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03 October 1925 - 31 July 2012
Gore Vidal (full name: Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr.) was a renowned American author.
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Washington, D.C.: a novelby Gore Vidal 34 editions - first published in 1967
The city and the pillarby Gore Vidal 26 editions - first published in 1948
Julian: a novelby Gore Vidal 21 editions - first published in 1964
Empire: a novelby Gore Vidal 20 editions - first published in 1987
Burr: a novelby Gore Vidal 20 editions - first published in 1973
Lincoln: a novelby Gore Vidal 20 editions - first published in 1984
Myra Breckinridgeby Gore Vidal 19 editions - first published in 1968
1876: a novelby Gore Vidal 19 editions - first published in 1976
Hollywood: a novel of America in the 1920sby Gore Vidal 18 editions - first published in 1989
Kalki: a novelby Gore Vidal 17 editions - first published in 1978
Creation: a novelby Gore Vidal 16 editions - first published in 1981
Williwaw: a novelby Gore Vidal 16 editions - first published in 1946
A thirsty evil: seven short stories.by Gore Vidal 14 editions - first published in 1956
Messiahby Gore Vidal 13 editions - first published in 1954
Dark Green, Bright Redby Gore Vidal 12 editions - first published in 1950
The best man: a play about politics.by Gore Vidal 11 editions - first published in 1960
The judgment of Parisby Gore Vidal 11 editions - first published in 1952
A search for the king: a 12th century legend.by Gore Vidal 9 editions - first published in 1950
Duluthby Gore Vidal 9 editions - first published in 1983
Palimpsest: a memoirby Gore Vidal 8 editions - first published in 1995
Point to Point Navigationby Gore Vidal 8 editions - first published in 2006
Duluthby Gore Vidal 8 editions - first published in 1983
The Golden Age: a novelby Gore Vidal 8 editions - first published in 2000
United States: essays, 1952-1992by Gore Vidal 7 editions - first published in 1993
Myron: a novel.by Gore Vidal 7 editions - first published in 1974
Two Sisters: a memoir in the form of a novelby Gore Vidal 6 editions - first published in 1970
Live from Golgothaby Gore Vidal 6 editions - first published in 1992
City and Pillarby Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1968
Visit to a small planet: a comedy akin to a vaudeville.by Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1957
In a yellow woodby Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1947
At home: essays, 1982-1988by Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1988
The Judgement of Parisby Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1953
Rocking the boatby Gore Vidal 5 editions - first published in 1962
The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000by Gore Vidal 4 editions - first published in 2001
Vidal in Veniceby Gore Vidal 4 editions - first published in 1985
The season of comfortby Gore Vidal 4 editions - first published in 1949
Dangerous voyageby Gore Vidal 4 editions - first published in 1946
Dreaming War: blood for oil and the Cheney-Bush juntaby Gore Vidal 4 editions - first published in 2002
The Smithsonian Institution: a novelby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1998
Pink triangle and yellow star: and other essays (1976-1982)by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1982
A view from the Diners Club: essays 1987-1991by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1991
Virgin Islands: a dependency of United States : essays 1992-1997by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1997
Weekend: a comedy in two acts.by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1968
An evening with Richard Nixonby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1972
Matters of fact and fiction: essays 1973-1976by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1977
Armageddon?by Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1987
Screening historyby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1992
Imperial America: reflections on the United States of amnesiaby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 2004
Reflections upon a sinking shipby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 1969
The Selected Essays of Gore Vidalby Gore Vidal 3 editions - first published in 2008
Matters of fact and of fiction: essays 1973-1976by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1977
Creacionby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1996
The Golden Age (Narratives of Empire)by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 2000
En Busca del Reyby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1985
Lincoln (Modern Library)by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1993
Inventing a nation: Washington, Adams, Jeffersonby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 2003
Romulusby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1962
Visit to a small planet, and other television playsby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1956
The second American revolution and other essays (1976-1982)by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1982
The city and the pillar revised: including an essay: Sex and the law, and An afterword.by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1965
Burr: a novelby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1973
Homage to Daniel Shays: collected essays, 1952-1972.by Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1972
Understanding America's Terrorist Crisisby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 2005
Imperioby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1988
The City and the Pillar revisedby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1965
