London, Asharq Al-Awsat – His admirers describe him as one of America’s finest contemporary polemicists. His detractors see him as a figure out of the glitterati. He once described himself as “a gentleman bitch.”
Gore Vidal, who died in California at the age of 87 last week, may have been all of those things. But he was also something more, a fine writer and an accomplished novelist who could both entertain and educate the reader.
Most people know Vidal for his polemics, including some nasty ones with fellow writers such as Norman Mailer and William Buckley, and his quixotic attempts at securing a place in the American political machine.
In an age of fake politeness, Vidal insisted on speaking his mind in the most direct, not say brutal, manner. He dismissed Ernest Hemingway as nothing but a joke and pontificated that “the three dirtiest words in English” were Joyce Caro Oats. To him another of his contemporary writers, Truman Capote, was “an old witch from the Midwest.”
Vidal constructed his public persona around three themes.
The first was his largely imaginary background as an American “aristocrat”. That claim was based on the fact that his maternal grandfather had been a senator and that his father had briefly served as a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Vidal also lost few opportunities to remind people that he was somehow related to Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of President John Kennedy and a distant cousin of Al Gore, Bill’ Clinton’s Vice President.
The second theme was his image as an iconoclast and atheistic free-thinker always prepared to lampoon and provoke the powers-that-be. A keen observer of intellectual fashions, Vidal was among the first Western intellectuals to realize that anti-Americanism was becoming a highly marketable ideology. To blame the United States for all evil under the sun and to attack American political leaders as either stupid or corrupt would often earn easy plaudits especially when the person who practiced the art was himself American.
Finally, Vidal went out of his way to advertise his homosexuality, although those familiar with his private life insisted that, on that score, he was more words than deeds.
Without ever acknowledging it, Vidal had adopted Oscar Wilde as a model. Like Wilde he dabbled in play-writing, producing indifferent works such as “The Best Man”. Also like Wilde he looked for public scandal, although, this being a different age, never managed to trigger the kind of storm that the author of “Dorian Grey” had provoked in the 19th century.
It would be a pity if Vidal’s persona, disagreeable to some, were to divert attention from his literary achievements.
Vidal was a talented scriptwriter as illustrated by such films as “Caligula” and “Suddenly, Last Summer.” He was also a prolific essayist in the best tradition of the 18th and 19th century Western literature, dealing with virtually every issue under the sun. Even when one is annoyed by his exaggerations, verbal pirouettes and downright disingenuous tactics, Vidal the essayist is almost always interesting.
However, if anything in Vidal’s work is to survive it would be his novels. His best-known and, best-selling, novel is “Lincoln” inspired by the life of the president who led the United States in the war of secession. Non-American readers might find the novel, part of a series on the history of the United States, somewhat parochial, especially as Vidal tries to inject into it elements of the political debates of the 1950s and 1960s.
Vidal’s other novel “Burr” is also part of his American history series. This narrates the life of Aaron Burr, who served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. An adventurer who did everything, including a stint of espionage for Spain, Burr secured a place in history’s house of horrors by killing Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary and the guru of the Federalists in the United States.
In his novel, Vidal rejects the black and white approach to Burr’s complex personality to discover and highlight the grey areas of a life lived on a roller-coaster.
Vidal’s American history series of novels, including “Empire” and “1876”, have prevented many potential readers from appreciating the rest of his oeuvre. His early novels, especially “The Judgment of Paris”, have all but been forgotten. An, yet, “The Judgment of Paris” is an accomplished Bildungsroman narrated in a voice with as much assurance as that of Somerset Maugham in his best work.
Vidal’s most controversial novel “Myra Breckenridge” falls victim of his uncontrollable thirst for provocation. It treats of a serious theme, man’s desire to live his fantasies, but fails to deliver because it vacillates between serious psychological examination of the subject and its treatment in the manner of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.
My two favourite Vidal novels are “Julian” and “Creation.”
The first is based on the life of the “apostate” Roman emperor who tried to revive Mithraism, the pre-Christian faith of Rome.
Written with several voices narrating the events from different points of view, “Julian” offers a debate between Indo-European philosophy and Semitic belief systems symbolised by Christianity. At the same time, Vidal deploys all his talents as a Hollywood scriptwriter to produce three dimensional characters in lively and exciting scenes. A sickly youth banished to Athens by his uncle, Emperor Constantine, Julian who hopes to become a philosopher suddenly finds himself made emperor because all other male members of his family have been massacred in a series of palace conspiracies. He seems himself as another Alexander chosen by “the gods” to liberate Rome from “the faith of the Jews” and conquer the world.
Vidal’s other major historic novel “Creation” is far more ambitious. It is based on the legend that the Persian prophet Zoroaster, the Greek philosopher Socrates and the Chinese sage Confucius were contemporaries and, somehow, influenced one another. Vidal’s conceit is that the 5th century BC, when the three “great men” supposedly lived and worked, was the golden age of humanity.
However, as in “Julian”, one would do well to ignore Vidal’s attempts at philosophisation, in which he is not at his best, and enjoy his talent as a superb story-teller. Out of the stuff of legend he creates real, living characters in page-turning dramatic moments.
Vidal often said that his life-dream had been to be elected to the US Congress or Senate. As readers, we are fortunate that he did not realize his dream so that he could produce several novels that will be read and re-read for a long time to come.