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The Prodigious Pessimist

The Selected Essays of Gore VidalThe Selected Essays of Gore Vidal by Gore Vidal

Reviewed by Jonathan Raban
New York Review of Books

In his essay about the top ten best-sellers on the New York Times fiction list of January 7, 1973, Gore Vidal gave a characteristically withering notice ("Tolstoi hangs over the work like a mushroom cloud") to Solzhenitsyn's August 1914. He finished with the remark, "I fear that the best one can say of Solzhenitsyn is gore vidal (a Russian phrase meaning 'he has seen grief')." I'd always taken this as a joke -- rather a below-par joke by Vidal's standards -- until I checked it out with my Russian housecleaner.

"Горе видал!" she said. "Yes, but it is worse than grief. It is terrible. A woman, she have five sons, her only children, they all are killed at once in the war -- gore vidal! It has many, many meanings. 'I was beaten so much nothing hurts me any more' -- gore vidal. Sometimes it is sarcastic: we say 'gore vidal!' like Americans say 'Fuck you!' It is very common. I use it all the time." Later she sent me a list of synonyms for gore translated from her Russian dictionary. They included misfortune, disaster, mischief, distress, calamity, accident, adversity, ills, misery, affliction, bad luck, grief, sorrow, anguish, woe, poverty, melancholy, depression, and yearning.

This may not be the sublime coincidence that it first appears. Vidal was fourteen when he changed his given names from Eugene Luther (or Louis as it appeared on his birth certificate) to Gore, in honor of his maternal grandfather, Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. It seems entirely possible that the precocious teenage autodidact knew exactly what he was doing when he concocted for himself a coded identity suitable for a Young Werther, fated for great sorrows. At any rate, the name perfectly encapsulates Vidal's trademark brand of prodigious pessimism delivered with high wit.

Grief is his specialty as an essayist, most particularly grief over the decline of the United States from the best hope of the Enlightenment, via its disreputable adventures as a land-grabbing imperial power (Polk's war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War in the Caribbean and the Pacific), to its emergence under Harry Truman as a "national security state," and its present sorry condition of mass functional illiteracy and corrupt and bloody-handed government (the one being the inevitable product of the other). In the grand sweep of Vidal's aquiline view, American history has been a succession of tragic follies, and his essays, in their still-uncollected totality, amount to a massive prose Dunciad of literary and political knaves, hacks, and blockheads.

Like Pope, who in life was just 4'6" tall, Vidal writes about the world from a dizzy altitude. "Patrician" is the word that attaches itself to him like a burr (no pun intended) in reviews, but it falls far short of describing his self-appointed loftiness. Certainly his upbringing in Washington, D.C., placed him among Americans born to power like members of a European aristocracy, but Vidal's peculiar coterie is not so much aristocratic as an eclectic, all-time, all-star hall of fame. Here Jacqueline Kennedy is to be found making small talk with Juvenal, Horace, and Montaigne; Voltaire with Cary Grant; the Adamses, John Quincy and Henry, with Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Clare Booth Luce.... Keeping the company of the famous dead, he writes as one of them, in language that combines -- often in the same sentence -- a kind of posthumous gravity of tone with the vernacular dash and sarcasm of the here and now.

His persona as an essayist took a long time to develop. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, Vidal's reviews and opinion pieces, though always elegant and sardonic, were clearly the incidental byproducts of his work as a novelist and playwright. It wasn't until around 1970 that the Nixon administration gave him a target commensurate with his capacity for scorn, and the character of "Gore Vidal," possibly his best fictional creation, sprang fully to life, as Vidal took on Nixon himself and such Nixonian figures -- prize dunces all -- as Walter Annenberg, E. Howard Hunt, and Howard Hughes. In these essays, the writer emerges as someone of titanic self-assurance and vast historic memory, torn between superior amusement at the antics of his victims and disgust at their chicaneries. In a world so degraded, the chief consolation is the lonely pleasure of the ironist, practicing his craft at the silly world's expense.