Gore Vidalby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1999
Clouds and Eclipses: the collected short storiesby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 2006
Kalkiby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 2000
Julianby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1964
Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridgeby Gore Vidal 2 editions - first published in 1968
Burr (Narratives of a Golden Age)by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1994
Live for Golgothaby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1992
Hollywood Signed Editionby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2000
MATERS FACT&FICTN V516by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1978
Sexualmente Hablando (Ensayo-Act)by Gore Vidal 1 edition
Sonando La Guerraby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2003
Burr (American Chronicle)by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2000
Lincoln (Narratives of a Golden Age)by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1994
Ricardo Corazon de Leonby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1996
Armageddon Essays 1983 1987by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1990
La Ciudad y El Pilar de Salby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2000
La Invencion de una Nacion: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Cronicas Anagrama)by Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2004
Pink Triangle and Yellow Star and Other Essaysby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1983
Das goldene Zeitalterby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 2001
Julian. Romanby Gore Vidal 1 edition - first published in 1999
La Ciudad Y El Pilar De Sal (Contempora)by Gore Vidal 1 edition
Vidal, Gore 1925–
An American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and essayist, Vidal is equally celebrated for his historical fiction, which reinterprets events to comply with his social and political theories and convictions; his brilliant essays; and his frequent and lively appearances on television talk shows. Vidal has written detective stories under the pseudonym Edgar Box. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
"Words, after all, define us," writes Gore Vidal. The reader's mind then staggers about as it is exposed to Vidal's dazzling sentences. How do you envision this person whose words turn each page into a tray of jewelry? As a bullfighter, perhaps. Arrogant body drawn like a bow, eyes disdainful. The clumsy stupid bull so easy to handle that the great danger is boredom. Or maybe he should be seen, Gore Vidal, as a prizefighter born with hands that think….
How, then, do the words of 1876 define the writer?…
[They leave] you with the notion of Vidal as a man sitting in Italy for six months while this magnificent gift with which he was born pours out the words in arrangements which please the mind, please the ear, please the palate. Somewhere, somebody may be able to write sentences as well as Vidal, but I wonder who there is who can write as easily. Vidal's is a smashing gift, allowing him to write with so much less effort than is usually associated with the trade. Which is a very good thing. A common laborer he is not. This 1876 is a glorious piece of writing, and it should and will be bought and read and kept and reread by anybody with a taste for words. But do not come to this book looking for a new, interesting character: Vidal is too busy concentrating on words to provide us with that….
Vidal uses Schuyler as the narrator of this book, and while Schuyler fails to couple himself to you, his words always do. As for daughter Emma, her I cannot even see. Murky murk. This ends Vidal's notions of character creation. Past these two, the people in his book—Samuel J. Tilden, William Cullen Bryant, James G. Blaine, U. S. Grant—are familiar to anybody who has attended high school. So many of these characters displease Vidal—only Grant, and Tilden, whom Vidal elevates to the priesthood, dissolve his scorn—that the effect is nearly wearying. And I know Vidal deliberately twists characters to make the bad into the good. Therefore, I trust none of these judgments. But again, what does it matter? The sentence is supreme.
Jimmy Breslin, "The Rules of Sentence," in Harper's (copyright 1976 by Jimmy Breslin; reprinted by permission of The Sterling Lord Agency, Inc.), March, 1976, p. 106.
1876, the latest of Gore Vidal's historical novels, is the book everyone expected Mr Vidal to write. The voice with all those plummy vowels, enunciated with a Miss Jean Brodie twang, and that fruity exterior—in the sense that a lemon, however sharp, is still a fruit—have been perfectly transposed in this new novel and 1876 represents all that Mr Vidal thinks that politics ought to be: gossip, corruption, money, dinner parties, more corruption, and all the tacky panoply of power. Mr Vidal has now become the great chronicler of power, and in the course of [his three books, Washington, D.C., Burr, and 1876] he has pinned himself so successfully to the wall that he is now all but indistinguishable from the surroundings….
Washington, D.C. … takes a lounge-lizard look at American politics in the period of the late 'thirties to the early 'fifties. This gives Mr Vidal plenty of opportunity to dish the dirt on a world he knew and, despite his protestations, loved…. Gore Vidal … is something of a teenage fantasist. And far from being the sharp-eyed observer of human weaknesses, he is a writer who insists upon sentimentalising politics and politicians; his books are melodramas, and his characters are really only mouthpieces.
