The Last Pagan

Julian

by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, 503 pp., $6.95

Julian is Gore Vidal’s first novel for ten years, during which time he has been writing plays for television and the stage, working in movies, and campaigning in and commenting on politics. There is no reflection of these activities in Julian; instead, it brings together and dramatizes more effectively and with much greater authority than ever before preoccupations that have been present in his fiction almost from its beginnings. Indeed, despite the complete dissimilarity of ostensible subject, form, period and setting, Julian in a real sense recapitulates the themes and attitudes of The Judgment of Paris, which appeared in 1952.

That novel was a modern version precisely of the judgment of Paris, who, in Vidal’s pages, is a young American in Europe tempted in turn by beautiful women representative of power, wisdom, and love respectively. Its literary sources are plain enough—Wilder’s The Caballa, South Wind, the early Huxley, together with more than a hint of Firbank. As a novel, it is anything but wholly successful, but it remains witty and entertaining, and, with the hindsight afforded by Julian, one can now see that in intention, at any rate, it is more than the young man’s jeu d’esprit that it seemed when it first appeared. Of several passages that strike a similar note one might choose this as central to the novel:

The guests went home, carrying with them all the anxieties of the age: a beleaguered church, intellectuals in search of dogma, a barbarian horde poised upon the eastern marches, a materialistic giant beyond the western sea, neither civilized nor barbarians. Each age has its tyrants, thought Philip, preparing for bed. He was soothed by this knowledge as are all properly educated Americans when they come to Europe and visit ancient rooms in which all the fears of other days have been resolved by time or superseded by equivalent crises. He turned out the light and thought of what Regina had said about the old gods, and he wondered if she were right: were they constant after all? Would they reappear now that the last messiah’s work had been undone? The son giving way to his mother and the father lost in heaven? He hoped so, knowing that when men are wise they love the natural more than dogma, more than revelation.

Not entirely obscured by the wit, the irreverence and the fun, the deliberate surface lightness, The Judgment of Paris contains a vision of the twilight of the gods, or rather, of the Christian god; through it there runs the feeling that the world is at a new turn of the great wheel, that one phase of man’s religious history is ended and another slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. It is this vision, of a decisive change in man’s orientation to nature and the universe, that is at the heart of Julian, and in the figure of the great apostate Vidal has found what seems an ideal persona through …

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