixon skits from his boyhood to the present, with our President's dialogue written by himself. It comforts those who dislike Nixon, though one of them can testify that too much is worse than a feast; and presumably it even comforts those who like him.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 27, 1972, p. 34.

The forty-four essays in this collection [Homage to Daniel Shays] are billed 1952 to 1972, but the majority—and the best—of them were written in the Sixties, when the foundations of what Vidal calls the American Empire were shaking with more drama and technicolor than ever before. Vidal is what used to be called "too clever by half," and though that fact has given his public personality something of a Peck's Bad Boy image, it has been the making of him as an essayist. Unlike fellow writers who respond to their exclusion from the centers of power with all-over-the-page outbursts, Vidal has opted for the patrician: his essays are cool, elegant, witty, with a liberal sprinkling of Beerbohm and a merciful dash of downright cattiness….

In short, this is a collection as varied as it is excellent, a temperature reading of a feverish society. Cleverness in American letters seems to invite the expectation of not being taken seriously, but a good many of Vidal's essays—funny and beautifully written—are, at bottom, very serious indeed and well worth listening to.

Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, December 16, 1972; used with permission), December 16, 1972, p. 71.

Not only are the individual essays [in Homage to Daniel Shays] excellent, the whole volume is more than the sum of its parts. For taken together these essays compose the features of the writer, complex and a bit mysterious, like a face mirrored in the darkened waters of a well….

Gore Vidal is an elated stylist. He carries weights of packed allusion with a buoyant air. In so far as he has an argument he is well on top of it. What is most characteristic of him in [certain passages] is a kind of mock pomposity. The learning or the pseudo learning verges on the hectoring or lecturing manner. But just as he seems about to cross the line which divides riding high from pomposity, he wheels his charger around and turns the whole thing into a joke….

Gore Vidal is by now obviously irremediably saved from his public persona. His essays celebrate the triumph of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world. What makes an essayist? It is curious to reflect that the greatest English essayist, Francis Bacon, was also a man with the strongest sense of public values consistently questioned in his essays by those of the private human condition; and that Montaigne was a magistrate who retired from public life to his country estate and thought much about the world, and about power, and about friendship.

Stephen Spender, "Private Eye," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), March 22, 1973, pp. 6-8.