Burr is the second of Vidal's political novels, and veers backward to the time of the American Revolution and the early years of the Republic…. Mr Vidal quite rightly refuses to accept, and works actively to undermine, those social myths which bind human communities together but, in the process, he has created a much more dangerous myth of his own: that politics is interesting, and that politicians make interesting characters. So Aaron Burr, the murderer of Alexander Hamilton, the wild man of American folklore, becomes everything that Vidal would like a politician to be: devious but spontaneous, clever but with a clever man's cunning….
And so to the new novel, 1876, perhaps the last of Vidal's historical fictions, and in many ways the most accomplished…. [Gone] are those moments of inexplicable passion which peep fitfully through Washington, D.C. and Burr; what we have instead is a novel perfectly contrived, a solid bourgeois entertainment which avoids seriousness as remorselessly as Vidal had once pursued it…. The book has pace, the narrative has wit and the prose has a sort of campy authenticity which we normally associate with revivals of 'forties pop and 'thirties clothing. But there is very little else to be said for it which could not be said about a hundred other 'good reads'.
Peter Ackroyd, "Blood, Thunder and Gore," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 27, 1976, p. 20.
[1876, supposedly the notebook of Charles Schuyler,] keeps behaving like a novel. This is not surprising, since it is a novel, but it is disquieting to find a man writing so novelistically in his notebook, and even at one point prematurely addressing his future readers, only to banish them as promptly as he can…. The difficulty here, I think, is Vidal's not Schuyler's. He has committed himself to a verisimilitude which creaks every time the writer moves. The same is true of Burr and Two Sisters (but not of Myra Breckinridge); only in Burr the pace is so fast we don't stop to listen to the creaking.
Vidal is scrupulous about historical detail, and tactful in his allusions to famous events and people and inventions….
But neither here nor in Burr is there a real flavor of the nineteenth century in the writing. There is no attempt at sustained pastiche, which is probably wise. But it does mean that the verisimilitude which dominates the book … places it in a rather strange literary corner. Burr and 1876 are new novels about the old century written in a manner that goes back about halfway toward the time of the action; the manner of Galsworthy or Arnold Bennett, say. Clearly technical experiment for its own sake is pointless, and writers of course should write exactly as they want to. But I do find it odd that America's most intelligent novelist should linger so long among old styles. Perhaps this is Vidal's way of hanging on to the large audience that he says a novelist needs….
1876 is a slow book—we don't reach the year of its title until page 121—and its real virtue is not its meticulous reconstruction of old New York and old Washington, or even its scrutiny of the motives of historical figures. "Why a historical novel and not a history?" Vidal asked in an afterword to Burr, and one of his answers was that the historical novelist can "attribute motive—something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never to do." But Vidal really seems less interested in motive than he is in power, in political destinies found and missed. The central subject of both Burr and 1876 is what might have been, measured by a steady investigation of what actually was. Both books perform a recurring double take. We see the great man—Washington, Jefferson, Irving, Garfield—in unattractive close-up, a map of moral warts. Then we see how the warts enter into the composition of his greatness, which is not denied by this inspection, but rather reinforced. Only it is a greatness ratified by historical success, and Vidal's gift is to be able to view such success in the light of other options—historical failure, for example—without falling into sentimentality. (p. 30)
1876 seems to carry a double message. There is the broadly cynical view …, which is what the book seems to say. And then there is a more diffuse, faintly promising argument communicated by the sheer energy and passion with which, here and in other novels, Vidal explores American politics. An arena that can command such loyal attention can't simply be a bath of corruption, and Vidal's writing itself assumes a constituency which hopes for something better than to be governed by more or less cautious crooks forever. This constituency may be entirely wishful, but the wish seems to me a necessary one.
Vidal is discreet but firm about historical parallels. 1876 had its recent war, its recent assassination, its break-in, and its seedy administration, and Vidal touches on all these subjects, not so much to suggest that history repeats itself or that plus ça change, plus c'est les mêmes shows, as to remind us that we are not a historical island. 1876 is less vivid than Burr because there is less mischief in it, because it affords Vidal less of a chance to romp among famous American names, scattering suspicions as he goes. But it is in one sense a more serious book. It asks us to believe … in politics itself, that grimy and intricate activity we can't afford to give up. (p. 31)
Michael Wood, "Passions in Politics," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), April 29, 1976, pp. 30-1.
