Julian

By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo 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.

Gore Vidal.jpg
Gore Vidal

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  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers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.

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The Emperor Julian Augustus

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.

Homage to Daniel Shays

Collected Essays

By Gore Vidal

Homage to Daniel ShaysSome writers possess a quality which, as you read them, makes you long more than anything else to speak to them.

This is not the same as admiring them.  These will not necessarily be your favorite writers, or the writers of your favorite books.  These are writers who shine through their own words, whose force of personality is so clear and so strong that they essentially read their own books to you.  Grappling with them is so like being talked to by them that you want, sometimes quite desperately, to be able to answer.

Sometimes, of course, you do admire them.  Sometimes they are funny, or good – for me personally, David Foster Wallace has always had this distinction.  He is never far from his own work, even his fiction, and when I read him, I always wish I could just put the book down and query directly the mind which produced it.

But sometimes the writers are not admirable, not as a men at least, no matter their skills as writers.  Sometimes they are arrogant, or supercilious, off-putting in some way, and your desire to speak to them is essentially antagonistic: you want to be able to argue back.

And sometimes they are both: vain, haughty, but brilliant too, and if an author can win you over in this case, if their brilliance overwhelms their obnoxiousness, they are among the most joyful authors to read, because you feel as though you are indulging in a guilty pleasure: I know he’s an ass, but he’s just so good.

Gore VIdal
Gore Vidal when he was young and dreamy

H.L. Mencken is this sort of author.  Christopher Hitchens is this sort of author.  But, for me personally, the apotheosis of this category, writers whom you read for the sheer joy of agreeing with their meanness, is Gore Vidal.

Homage to Daniel Shays‘ is a collection of Vidal’s essays, published between 1952 and 1972.  These essays range enormously in content, but themes emerge: the future of the novel, other writers, politics, and sex all recur with some frequency.  Most of the essays are engaging and educating; a few are excruciatingly boring (‘French Letters: Theories of the New Novel’ is torture in written form).

Vidal is probably best remembered as a novelist (he certainly thought of himself as one), but I love him for his essays, his criticisms and his cultural commentary (he is a little like Orwell this way: remembered as a novelist, loved as a critic).  He had an excellent mind; he was brilliant, capable, especially, of summing up people or situations with devastating clarity and pith.

It’s rare that self-important men are also funny; he is an exception to this rule.  He is hilarious, usually in attack but not always.  He is crisp and can cut through hypocrisy as through butter.  More than that, the topic of the essay does not predict when humor will strike, so his wit is both amusing and surprising.  In fact, he is likelier to be funny on unfunny topics (‘Satire in the 1950’s’) than in essays in which one expects jokes (say, ‘Love Love Love’), which makes for lively reading.

“Every schoolboy has a pretty good idea of what the situation was down at Sodom but what went on in Gommorah is as mysterious to us as the name Achilles took when he went among women.” (‘Women’s Liberation Meets Miller-Mailer-Manson Man’)

“From the beginning of the United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate.  Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the vice of thinking.  Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth.” (‘The Sexus of Henry Miller’)

“A profound tolerance is in the land, a tolerance so profound that is it not unlike terror.  One dare not raise one’s voice against any religion, idea, or even delinquency if it is explicable by a therapist.” (‘Satire in the 1950’s’)

“It is well known that the Soviet has always had a somewhat mystical attitude toward that sine qua non of the machine age: the interchangeable part.” (‘Nasser’s Egypt’)

A large proportion of these essays are reviews of other works, and thank god: one of the best joys to be had in this collection, from the point of view of a book nerd, is reading Vidal’s opinions of other writers.  He is capable of summing up other artists in lethal epigrams which leave them not even a shred of dignity, but which are also inarguably (to my mind, at least) true.

About D.H. Lawrence:

“I have often thought that much of D.H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come from some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

About Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh:

“Then there are the writers to whom neither sea nor boat exists.  They have accepted some huge fantasy wherein they need never drown, where death is life, and the doings of human beings on a social and ethical level are of much consequence to some brooding source of creation who dispenses his justice along strictly party lines at the end of a gloomy day.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“…F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About Anaïs Nin:

“There are two kinds of narcissist: objective and subjective.  The objective looks into the mirror and sees the lines, sees death upon the brow, and records it.  The subjective stares with rapture into the mirror, sees a vision no one else can see and, if he lacks great art, fails entirely to communicate it.” (‘The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin’)

Old Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal when he was older and still dreamy

Of course, an author’s greatness lies not just in language, but also in ideas.  Meanness aside, it slowly emerges from these pages that Vidal was also wise, and when he turns his mind from the petty to the existential, he produces material which is beautiful.  In these moments, his writing is so artful, so skillful and elegant, that I would stop and reread the same sentence several times, trying to understand exactly how he did it.  A few of the passages in this book, I could die happy if I had written even one of them:

“While it is perfectly true that any instant in human history is one of transition, ours more than most seems to be marked by a startling variety of conflicting absolutes, none sufficiently great at this moment to impose itself upon the majority whose lives are acted out within an unhuman universe which some still prefer to fill with a vast manlike shadow containing stars, while others behold only a luminous dust which is stars, and us as well.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

“It is natural for men to want power.  But to seek power actively takes a temperament baffling to both the simple and the wise.” (‘Barry Goldwater: A Chat’)

“Nor is it unnatural when contemplating extinction to want, in sudden raging moments, to take the light with one.  But it is a sign of wisdom to recognize one’s own pettiness and not only to surrender vanity to death, which means to take it anyway, but to do so with deliberate grace as exemplar to the young upon whom our race’s fragile continuity, which is all there is, depends.  I should have thought that that was why one wrote – to make something useful for the survivors, to say: I was and now you are, and leave you as good a map as I could make of my own traveling.” (‘John Dos Passos at Midcentury’)

“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to the terrified man but disastrous for an artist.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

You may not always agree with his conclusions (I didn’t), but he’s never, ever stupid, and he turns his critical eye on himself not infrequently.  In these essays, Vidal proves to be ahead of his time on many of issues which remain contentious today: feminism, gay rights, taxes, personal liberty, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence of the electorate.  I wish he were still here – he died in 2012, before I had really discovered him as a writer, and I wish that I had been quicker off the mark.  I need his eye now, to help me understand the world, as I need George Orwell’s.  In fact, this is the highest complement I can give a writer: I am lost without you.

But he’s gone, can’t be questioned, so all I can do is go back with him, rewind the tape, and watch his world through his eyes.