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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.)
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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 first two novels makes it clear that he never had them, that, in fact, the search of his characters for a spiritual center is really the shadow of his own private search for an artistic center of meaning.
In The City and the Pillar … this search is still unrewarded, and the technique that proved too weak to carry the ideological weight of In a Yellow Wood now shows signs of being thoroughly flattened. The old terseness has given way to hollowness; the old theme is felt everywhere in the material but it is now, one feels, almost shamelessly planted. All the effects in the novel come out a uniform shade of gray, and every page bears testimony to exhaustion and haste.
Perhaps the most significant change in The City and the Pillar is a structural one. Where in his first two books, at least up to the beginning of the second half of In a Yellow Wood, Vidal was careful to focus his narrative on a single action and on one main character through whom the material was seen as a whole, he now begins to build outward toward a multiplicity of actions and a number of characters, through whom the material is seen in fragments. There is, of course, the one dominating problem of Jim Willard around which the other actions and characters are gathered; but the story of Willard's struggle to recapture the reality of a childhood homosexual experience neither centers the novel thematically nor orders it structurally.
Willard's problem is simply a larger difficulty set down in the midst of several smaller difficulties: it touches all of them but they would be as separately meaningful without it. The same can be said for the theme which his problem suggests. Like Willard, the other characters—Maria Verlaine, Ronald Shaw, and Paul Sullivan—are all searching for the perfect spiritual union in love; and all, with the possible exception of Maria, fail to find it. But each of their problems is a particle rather than an aspect of the central theme. Each remains separate from the others; each has its own motivation and, in the end, its own resolution. (pp. 172-76)
We never really sympathize with Willard as he gropes pathetically through the novel for the one perfect love of his boyhood, and we have to sympathize with him if the novel is to have any excuse at all for being written. (p. 177)
But when we have explored all the flaws of the novel we have still not really arrived at the basis of its total failure, which is that it is at bottom a thoroughly amoral book—not immoral in the conventional sense, because it deals with homosexuality, but amoral in the purely ethical sense, because there is no vitality or significance in the view of life which has gone into it. It seems to have evolved out of an absolute spiritual nothingness in which all things suffer from the same poverty of content and in which the vitally important and the cheaply trivial are viewed alike. If Vidal showed signs in his previous work of a weakening of his technical and dramatic power, he here shows the far more disturbing signs of a spreading aridity of soul.
It is perhaps because Vidal began to sense these symptoms in himself that he sought in his next book to turn away from the world of his maturity and to find the sources of his problem in childhood. (pp. 177-78)
But one is forced to conclude that the attempt was a failure. The Season of Comfort is an even emptier and more chaotic novel than The City and the Pillar. It is totally without form; its parts have almost no relation to the whole; and its characters are dead.
Vidal seems to have stood in utter confusion before the material he put into the novel. It is apparently autobiographical; for it has all the defects of personal experience partially digested and imperfectly recalled. The episodes that make up the individual parts seem to have been used simply because they have a basis in life and ought, therefore, to be important. They seldom have reference to the main point of the novel; and most of them do not even have the virtue of being interesting in themselves. They are simply unselected fragments which Vidal has put together to fill out a story he felt vaguely needed to be written, perhaps to solve a problem he knew he had but never fully understood. (pp. 178-79)
It is interesting to see at the very end of the novel, after William has gone to war and been wounded, that the factor which finally releases him from the past and prepares him for a new life of freedom is neither the war nor his break with his mother. It is the death of Jimmy Wesson, with whom, earlier in the book, he had been in love. Once again, as in In a Yellow Wood and The City and the Pillar, the true emotional basis of the characters is homosexuality; and one suspects that the problem which Vidal thought was identified with William's feelings about his mother was more truly identified, perhaps on a less conscious level, with William's homosexual feelings for Wesson. Certainly, the awkward and unconvincing treatment of the mother-son conflict as well as the sudden and unexplained reference to Wesson at the end would suggest that such is the case. At any rate, The Season of Comfort is full of some stuff that Vidal could not bring to light and objectify. Its true significance is buried, while its apparent significance is so slight that the material that went into it remains inert and unused.