Gore Vidal has not done it again. The year 1876 witnessed the popularity of a cocktail called the "razzle-dazzle," but much of Vidal's customary dazzle is missing from . Characterization and plot are thin while even Vidal's celebrated cynicisms fail to raise Charles Schuyler's voice above a monotone. Schuyler, who narrated Burr (where we learned he was Aaron Burr's illegitimate son), rarely displays any of his father's brilliant with in 1876. (p. 273)
The bulk of 1876 is occupied with colorful descriptions of American life in 1876 (the most satisfying aspect of the book), superficial dinner-party gossip in the rarefied atmosphere of the Astors and other society figures, and tediously drawn-out political reporting of the ins and outs, ups and downs of the 1876 election. Unfortunately, the sum of the parts, in this case, does not make a unified and aesthetically pleasing whole. While it is fun to relive the introduction of popped corn, "speaking tubes," and "perpendicular railways" (elevators), the protracted attempt to create suspense over a historical election whose outcome is known becomes mere boring cuteness. With the exception of [Schuyler's daughter] Emma's escapades, a faint shadow in the background, almost everything in 1876 receives undiscriminating treatment. The journalistic approach is all too pervasive, giving the impression of a book dashed off in a hurry—to be in time for the Bicentennial?
With respect to my recent conjecture (Prairie Schooner, Spring 1976) that Gore Vidal actually wrote the Gothic parody Clara Reeve (ostensibly by Leonie Hargrave), 1876 offers more proof, sharing with its predecessor verbal parallels peculiar to Vidal such as mephitic and cicerone. Vidal continues to share with Hargrave a fondness for obscure Sicilian relatives, laudanum addiction, a certain prostitute named Polly, and the murders of assorted husbands, wives, and mistresses. Curiously, in both Burr and 1876 someone mentions that "no one knows the name Achilles took when he hid himself among the ladies." I would venture to suggest that the name was Leonie Hargrave: with the Bicentennial hoopla mercifully passing, I look forward to another of her novels in the coming year. (p. 274)
A. Joan Bowers, "Vidal's Centennial," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1976, pp. 273-74.
[In 1876: A Novel], Gore Vidal provides a fairly accurate portrayal of one stratum of American social and political life during this outrageous year. But he is only concerned with the wealthy and influential. He has no skill in understanding or communicating the problems of the lower classes. Besides, he is rather naive as to what history is all about. He wants truth. Gore Vidal! Thus, he has one character say, "We cannot know any history, truly. I suppose somewhere, in Heaven perhaps, there is a Platonic history of the world, a precise true record. But what we think to be history is nothing but fiction." Obviously, Vidal is a spoiled historian as well as a failed politician (at least he tried) and a successful writer. In his attempts at reconstructing the past for his novels he goes to a great deal of trouble to get it right.
1876: A Novel is not nearly as successful as Burr: A Novel probably because Vidal was more passionately involved in the latter work on account of his anti-Jefferson bias. Also he was determined to peddle that old chestnut about Martin Van Buren being the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. Poor Matty. The things he has suffered even after death. (p. 26)
Robert V. Remini, in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 7, 1977.
Interest in himself as a character is one of the elements that make up an essayist. Gore Vidal has all these elements, but they are not always in play. Of course, he does not want them to be. He is often more concerned with saying something—conveying a mass of information or expressing a strongly held point of view—than with the manner of saying it. However, the penalty of occasional portentousness is that when he is being most serious he can look frivolous; whereas when he is being funny he is always himself, and therefore serious….
There is one essay in ["Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976"] which I shall go on reading till I die, and that is about Tennessee Williams, titled "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self." All the elements are here in play and in balance. The machinery is alive and moving, and it has the fascination of some object one cannot take one's eye off. (p. 1)
It would be exaggeration to say that Gore Vidal is serious only when he writes the kind of criticism which his targets in political and academic life repudiate by calling "irresponsible." In several of these essays he reveals himself to be a critic of a very exceptional kind today—one who can bring to bear on novels considerations about other forms of art and about society which are not purely literary.