During the 1970s, Vidal's essays increasingly took on the form of dramatic monologues scored for his own voice, that fastidious, world-weary drawl. Years of writing plays (his last one was An Evening With Richard Nixon And..., produced in 1972) probably helped to equip him with his exceptional ability to replicate the sound of speech on the page, with every pause and change of tone clearly registered in a system of precise punctuation intended as much for the ear as for the eye. He turns his readers into listeners, alert to the sly sotto voce aside, slipped between parentheses, the sudden rise in pitch, signaled by a satiric question mark, the lethal afterthought, preceded by a long dash, at the end of what had seemed a finished sentence.

His best essays are aural performances in which -- as in stand-up comedy -- the timing is everything. Byron did this in his letters, Mark Twain did it, Max Beerbohm comes close, but I can think of no other modern writer, with the possible exception of the playwright Alan Bennett, in his published diaries, who has succeeded as well as Vidal in transforming lines of cold print into an instantly audible speaking voice.

With this shift in style came the freedom to spin off into digressive anecdotes, marginalia, cadenzas, grace notes, spur-of-the-moment conceits, in the manner of the after-dinner speaker talking extempore. In a Vidal essay, no matter how grim the matter in hand, or how pressing the logic of the argument, there's always room in which to joke; and it is often the jokes and asides that stick most firmly in the mind. For instance, most readers who've followed Vidal's writing over the years will remember the moment -- or rather the several paragraphs -- when he labored under the misapprehension that Hilton Kramer was a hotel in the Catskills. But in what context was this said, and in which essay? I had to look it up (it appears in "Sex Is Politics," 1979). Or where did he christen Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "Professor Pendulum" -- the name with which all of Schlesinger's work has, for me, been inextricably associated ever since? ("Monotheism and its Discontents," 1992.) Similarly, the most memorable single paragraph in "Dawn Powell: The American Writer" (1987) has precious little to do with Powell, though it was in her Greenwich Village apartment that Vidal met a "handsome young poet" with whom he went to visit E.E. Cummings, another of her guests at the party:

Not long after, the young poet and I paid a call on the Cummingses. We were greeted at the door by an edgy Marion. "I'm afraid you can't come in." Behind her an unearthly high scream sounded. "Dylan Thomas just died," she explained. "Is that Mr. Cummings screaming?" asked the poet politely, as the keening began on an even higher note. "No," said Marion. "That's not Mr. Cummings. That is Mrs. Thomas."

Beside that marvelously compact story, the novels of Dawn Powell tend to rather fade in their significance.

Such sudden, unexpected entertainments and disruptions are part of Vidal's essential method. They keep the audience on its toes ("What on earth will he say next?"), and give his essays the kind of three-dimensionality more often found in theater than in discursive prose. Most importantly, they recreate on the page a first-class mind in action, at once severely rational, rich in personal memories, alarmingly well-read, and almost indecently prone to fits of impious laughter. It only adds to the liveliness of his stage presence that the persona of Vidal the essayist has the heroic vanity of a Caesar.

Of Vidal's book of essays United States, which won the National Book Award in 1993, Jay Parini writes that it "offers a vast treasury of good reading, but...should have been published with little wheels and a retractable handle." I have to say that my own copy of the book, in bound-galley form, has been read and reread, mostly in bed, over the last sixteen years; I've never felt the need of wheels or handle, and it's a tribute to the quality of Random House glue that it hasn't yet (quite) fallen apart. So Parini's new selection of Vidal's essays is a sampler for the weak-wristed. Twenty-one of the twenty-four essays he includes were published in United States ; of the remaining three, only one -- an epic bad review of John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies -- is drawn from Vidal's last major collection, The Last Empire (2001), and the remaining two, "Black Tuesday" and "State of the Union, 2004" are post–September 11, post-Patriot Act pieces by Vidal in his recent pamphleteering mode.

Parini himself is a remarkably versatile writer-novelist, poet, critic, and biographer -- but I'm baffled by this selection. That Parini is also Vidal's literary executor makes one wonder how far the hand of the executee guided that of the executor when it came to preferring some essays to others. The book is divided into two sections, "Reading the Writers" and "Reading the World," with the balance tipped firmly in favor of the literary over the political, and the long essay over the short (the pieces here average out at around nineteen pages, those in United States at eleven.)