There is one important difference between The Season of Comfort and the two preceding novels. Where before Vidal superimposed his characters' search for fulfillment upon the action of the story, he attempts here to demonstrate that search in William's struggle to free himself from his mother. He also finds a concrete symbol to replace the hazy abstractions he previously used to present the need for a spiritual center. In the chapter entitled "The King" he writes: "Oh, it would be good to have the King in the house since the center of this house was dead. The two women needed it, mother and daughter, needed the central man…." The center is now the king, the great man in whom one can still have faith in spite of the world's chaos and futility. It is a symbol which is only briefly suggested in The Season of Comfort; it never becomes really meaningful and it does nothing whatever to reduce the technical confusion of the novel. But in Vidal's next novel A Search for the King it is expanded into a philosophical foundation on which the entire central action is based.
Toward the end of The Season of Comfort Vidal, like Henry Adams generations before, speaks of the twelfth century as "the age of faith." It is fitting, therefore, that he should find a frame of reference for his new novel in that age. (pp. 180-81)
The search of the legendary troubadour Blondel for the captured King Richard is an allegory designed to illustrate in dramatic terms the full implications of Vidal's theme…. [Richard] becomes, in Blondel's mind, the symbolic king who is the goal of all our searching. The giants, werewolves, and vampires whom Blondel meets in his journey through the medieval world represent obstacles which all men must overcome if they are to arrive at the spiritual center of life. (pp. 181-82)
But Richard's release from captivity brings Blondel's search to an end and ironically defeats it; for Richard's imprisonment was its sole justification. With Richard lost, Blondel was truly a man deprived of a center and forced to examine the deep spiritual premises of his life; but with Richard found, Blondel is restored to his former position as mere friend and entertainer moving "only in the present across the world."…
It would be gratifying to be able to say that in A Search for the King Vidal's own search for an artistic center of value comes to an end. But the novel can be taken only for what it is—a simple exercise in light historical fantasy. It does not solve the problem which all the other novels were unsuccessful attempts to solve; it is simply a momentary avoidance of the problem. (p. 182)
Right now Vidal is acutely aware of the need for values in both life and art. He is himself one of the best illustrations of the need, and his frantic productivity as a writer testifies to its urgency. The work he has produced up to now clearly shows his sincerity and his restless determination to explore every possibility that might lead him to his goal. But it shows just as clearly the reason for his recurrent failure. The only order Vidal ever found he found in the war, in the terse emotions and simple negation of the men of Williwaw. The moment he tried to move into larger and more complex areas of experience he was lost. His writing after Williwaw is one long record of stylistic breakdown and spiritual exhaustion. It is confused and fragmentary, pulled in every direction by the shifting winds of impressionism. It is always reacting, always feeling and seeing; but it never signifies because it never believes.
In this sense, Vidal is typical of his generation. He has lived through some of the most crucial events of history. He has read all the books, listened to all the psychiatrists, and been thoroughly purged of dogma and prejudice. The experience has left him with the great virtue of an open mind. But it has taught him one thing which it is sheer suicide for a writer to learn too well—that all things are relative and that there are at least twenty sides to every question.
Vidal's dilemma is wholly inseparable from the dilemma of his characters. As they search for a center of life, so he searches for a center of art. If they move forward, so must he, and finally they must succeed or fail together. For the goal they seek can exist only if Vidal can make it exist by discovering a way of giving it the maximum significance in his art, and that depends, of course, on his discovering a value and a morality for them and for himself. (p. 183)
John W. Aldridge, "Gore Vidal: The Search for a King," in his After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951, pp. 170-83.
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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.
On the whole, Mr. Vidal succeeds far beyond reasonable expectations, and when he fails it is generally because he refuses to fudge or distort intractable history. A surprisingly large part of Julian's life … was spent either in quasi-imprisonment or on the field of battle, neither of them situations offering much scope for the imaginative novelist. (pp. 21, 24)
Long stretches of Julian are good,… well researched, graphically presented, but not telling us much more, really, than we could get from leafing through Ammianus Marcellinus or Gibbon. Where Mr. Vidal scores is in his vigorous grasp of Fourth-Century ideas…. Behind the embattled Arians and Athanasians we glimpse the bumbling clochardisme of the New (new?) Cynicism; and beyond them both move the mystery-mongers and the thaumaturgists, for whom Julian had so regrettable a partiality. Delphi sends its dusty answer, Eleusis offers no salvation. Julian's fate—Mr. Vidal sees this very clearly—was to be a Christian mystic manqué in an era of bad Christians, a great pagan Emperor struggling in vain to resuscitate the rotten corpse of paganism, a man, if ever there was one, born out of his age, slandered by Christians, praised for the wrong reasons by his friends…. Mr. Vidal's ambitious novel is a more balanced appraisal than any which Julian received in antiquity…. (p. 24)
Peter Green, "Resucitated Emperor," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1964 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 150, No. 24, June 13, 1964, pp. 21, 24.
