By Gore Vidal
All Posts Contain Spoilers
No one is great at everything.
This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms. And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.
Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another. It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous. You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness. You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.
And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little. Because you know how good they can be at their best. It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.
I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.
As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays. And I fell in love with him. This was the real deal – this was Great Love. I thought he was magnificent. I would have followed him anywhere.
And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel. Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life. This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through. That’s like Christmas x 30!
Or so I thought.
Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality. And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon. So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.
*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first. It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.
‘Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire. Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.
If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is. ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to. The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer). But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).
‘Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel. It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through. But it isn’t a great novel. It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.
I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized. It’s too long, and it slogs in portions. These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire. I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language. To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins. But intonation is no fun to read.
But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly. There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.
‘Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic. Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession. When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).
It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion. But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it. By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.
“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another. But of course you are not content with those few words. You add new things daily. You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not. You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation! Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god? A man not born when the world began? You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)
It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty). By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity. This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.
Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping. Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises. Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain. It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.
Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth. And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers. This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations. If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel. It was. It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.
I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.