The usual excuse of publishers for such productions is that they will "introduce a new generation of readers" to the author, but it's hard to imagine a new reader being easily won over to Vidal by the first essay in the book, "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s" (1953), an elegant if now slightly obscure defense of the work of Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Vidal himself, against their neglectful treatment by such critics of the day as Malcolm Cowley and J.W. Aldridge.

Nor will the new reader thrill to "French Letters" (1967), despite its alluring title, which is a careful, unenthused examination of the nouveau roman, and the only essay of Vidal's that reads uncomfortably like a homework assignment. The first real taste of red meat for the new reader arrives on page 73 with "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction" (1974), in which Vidal, his persona now fully in place, takes on the nouveau roman in its Americanized form, and memorably divides novels into "R and R" (rest and recuperation) and "R and D" (research and development). Reading such R and D types as Barth, Barthelme (also Barthes), Pynchon, and Gass, Vidal is funny, scathing, and warmly appreciative (especially of Gass) in equal parts. No one, even Gass, escapes the lash, and no one, even Barth, is found to be without merit (of The Sot-Weed Factor, Vidal writes, "...as I read on and on, I could not so much as summon up a smile at the lazy jokes and the horrendous pastiche of what Barth takes to be eighteenth-century English"). "American Plastic" is the best, most entertaining, and most judicious of Vidal's forays into the literature of his own time. Yet it's followed, twenty pages later, by "The Hacks of Academe" (1976), an essay that covers much of the same ground in a more caustic tone, and which reads, in the context of this ruthlessly pared-down selection, like déjà vu all over again.

As critic, Vidal is most enthralling in his portraits of writers -- especially of writers not long dead whose lives have overlapped with his own, like Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, and Somerset Maugham. The subtitle of his essay on Wilson, "This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes" (1980), nicely captures his approach, as he teases out the life in the writing and the writing in the life (in Wilson's case, booze, podophilia, and a tireless intellectual zest akin to that of Vidal himself). The gossip (always funny, often salacious) is inseparable from the critical judgment, delivered by Vidal with magisterial cool. Whether writing on Montaigne or Tennessee Williams, he treats his subjects intimately, as colleagues in the business, mocking their vanities and weaknesses, as colleagues do, and appraising their work with the eye of an expert craftsman who's done the same job in his time. No one is quicker to spot the nail where a screw should be than Vidal surveying an essay, play, or novel by another hand.

In previous collections, edited by himself, Vidal has planted his essays in broad clumps, separating the "political," the "literary," and the "personal" (in United States, "State of the Art," "State of the Union," and "State of Being"), but these are false categories: he is never more obviously a novelist than when writing about politics, nor are his exceptionally sensitive political antennae harder at work than when he is reading a novel. As for the personal, it saturates everything he writes. Parini follows his example here, but the last essay in the "lit." section of the book, "Rabbit's Own Burrow" (1996), Vidal's attempt to wipe the floor with Updike and all he stands for, betrays the artificiality of the arrangement.

For the first thirteen pages of the piece, the Vidalian lion, in a merry Roman entertainment, stalks Updike around the arena at a leisurely pace: Shillington; Oxford; Harvard; rejection for military service in Korea; The New Yorker ; support for the Vietnam War; stammering; psoriasis; dental problems; asthma; churchgoing (few things are tastier to the lion than the tender flesh of "Christers" or "sky-godders"). Along the way, the lion makes remarks like "despite all of Updike's book-reviewing, one gets the sense that books have not meant much to him, young or old," and, by the time he has finished making the circuit, he has turned his prey into the quintessential timid, reactionary conformist, "ever so slightly bohemian," a "good rabbit," now softened for the kill, which comes -- at last -- in the form of a review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.

A plot summary, however gracefully done, is a plot summary, and for the next twelve pages Vidal retells the story of one of Updike's larger and more complicated novels. As in most such exercises, one loses one's footing in the succession of characters' names (Clarence, Essie, Teddy, Patrick, Danny, Alma, Clark, Rex, Jesse...) and drastically compacted episodes. Occasionally the lion draws blood: commenting on an oddly untypical sentence by Updike, Vidal says, "Might Updike not have allowed one blind noun to slip free of its seeing-eye adjective?" Or, "As irony, this might have been telling, but irony is an arrow that the Good Fiction Fairy withheld from the Updike quiver."