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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 respect, it resembles other novels of our time about ancient Rome….
[But] there is a fundamental difference. It is a difference in intention. Vidal is attempting something other than the recreation of the past for its own sake. While it would be absurd to see the novel as a parable for our times or to look for any close parallels between Julian's situation and our own, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Vidal intends the book to have some direct relevance to the world of today. The brilliance of his portrayal of Julian persuades us that it has. How accurate this is in terms of historical scholarship, I certainly cannot pretend to know…. [But that] is beside the point: the novel must stand or fall by the success of his version of the character of Julian, and here it seems to me he has brought off a considerable imaginative achievement.
This comes out most clearly in Vidal's intellectual identification with his hero. The story of Julian is fascinating in itself…. It is the index of Vidal's achievement that he makes us understand how Christianity could appear to a learned, sophisticated, Plotinus-inspired religious pagan as a barbarous regression into the illiberal and the absurd, a return to death-worship. (p. 20)
Yet, wise, maganimous, and humane as he is, and possessed of a tolerance no man was to achieve again until ten centuries after his death, Julian fails either to stem the tide of Christianity or to restore the worship of the old gods. It is part of the subtlety of Vidal's presentation of him that one not only understands why this was so but even approves the failure. In the end, Julian is a tragic figure—on two counts. Committed to political action, he yields to the temptation that inevitably faces the idealist in politics—to fight the enemy with the enemy's weapons…. In other words, all that Julian attempts is to substitute one institutionalized state religion for another; in both, the emphasis is on outward forms.
And then the sweetness and light of Julian's religion of the sun have their dark underside. Vidal reveals brilliantly through Julian's words how increasingly his policies and actions are rooted in gross superstition. (pp. 20-1)
Julian, as we find him in Gore Vidal's recreation, is not anything so simple as the last of the Pagans. He is fatally contaminated by the very factors in the psyche that gave rise to Christianity itself. He is man in an age of transition, looking back to the past, tugged whether he likes it or not into the future by forces he cannot control. It is this, as Vidal well shows by implication, that gives him his universality and makes him emblematic of man in our own time. (p. 21)
Walter Allen, "The Last Pagan," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 12, July 30, 1964, pp. 20-1.
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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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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 dogmas, is framed by the editorial comments of two of Julian's contemporaries who reflect upon his memoir with the varying degrees of their own skepticism. The structure of the novel thus resembles a triple mirror in which each image can be cast back at different angles. The fictions of Borges, Barth, and Barthleme, for example, all play endlessly with the same self-reflexive principle. Vidal has long felt at home in the comic house of mirrors and has skillfully been able to adapt the style of multiple reflection to depict complex historical subjects. The diversification of point of view in his trilogy on American history, Washington D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), and 1876 (1976), owes much to his experimentation with mirror images in Julian.
Vidal's latest and best attack on religious superstition is Kalki, which dramatizes the sudden death of four billion people. (pp. 89-90)
In the earlier novels which satirize religious superstition, Messiah and Julian, the narrative device of a fictitious memoir is used to form a series of ironic mirrors. A similar strategy is revealed in Kalki. The narrator once again is a skeptical companion of the self-proclaimed god. The story is told in retrospect by Teddy Ottinger who is trying to understand her role in the end of the human race, her relationship to Kalki, and her responsibility to the age waiting to be born. (p. 90)
The narrator's appraisal of what happens is most important because all of the events in the novel are only available to us through her memory. At each stage of her record Teddy remains uncertain about the true nature of her companions. The narrator is part of the world she observes and, therefore, can never be objectively certain about the nature of what is happening. Vidal takes this principle to the limits of dramatic absurdity…. The novel often reads like detective fiction with the narrator trying to unmask the identities of the various double and triple agents. The principle of uncertainty is at the heart of the matter, and therefore the pursuit of truth merely leads the narrator further into the house of mirrors. (p. 91)
Shadow and substance are interchangeable at the center of Kalki's international religious cult, and the uncertainty principle reigns supreme. (pp. 91-2)
Neither the sudden death of four billion people nor the mere survival of Kalki and his four inoculated companions alters the realistic tone of the novel. Despite the outrageous premise of the book, Vidal is not interested in science fiction nor the typical effects of a horror story. Instead, the narrator retains the tone of trying to explain the incredible events in a rational manner. The uncertainty of human nature and the appeal of religious superstition remain Vidal's subjects for analysis and satire. But how can such a novel be read with the willing suspension of disbelief normally allowed a work of fiction in which events are described in a matter-of-fact tone? Other novelists of the seventies, especially Heller and Doctorow, have played with the conventions of realism by mixing historical figures with fully invented characters. When Vidal places Walter Cronkite and Kalki in the same novel, the fictional character seems more credible, the historical figure suddenly turned into a fiction. Early in the novel the narrator is also greeted by Merv Griffin next to the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Vidal's ability to fix his novel in a contemporary setting helps to convince us that later events, however implausible, may still take place in a world in which TV personalities are omnipresent. Such a world is ready for the revelations of Kalki.