The first essay here is a brilliant examination of ten best-selling novels, which he relates to the dialogue and attitudes in movies from which they are partly derived. This is an extremely original and rewarding approach. Vidal also has the virtue, rare among critics, of going out of his way to defend a writer whom he thinks unduly neglected, as in his perceptive essay on Louis Auchincloss….
As a critic of manners as well as literature, Vidal is in the tradition of Matthew Arnold and Edmund Wilson. This is excellent in itself, but being the boy who saw the Emperor walk naked doesn't always go with being an intellectual powerhouse. He can stingingly attack academia and America, but when it comes to his trying to impress on us his own erudition we are left with the feeling that he has mugged up a subject—the nouveau roman—for example, and then written an article about it. This anti-academic paradoxically puts his readers in the position of being examiners who have had a thesis submitted to them and have to mark it. I suspect that his essay "French Letters: Theories of the New Novel" would get only an A minus from a benighted academic who knew modern French literary theory….
He is excellent and serious as a polemical critic attacking the behavior of institutions of the academy and the Presidency; he is less certain when he adopts the role of academic critic or Presidential speechwriter. (p. 46)
Stephen Spender, "Gore Vidal, Essayist," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1977, pp. 1, 46.
Gore Vidal as an essayist accomplishes what so many Victorian novelists set out to do—to entertain and to edify. He is always funny and often witty. His paradoxes at their best rival Oscar Wilde's best….
[In Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976 Vidal] is willing to discuss first principles clearly—a rare treat in the United States, where, as Vidal points out, our spokesmen prefer to uncover scandals rather than to question basic premises. (p. 97)
Bracing (and hygienic) as Vidal's opinions are, they sometimes are too clever to be true, too hasty to take time for real complexities. For instance, Vidal assumes entertainingly enough that the "United States has always been a corrupt society" and that the corruption originates with the Founding Father (or the "Inventors," as he calls them), men who "believed profoundly in the sacredness of property and the necessary dignity of those who owned it." The virtue (from a journalistic point of view) of positing vice (as the basis of American politics) is that the notion can be presented with brevity and éclat and is cynical enough to be readily believed. But the notion ignores the intellectual side of the Federalist era. Edmund S. Morgan, for example, argues persuasively that for the Federalists politics had replaced theology as "the most challenging area of human thought," and that these men "addressed themselves to the rescue, not of souls, but of governments, from the perils of human nature." In short, the Federalists feared human nature but believed in the possiblity of guarding against it though a science of politics. The same fear of inherent human evil was characteristic, moreover, of the Antifederalists as well, and what divided the two groups was not a disagreement over the primacy of property but over the question of how large government could grow before succumbing to the malign temptations of power.
Since this pessimistic preoccupation with political corruption as a version of sin sounds so remarkably like Vidal's own approach to national affairs, I'm struck by his lack of sensitivity to the Inventors' moral concerns. If I am dwelling on the founding of the Republic, I do so only to isolate an unexamined determinism that seems to run throughout Vidal's politics. America was founded to protect property, and it is still in the grip of ITT and the Rockefellers, Vidal tells us. True enough, but even a partial understanding of how this state of affairs came about requires a look at the conscious values of the Americans of different epochs. Let me hasten to add that when Vidal does write about particular individuals in history, whether they are U. S. Grant or E. Howard Hunt, he is extraordinarily alert to their ideas, values, foibles, and quirks of vanity….
When he turns to contemporary fiction, Vidal is too dogmatic for my taste. #x0022;American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction," his survey of several living American writers, is as exhilarating as Mailer's look at the "competition" many years ago in Advertisements for Myself and twice as funny, though Vidal is less candid about his own competitiveness. Granted, Vidal, unlike the "hacks of academe," as he likes to call them, does recognize that technique is more important than "themes" and plot more interesting than "influences."… Throughout his examination of American fiction Vidal appears to be uneasy about experimentation…. Traditional fiction is dull. Attacks on the avant-garde are philistine. The avant-garde is in disarray and infected with self-doubt. Occasionally a new masterpiece surfaces in one of the arts, and it has usually been created by someone who considers himself to be avant-garde. What can be made of these contradictions eludes me, but Vidal has not approached a serious question seriously.
These quibbles aside, I should say that I have not enjoyed a book of essays so much since Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. (p. 98)
Edmund White, "Aristocratic Rebel," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the May, 1977 issue by special permission), May, 1977, pp. 97-8.