On the last page of the piece, Vidal summons Herzen as a witness, then gives his verdict on Updike:

Updike's work is more and more representative of that polarizing within a state where Authority grows ever more brutal and malign while its hired hands in the media grow ever more excited as the holy war of the few against the many heats up.

More and more representative of? For Vidal, this is a curiously weasel phrase. He is not, I think, quite accusing Updike of being one of those "hired hands in the media," only of being somehow "representative of" this grievous age in American history. I tend to share Vi-dal's opinion of the age, but cannot see how blame for it can be laid at the feet of In the Beauty of the Lilies and its author, however "representative" he may be of this or that tendency in our times. One might as well mount a prolonged attack on the novels of Anthony Trollope, only to arrive at the devastating conclusion that he was a Victorian.

More to the point was Vidal's estimate of Updike back in 1974, in the course of a Paris Review interview:

He writes so well that I wish he could attract my interest. I like his prose, and disagree with Mailer, who thinks it bad.... With me the problem is that he doesn't write about anything that interests me. I am not concerned with middle-class suburban couples. On the other hand, I'm not concerned with adultery in the French provinces either. Yet Flaubert commands my attention. I don't know why Updike doesn't. Perhaps my fault.

Vidal's attempt to set Updike in his gallery of villains, alongside such assorted figures as Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, the Trumans (Harry and Capote), Nixon, Howard Hunt, Janet Reno, and Dick Cheney, is a rare miss, but it fairly reflects his ever-growing fury with those who -- as he sees it -- meekly connive at the deterioration of the US into a brutal and self-serving corporate oligarchy, a tragic descent for which the rabbits of the world are no less answerable than the rulers they have elected. Much more persuasive, because it does not hinge on "representative of," is his long-standing war against the husband-and-wife team of Norman Podhoretz ("Poddy") and Midge Decter -- low-level military rather than merely civilian targets.

One of Vidal's most savage and funny essays, "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star" (1981), is a long evisceration of a Decter article about gay liberation ("The Boys on the Beach"), which had recently appeared in her husband's magazine, Commentary. The great and lasting power of Vidal's piece is that, although its ostensible subject is Decter's "fag-baiting," it is a sustained attack on American public discourse which is as relevant now as it was nearly thirty years ago. When he writes, early on, that "for sheer vim and vigor, 'The Boys on the Beach' outdoes its implicit model, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the reader winces at the analogy as being impossibly, offensively overblown; the shock is that Vidal makes this accusation stick.

The setting is the beach town of Fire Island Pines, where Decter and Podhoretz had summered for more than twenty years, and where, between 1960 and 1980, their homosexual neighbors changed from discreetly fitting in among the heteros like good assimilationists to flamboyantly displaying their differences of speech, manners, and behavior when they "came out." Vidal lays into all this with furious relish, damning Decter with liberal quotation from her "stilted sort of genteel-gentile prose," in which she "threads her cliches like Teclas on a string," and "writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known indeed to those few who know her." His analysis stays as close to Decter's text as that of a New Critic discovering the logic, paradoxes, and ambiguities in an Elizabethan sonnet. In a climactic paragraph, Vidal summarizes his findings:

Herewith the burden of "The Boys on the Beach": since homosexualists choose to be the way they are out of idle hatefulness, it has been a mistake to allow them out of the closet to the extent that they have, but now that they are out (which most are not), they will have no choice but to face up to their essential hatefulness and abnormality and so be driven to kill themselves with promiscuity, drugs, S-M, and suicide. Not even the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ever suggested that the Jews, who were so hateful to them, were also hateful to themselves. So Decter has managed to go one step further than the Protocols' authors; she is indeed a virtuoso of hate, and thus do pogroms begin.