Vidal's novel, however, challenges the standards of literary realism on another level. Ordinarily, a reader will be able to suspend disbelief in the events of a novel despite their fantastic nature if the events are described in a plausible and realistic manner. But how does a reader respond if he happens to come to the novel already possessing some of the beliefs that are being satirized? More than five hundred million Hindus are alive today who officially believe that the final avatar of Vishnu will come to end this cycle of the world; nine hundred million Christians have been taught to expect the similar return of Christ and the advent of the millennium. For these people, reading the novel would not be an experience so much of suspending disbelief as of distinguishing their own beliefs from Vidal's mockery. What is enjoyed in the novel by some as religious satire will be regarded by others as blasphemy. (pp. 92-3)
In an essay on the state of American culture [Matters of Fact and Fiction] published a few years before the novel, Vidal concludes: "this generation of Americans is god-hungry and craves reassurance of personal immortality." The view is not only dramatized in Kalki by the enormous success of the self-proclaimed Hindu messiah but also by the many references to other religious confidence men and the wide variety of panaceas available to contemporary Americans. The targets of Vidal's satire include Christian Science, E.S.T., Scientology, and the evangelical empire of the Reverend Moon.
Vidal is especially good at satirizing the final stages of a dying culture. The library of one character in the novel consists entirely of a leather-bound complete set of TV Guide…. The final twist of satire is to have Walter Cronkite announce that Kalki will begin the dance of eternity. Cronkite? Kalki? Vidal? Who is the ultimate confidence man?
If games of illusion are characteristic of the Post-Modern novel, Kalki is certainly no exception. Vidal's narrator has not studied Descartes for nothing, but her training in the philosophical sources of identity will not enable her to distinguish reality from fiction in the metaphysical world of Kalki. Uncertainty prevails when the inner and outer grow confused and blur. The narrator's two male companions, Giles Lowell, and Jim Kelly, provide the most intricate puzzles of identity…. Like the devil, Lowell or Ashok is everywhere in the novel…. Asking the devil to explain himself has never proved very helpful, but the devil is only the shadow of a god—the true mystery of the novel is the nature of Kalki. The novel ends with a religious ego trip characteristic of the paradoxes of illusion and reality that Vidal has been playing with all along.
The words of Kalki or Brahma or Siva leave us with the same confusion that Teddy Ottinger has confronted throughout the novel. The existence of any god is doubted by Vidal's narrator. The existence of three gods in one strikes her as particularly absurd. Despite her study of Hindu mysticism …, the multiple names of the Hindu deity never make sense to her. If all gods are understood to be the invention of human fears and hopes, then the multiplicity of gods is a basic reflection of the uncertainty and diversity of nature. For this very principle Julian lives and dies in Vidal's earlier novel…. Julian fights a losing battle against the narrowness, the dogma, the limiting piety of the Christians. He warns them in vain that "the greatness of our world was the gift of other gods and a different, more subtle, philosophy, reflecting the variety in nature." With the death of the Emperor Julian, nothing is left to halt the spread of Christianity, and Vidal concludes that novel with the dark ages descending upon the world. The record of the immediate future in Kalki reaches an even darker conclusion. The incantation of the man-god at the end of the novel is the only voice remaining in a dead world. (pp. 93-6)
Charles Berryman, "Satire in Gore Vidal's 'Kalki'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1980), Vol. XXII, No. 2, 1980, pp. 88-96.