In Vidal's fourth and latest offering of essays, collected under the camel-humped title of Matters of Fact and of Fiction, the problem of the writer's relationship with a dwindling audience persistently bobs up, sinks, resurfaces. "The Top Ten Best Sellers" is about the Hollywoodization of popular literature. "The Great World and Louis Auchincloss" examines the predicament of a writer out of fashion with both bestsellerdom and Academe because he writes about Wall Street intrigue. Other essays discuss how novels have been kidnapped by the semiological killer-elite and whisked off to university laboratories where professors and students conduct fiendish experiments, creating plastic-membraned monsters.
As Vidal sees it, the University novel (as practiced by John Barth and others) is a hulking mutation, barely able to draw breath, while the Public novel (as practiced by Bellow, Mailer, Vidal) is losing its readership to mass-culture mind-benders. In between is the "book-chat" establishment, which decrees that "U-novels must always be predictably experimental … while the respectable P-novel is always naturalistic, usually urban, often Jewish, always middle-class, and, of course, deeply, sincerely heterosexual."
Often Vidal squanders his scorn on scribblers high and low. Of one P-novelist, Herman Wouk, V. writes, "In his lowbrow way he reflects what one has come to think of as the Commentary syndrome or all's right with America if you're not in a gas chamber, and making money," a remark which will please highbrow anti-Semites everywhere. And in the Auchincloss essay he flogs critic Granville Hicks so relentlessly that one begins to pity Hicks, as if he were the lashed horse in Raskolnikov's dream.
However, when writing of those he considers equals (Calvino, Nabokov), Vidal spins prose that is lucid and elegant, magisterially Shavian. Vidal recently said that memoirs are what one writes when "the waters of the mind have gone dry." Not true: of the later essays published in his previous collection, Homage to Daniel Shays (1973), two of the best are recollections of Eleanor Roosevelt and Anais Nin, in which anecdotes, mimicry, sly asides, and critical observations are beautifully interwoven. In Matters, the finest essay is a review of Tennessee Williams's Memoirs, entitled "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self." Vidal brilliantly [discusses] Williams's con-man stratagems, from his Judy Garland theatrics ("it has always been the Bird's tactic to appear in public flapping what looks to be a pathetically broken wing") to his fake candor about writing for money ("the sniffy tone is very much that of St. Theresa scrubbing floors"). Not since Thomas de Quincey's chronicles of halcyon days with Wordsworth and Coleridge has there been such a hilarious wedding of criticism and remembrance; "Some Memories" is a masterpiece of tender malice.
Malice surges more hotly through "American Plastic," an assault on University avant-gardist fiction as represented in the works of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon—works which he considers anemic offspring of the French New Novel. Since the author of Burr and Julian is held in low esteem by such writers (in The New Fiction, a collection of interviews with Barth, Barthelme, & Co., Vidal is only mentioned once, by Tom Wolfe), "American Plastic" is at one level a St. Valentine's Day massacre of the competition; only Gass escapes, with flesh wounds. Wilfrid Sheed wrote that Vidal's essay on the French New Novel (reprinted in Matters) made for a "negative aesthetic worth arguing with," and "American Plastic" is even more aesthetically arguable.
Unfortunately, the argument will have to be made elsewhere, for I find Vidal's judgments lethally just. Like Vidal, I find the decibel level of Pynchon's prose excruciating (louder than the Ramones revving up). I also agree that the reputation of The Sot-Weed Factor is a dragon deservedly slain, that Gass is more stimulating in his essays than in his fiction, and that Barthelme's entertainments have a sickly mandarin cuteness. Vidal's attack is much too narrow and neat—he doesn't, for example, discuss Vonnegut, Gaddis, Ishmael Reed—but the exuberance carries one along, and at his most wickedly ironic, he reminds one of Edgar Allan Poe routing the provincials. Yet, as always, Vidal's polemical elation is tempered by pessimism. "[The] academic bureaucracy, unlike the novel, will not wither away, and the future is dark for literature. Certainly the young in general are not going to take up reading when they have such easy alternatives as television, movies, rock."