Surely some exaggeration here? But no: I dredged up Decter's piece from Commentary's still-dusty, if electronic, archives, and it is exactly how Vidal describes it -- the rhetoric of 1930s anti-Semitism recast to stigmatize the boys on the beach. One instance of so many that I lost count: "They" have taken over San Francisco, where

They have not only laid claim to but achieved a vast measure of open power; where in order to insure her election Dianne Feinstein, the present mayor, was made to offer them a public apology and promise them her special friendship; where spokesmen for Gay Lib control banks and major businesses; and where the atmosphere is so hospitable that thousands of new homosexual immigrants seek haven there each year.

This might be Father Coughlin describing Jews in America, just as Decter's description of Fire Island makes it sound like the proverbial city on the hill, submerged by a tide of hateful Others. Vidal's point, in his envoi, is that "should the bad times return," the Others -- notably Jews, blacks, "faggots," and the poor -- will face the same fate at the hands of "the common enemy, whose kindly voice is that of Ronald Reagan and whose less than kindly mind is elsewhere in the boardrooms of the Republic."

While Decter's article now reads as so dated that it's hard to believe it was written as recently as 1980, Vidal's essay is chillingly topical. As I write, the governor of Alaska is still on the stump, exciting her adoring hordes with allusions to Barack Obama's "otherness," in performances that put one in mind of old newsreel footage of Coughlin in full cry. When the crowds shout "Kill him!" and "Treason!" and "Terrorist!" and foul the air with racist abuse, the governor coyly smiles.

Such scenes, set against a backdrop of needless foreign wars and a global financial panic triggered by lunatic improvidence on Wall Street, could have been scripted by Vidal, who has been forecasting the collapse of the American democratic idea over the last six decades, and who might well already harbor in his bottom drawer the manuscript of a novel titled The Palin Administration. In an essay published in 2000, and not collected here, he writes, "Happily, I have lived long enough to indulge in the four most beautiful words in the English language: 'I told you so.'"

It is a pity that his most recent essays, published in the last ten years, are so scantily represented in this selection. "Black Tuesday" (2002) and the uncharacteristically weak "The State of the Union, 2004" (which is not a patch on its 1975 predecessor of the same title) fail to convey the modulated fury of the latter-day Vidal, now fully grown into his Russian name. The elan of his sentence-making survives intact, and the jokes keep coming -- though they've grown so dark that they elicit, at best, a twisted smile of recognition. Surely there should have been room here for "Shredding the Bill of Rights" (1998), written in the shadow of the Anti- Terrorism Act of 1996, and the events at Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma City. It is an intense and cogent protest at the fast-accelerating infringements on civil liberties under Clinton. It also begins with an irresistibly quotable -- and unusually sunny -- digression:

Most Americans of a certain age can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing on October 20, 1964, when word came that Herbert Hoover was dead. The heart and mind of a nation stopped.

It was this essay that Timothy McVeigh read in his Colorado jail cell, from where he wrote a fan letter to Vidal, the beginning of an intermittent correspondence between the terrorist and the author. After McVeigh's execution in Terre Haute, Indiana, Vidal wrote "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," a fascinating exercise in the study of character ("one of Nature's Eagle Scouts") and motive, which happened to be published in Vanity Fair's issue of September 2001, thereby bringing a torrent of execration on Vidal's head. That, too, should have been here, as should "The Enemy Within" (2002), Vidal's controversial forensic investigation of the domestic and international background to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which ends with this riff on The Pet Goat, the book that Bush was reading with Sarasota second-graders when the news was broken to him by an aide:

By coincidence, our word "tragedy" comes from the Greek: for "goat" tragos plus oide for "song." "Goat-song." It is highly suitable that this lament, sung in ancient satyr plays, should have been heard again at the exact moment when we were struck by fire from heaven, and a tragedy whose end is nowhere in sight began for us.

Gore vidal! It's worth adding that the dreaded bulk of United States, where Vidal the essayist is far more impressively displayed than in this too meager selection, is still available in paperback. According to Amazon.com, its shipping weight is three pounds, which makes it 9.6 ounces lighter than this season's essential carry-on book in business class, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

*Tecla: the now antiquated brand name for an artificial pearl.

Jonathan Raban's books include Arabia: A Journey Through the Labrynth, Old Glory, Bad Land, Passage to Juneau, and Waxwings. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, and the Governor's Award of the State of Washington. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Independent. He lives in Seattle.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal Used Hardcover $6.95



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