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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 notice the scenery. Such a figure can be contrived out of research and used to communicate oodles of facts. But in effect, we go to marriages with a fashion editor and to burials with a geologist; in place of imaginative involvement we get reports….
In 1961, Vidal said that the highest points of the novel "were always reached by those who set their characters free from making a living and were then able to carry forward the debate, the interplay of character." But Cyrus hits and runs, leading a solitary and unruminative existence, and all these great figures and their wisdom flow past us like an overloaded introduction-to-philosophy course based on Xeroxed handouts. Even the politics is presented in Pop-lit terms…. (p. 344)
Of an earlier novel he said that it "has a mystery at its center and I never defined it, which is always a mistake." Creation's raison d'être is also mysterious.
Unless this is it: "The whole reason I write those historical novels is to teach myself." Alas, teaching is pedantic, and this instructive novel is like Magritte's instructive paintings, which in their earnestness generally display the artistic qualities of a third-rate billboard ad. (p. 345)
J. D. O'Hara, "The Winds of Vidal," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 11, March 21, 1981, pp. 343-45.
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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 figured on that program.
Mr. Vidal has chosen his hero carefully, for Cyrus Spitama, as the grandson of Zoroaster, holds beliefs that are at odds with most of his contemporaries…. These beliefs are useful counter arguments in Spitama's many encounters with the other philosophies of the age….
Anyone looking for libido in this novel will be disappointed. Spitama is disobliging, not to say British, about his intimacies….
[The] portrait of Confucius, a happy blend of diplomat, nobleman and mystic, is the subtlest and most satisfying in the novel….
Spitama, a seeker after the truth, lives at a time when it is possible for him to meet some of the greatest men in history. His Zoroastrianism is resolute, but in time it becomes modified, and he begins to perceive the flux in all things; this becomes a gift to his amanuensis, Democritus, who on the last page indicates his own belief in the perpetually creative flow…. (p. 32)
Although there is occasional pageantry in "Creation," and some of the trappings of the traditional historical novel, it is far more the story of a fortunate traveler. It is not unlike "The Unfortunate Traveller" (1594), by Thomas Nash, in which Jack Wilton moves from Henry VIII's court to the Continent, where he meets Erasmus, Aretino and Luther and witnesses great events. "Creation," decidedly less spirited and rather unphysical, is best when it is poking fun at history, or in places contradicting it, or deflating the ethnocentric hyperbole of Herodotus. It is Spitama's complex identity and his audacity that give the novel its force; yet Spitama is elusive at times no more than a superior stick figure.
As a novel of ideas, its ambition and its cast of characters could not possibly be bolder, but I for one would have found the going easier if I had been admitted to anything like plain vulgar domesticity. Banquets, perorations and sanctimonious chat cannot entirely displace one's craving for so much of what Mr. Vidal, speaking through Spitama, has ignored: a sense of place and the uneven texture of common humanity…. I tend to think that if Spitama had remembered the more ordinary and perhaps more sensual occurrences that lay between his meetings with the sages of the century, it would have been a far richer novel—a great one, instead of a good one that all too often fails to avoid the sort of patrician name-dropping that mars so many historical epics. (pp. 32-3)
Paul Theroux, "Vidal's 5th Century B.C.," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 29, 1981, pp. 1, 32-3.
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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 that it is altogether too packed and cluttered. There is something slightly ridiculous about its enormous cast of characters….
Equally counter-productive is the unselective fashion in which the author handles his historical details. The general effect is that of a bright history student who has accumulated a mountain of notes, but who cannot bear to leave a single one of them out. The characters, incidents, and general flow of the narrative are crushed beneath the dense weight of information. As a consequence the style is labored, and there is a curious air of pulled punches, of a reluctance to do full justice to the big scenes. Mr. Vidal has achieved the strange feat, for him, of writing a flat book, as if he was too anxious to avoid the excesses of Myra Breckenridge in his search for sobriety and respectability…. Creation is almost totally lacking in a sense of build, in drama, climax, and suspense. (p. 8)
Much would have been forgiven if the theological discussion had been on the level of, say, Waugh's Helena, or even of Mr. Vidal's own Julian: but the religious discourses strike one as being more or less on the level of the matter-of-fact entries on Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius that one could look up in any standard encyclopedia…. It is somewhat sophomoric stuff, smelling, as the Greeks would have said, too much of the lamp.