I don't believe any of this. And I don't believe Vidal believes it either—it's just another Decline of the West flourish. Leaving aside the John Simonized notion that a passion for rock precludes a passion for literature, what emerges here is an actorish sigh of despondency, and there are many such sighs in Matters. Reflections Upon A Sinking Ship is the title of yet another of Vidal's previous collections, and he always seems in a rather curious hurry for the Republic to go glub-glub into the deep.
Similarly, throughout Matters he too quickly ushers literature into the intensive-care ward, and with a gleam in his eye, like an overeager mortician. At the conclusion of the best-seller-list essay, Vidal writes of Isherwood, Huxley, and himself: "By preferring perversely to write books that reflected not the movies we had seen but life itself, not as observed by that sterile machine the camera, but as it is netted by the protean fact of a beautiful if diminishing and polluted language, we were, all in all, kind of dumb." A lovely rippling sentence, but cant, sheer cant. As a machine, the camera is no more "sterile" than the typewriter or the ball-point pen, and Vidal's best novel, Myra Breckenridge (1968), owes its steamy funhouse vitality not to "life itself" but to movie kitsch.
Again, the problem of audience. The essays that shimmer in Matters are those originally written for The New York Review of Books, where beauty is truth, truth beauty, and a classified ad only 75 cents a word. When Vidal has written directly for the anti-literature "alternatives," his work has never been better than second-rate. Even his most successful screenplay, The Best Man, is glib and brittle, an Allen Drury drama with a locker-room smirk. Writers like Vidal and Mailer want the acclaim that comes from reaching a movie audience but they don't give the best of themselves when writing for the medium…. At the risk of making cinema sound like a Victorian maiden, I don't think they respect the medium; worse, they don't respect the medium's audience.
In Matters, Vidal repeatedly slams the coarsening influence of television, but only a few weeks ago he turned up on another talk show, sitting between McLean Stevenson and Merv Griffin, which is really the Zabriskie Point of mindlessness. Gore Vidal is now living in Los Angeles, which means that he may turn up more often on TV, lecturing his countrymen on the folly of their ways. Matters of Fact and of Fiction is so bracingly intelligent that one hopes he will restrain himself. On television, addressing an audience he regards disdainfully, Vidal's intelligence curdles: He becomes a stiff, a nag, the Anita Bryant of bisexuality.
James Wolcott, "Gore Bulls Through Again," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), May 9, 1977, p. 77.
The title of Gore Vidal's latest collection [Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976] has a dark inner meaning. Half of the pieces deal with the shrinking hopes of our novelists, half with American political history; but the politics and politicians have become fictions and the novelists have been either taken over or driven out by the public appetite—natural under the circumstances—for fact. The politicians have grabbed even love—in the form of self-love—from the novelists….
Gore Vidal is a glancing wit who has the good essayist's art of saying serious things personally and lightly. Where others lumber along earnestly in professional prose, he rides gaily in and quickly unhorses his man. He is not one of those brutal wits, bloodied but unbowed, who destroy themselves when they destroy others. He is a moralist whose subject is hypocrisy and the clichés which provide the public with short cuts to self-congratulation. (A political example: Socialism-Sweden-suicide: no facts encourage one to take this drug.) Underneath his rapid mockery and laughter there is a passion for social justice and truth-telling, and his command of a nonchalant prose and care for the English language give his sarcasms their edge. His frivolity is on the surface; beneath it, both as a reviewer and a writer on American history, he has a well-grounded intelligence. There is nothing light-minded about his study of the Adams family or his portrait of Grant, or in his wrestlings with the theorists of the nouveau roman. (p. 8)
One can agree or disagree with [Vidal's] views on this or that American novelist very profitably, for he is a professional, but he is on richer ground when he is writing about the supreme American fiction: political history and the political families. Here he has festive powers of candor and detection, in his studies of the ruling class and the rich, and done from the insider's alcove. He loves family history—especially its dubieties. His "West Point" with its theme of America as a garrison is caustic, and he has some vanity in going romantically into action with one socialite arm tied behind his back. His accounts of the continuing story of E. Howard Hunt, the Bay of Pigs, and Watergate, and on what Robert Moses did for and to New York City leave a foreigner like myself wondering why anyone should worry about the fate of the novel when politicians can, every time, outpace the art novel in fantasy or the best seller in its deep faith in the spurious emotion. (p. 9)
V. S. Pritchett, "How to Say Serious Things," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), May 26, 1977, pp. 8-9.