Books: Unpatriotic Gore: Gore Vidal |
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Unpatriotic Gore: Gore Vidal

Most of the pieces in Gore Vidal’s Collected Essays we have seen before—mainly in his two earlier collections, ‘Rocking the Boat’ and ‘Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship’—but they gain from being assembled in one volume. Vidal has always had a title to being amongst the most fluently entertaining of American essayists. I think it can now be seen that he has also been among the most substantial. He has had the usual trouble of writers who are not solemn, in that the humorless have been slow to take him seriously. But by now the quality of his intelligence should be obvious to all.

There are twenty years of adventurous essay-writing here. One of the themes of his early pieces was that American society was not uneasy enough to encourage satire. The Eisenhower era was a period of imposed tolerance. Vidal was looking forward to a period of flux, in which prejudices and obsessions would be out in the open. The period promptly arrived, and Vidal spent the next two decades commenting on it, both in fiction and in formal prose. Even early on, he was already a Roman—he was the knowing voice piercing the mist at the baths, ridiculing the hypocrisies of a stifling hegemony. As the hegemony crumbled into an age of transition, he became more recognizably a Roman figure than ever, viewing the anabases of the new Caesars with an unfoolable eye.

In a piece written circa 1960 called ‘The Twelve Caesars’ he said that world events were the work of individuals and that the motives of those individuals were often frivolous, even casual. There is something of Suetonius and Plutarch in Vidal’s unblushing readiness to view contemporary history in terms of character. Without discounting ordinary political analysis, Vidal is keen to demonstrate that character is destiny. He is always interesting when discussing a would-be or current President. He is interesting because he is interested—well aware that the interior constitution of the man he is writing about really matters. He is as good a novelist in his political essays as he is in his novels.

Some would say a better one—a glib opinion. Though none of his fictions is the Great American Novel (the writing of which was an ambition he emphatically disclaimed at an early date), each is considerable. His aims in the novel have been, he says, to create worlds rather than to be didactic. I don’t think he has succeeded in creating worlds, but paradoxically he has succeeded in being didactic. It would be hard to find a Vidal novel which does not contain a thesis, and hard to find, among those theses, one that was not instructive. Really the novels and the essays go together, as works of the assertive intelligence.

Assertive he always is. He would be a teacher, were his tone more dry. As it is, he is the wit who knows what is going on, and whose ideas, which impress you first as conundrums, tend to linger as food for thought and finally add to your picture of the truth. He saw commendably early that the collapse of the religious systems would leave the absolutist spirit free to fulfill Arnold’s prophecy about art becoming a religion: academicism was taken over by theologians. He is against that spirit and never talks about art as holy writ. Nevertheless creativity is his touchstone, to be believed in—the one thing that can be, in a civilization which is becoming, and ought to become, faithless. Vidal endorses Flaubert’s admiration for the century before Christ’s birth, a time in which the old gods were gone, the new ones had not yet arrived, and man was alone. The great negative is for him a positive. He mocks the God-bothering rhetoric of the Presidents out of a certainty that their fake faith is the key to their bad faith.

Prophecy is not the test of political analysis but it is remarkable how often Vidal has been right. In 1968 he guessed Nixon would be the one. He knew that Kennedy’s presidency was an irreversible disaster from the Bay of Pigs on, and his pieces on the Kennedy family (‘The Holy Family’ and ‘The Manchester Book’) will remain cogent documents for the study of power in modern America. Here, as elsewhere, Vidal writes with the advantages of being born into the American ruling class. (That he knew a class system existed was another of his originalities.) He saw that Edmund Wilson’s ‘The Cold War and the Income Tax’—a pamphlet which was a joke in America and a flop here—was an important diagnosis. He knew that the only interesting thing about Howard Hughes was the man’s transcendental mediocrity.

Vidal, a declared bi-sexual, is always diverting on sexual matters. He thinks sex doesn’t illuminate much of life except itself—a view calculated to enrage everyone, and one with which I concur. On the other hand he has fought long, hard and fearlessly for freedom of sexual expression. (See ‘Sex and the Law’ of 1965.) If I said that I saw a certain emptiness in his confidence about the liberating effect of bi-sexual promiscuity, he would probably call me repressed. But his was the side of the argument it took bravery to favor. With that conceded, however, I still think his fine essay on Eleanor Roosevelt would be even better if he could see that the nobility of character he praises was connected with the self-denial he regrets. There is often room to disagree with Vidal. But there is no room at all for denying that he is a superlative essayist, whose elegant concision is a gage thrown down to everyone else in the field.

(Observer, 28 July 1974)