Perhaps Mr. Vidal is not really equipped, by training and temperament, to be either a scholar or a theologian. His desire to get what he evidently regards as solid literary ground under his feet is praiseworthy, and his instinct to enlarge both his own range and the dismally restricted scope of the American novel is to be respected. Yet Creation is a turgid work, and Mr. Vidal seems more at home, in the end, in the world of Washington and Myra Breckenridge than in the world of Babylon and Queen Atossa. (pp. 8, 14)
Jon Manchip White, "Encyclopedic Fiction: 'Creation'," in Lone Star Review (copyright © 1981 Lone Star Review, Inc.), Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1981, pp. 8, 14.
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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 himself as spent, Vidal writes with extraordinary concentration and little of the predictable reversals that mar much of his work. To be sure, Athens, the cradle of democracy in everybody else's book, is seen as a repository of tedium and decay; the Buddha has "a scent of sandalwood about him that struck me as less than ascetic"; and Socrates is only a stonemason: "I hired him to repair the front wall of the house." But Vidal, for once, is aiming at something higher than nose-tweaking. After all, unlike the foundering fathers of Burr or the Centennial scam of 1876, the cast of Creation has little call on our emotions…. [A] walk-on by Thucydides is hardly likely to make readers breathe any faster. No, this time Vidal has a purpose as lofty as the one in Thomas Mann's Joseph novels, no longer read and, in truth, not very much missed. But they had a worthy aim, expressed in one of the volumes: "Deep is the wall of the past. Shall we not say it is bottomless?" In the remotest eras, Mann and Vidal suggest, the ancients had their own sense of history and prehistory, their own bewilderment about rival beliefs and impending catastrophe and the sense of God immanent in things and forever out of reach.
Can it be, then, that Vidal the apostate, the man who once labeled Christianity "the greatest single disaster that has ever happened to the West," who likes to describe himself as having the face of one of the "later, briefer Roman emperors," who thinks our elections are "an expensive public charade," who fancies that America is a sinking ship on which nothing but a deck chair is worthwhile, has written a work of grace and hope? It can. In the process his secular synoptic gospels have shown an annihilated world as no schoolbooks can do and no educational channel can attempt.
Its central and grave flaw is typically Vidalian: if you wonder with Tolstoy how the poor die, or with Robert Coles, how they live, Creation offers not a clue. It does not, for that matter, tell how the middle class lived in the fifth century BC. The book's style is panoramic and its populace notable—the sort whose names even then would have been worth an item in the evening papyrus.
Still, Creation is well worth the years of research and effort, and it rewards the hours of close attention it requires. In recent years there has been no historical novel remotely like it…. (pp. 35-6)
Stefan Kanfer, "Two Cheers for Zoroaster," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 17, April 25, 1981, pp. 34-6.
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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 really has scope to achieve full human stature. He remains a dim, scurrying figure, propelled on by the author's need to cover vast historical tracts, until he seems a kind of superior courier on a coach tour of the ancient world. 'On your right', he seems to be saying, 'you will see the famous hanging gardens of Babylon, created at enormous expense by King Nebucadnezzar….'
Still, for those who have never visited these parts, or who have been away from them for a long time, the trip is an interesting one. Most of us will step off the book eager to explore in greater detail some of the fascinating sights that have flashed past the window. (p. 27)
Paul Ableman, "Back to the Cradle," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 246, No. 7973, May 2, 1981, pp. 26-7.
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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 imaginative liberty and the fairly commonplace notion that historical records are themselves frequently possessed of a covert imaginative element. Though drama and dramatic poetry had been able purveyors of such a dialectic for centuries and had illustrated both the ideological nature of the historical imagination and the more personal cognitive incoherence of events when seen from several different viewpoints, Vidal had opened up the novel to this more sophisticated kind of historical analysis for the first time. In Messiah, too, Vidal had examined the mechanics of religious propagation by inventing Cavesword, a religion of the future whose mundane origins are rapidly mythologised and bureaucratised by being written down.
The narrative technique of Creation is also one which captures the translation of an oral into a written tradition…. (p. 13)
Man is seen throughout [Creation] to be groping for religious philosophies, and to be possessed by forms of madness—sex, haoma (the Zoroastrian intoxicant and a metaphor for religious experience) and gambling: attempts at loss of self which create chaos and discord of all kinds, but which are essential if civilisation is to develop. In the Cathayan language, which has no tenses, the same word is used for heaven, chaos and creation.
Vidal's narrative is theoretically a brilliant piece of opportunism, creating the greatest spread of experience within the bounds of historical possibility. The novel shows evidence of massive research, and exposes it by means of Cyrus's intimacy with prominent figures. These opportunities have at times a chattiness akin to gossip, a junction of life and letters in which Vidal is clearly interested, though the familiarity can seem comic, boastful and implausible: 'Xerxes was always very good at this sort of thing'; or 'Confucius was sublimely—and devastatingly—at his ease.' Cyrus is repeatedly 'accepted' into informality by the great: the public mask drops, and we get what Ernest Hemingway would call 'the dope'. This is rarely the real dope, however, as the great are blinkered by their power: 'Each sees the world from his own vantage-point. Needless to say, a throne is not the best place from which to see anything except the backs of prostrate men.' But beyond this, the ironic procedure of Vidal's technique depends on knowledge held by the reader, external and prior to the experience of the book…. [Creation] is divorced from its sources, and the challenging proximity of history and fiction narrows until the two objectives become one. As a result, the ironies seem crude and simple-minded, to say the least: if we are not encouraged to compare the minutiae of Cyrus's account with those of other historians, this immensely long book lays its claim to ironic vision on the inherent contradictoriness of the religions it examines, and on the consequences of these religious positions as seen from our historical viewpoint(s) 2500 years later, when the world is still a mess of irreconcilable beliefs and political atrocities. At its most bald, the message is that an education in history is an education in irony. We knew that already, which wouldn't matter if we didn't see the point very early on and didn't have it repeated and repeated.
The manner of the book doesn't help to re-interest us in this education: its tone is extraordinarily bland and its language monotonous, the result of Cyrus's diplomatic smoothness and the intention of being comprehensible to 'any Greek'. Vidal deliberately starves himself and consequently us too by the facts of Cyrus's age and blindness, which though integral to the book rob it of colour and immediacy. As Cyrus says, 'repetition has long since robbed me of true memory,' 'most of my memories are without pictures of any kind—in some curious way the blindness seems to have extended to much of my memory.' He is intentionally not realistic in his report…. This policy conforms with Vidal's expressed opinion on 'realistic' dialogue in which an author can become 'an uninformative bore'. Equally, Cyrus is a believer in the conventional stylisation of Persian art rather than the new realistic Greek style: this belief is associated with his theory that Greeks are congenital liars, whereas Persians are incapable of lying, a virtue that has often been for them a misfortune. But if realistic visual description is associated with the corruption of art and historical veracity, its exclusion, or circumscription, is also a drastic loss for the novel-reader. Not for Vidal any luxuriance à la Mary Renault. Instead we have a flatness redolent of the travel writings of Edward Heath…. The dialogue, which acceptably wants to avoid mere homeliness, has often the sole purpose of conveying quantities of information…. [The] speakers become merely informative bores. In Vidal's equation of history and fiction endearing mundanity is crossed out and a ceaseless string of facts written in. One consequence of this is an extraordinary absence of pathos, and though so much of the novel is concerned with time and transience, it is rarely registered in human terms and we are denied access through our sympathies to a lost world. Indeed the human interest of the book could scarcely be slighter.
Cyrus prepares us for this from the outset: 'For me there is only one subject worth pondering—creation' (speculation about which is forbidden in Athens). 'What existed before the Wise Lord? I have travelled the whole earth in search of an answer to that all-important question.' This concern eclipses an interest in people and restricts the exploratory potential of his travels….
The unflappable tone can be used to chilling effect when arcane or shocking information is purveyed beneath its calm surface: six servants are executed for removing Cyrus's food before he has finished eating; 500 people are put to death at a Chinese funeral…. In general, Cyrus resists the Mandevillian edge prominent in history of Herodotus's period, though the juncture of fact and fantasy is acknowledged: 'The yellow people of Cathay are simply a rumour to the court, like those two-headed Africans that Scylax says he saw.'
But these amusements are rare, and it is hard in a way to know for whom the book is written…. [For] all its fullness, it reads as if compiled systematically and by immense labour but without a moment of spontaneity. (pp. 13-14)
Much could be accepted if Creation were not so grandiose, and if a peculiar vanity did not make itself felt in the unrelenting impersonality of the narration…. (p. 14)
Alan Hollinghurst, "Imperial Dope" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, June 4 to June 17, 1981, pp. 13-14.