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How to Say Serious Things

Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973-1976

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 285 pp., $10.00

The title of Gore Vidal’s latest collection of lively essays written for magazines and reviews mainly between 1973 and 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, as one sees in the wildly funny short piece on one of England’s most visible treasures, the Earl of Longford, toiling toward canonization via publicity on television. The piece ends with the lines “Pray for us, Saint Frank. Intercede for us, and teach us to love ourselves as you loved you.”

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.

Six of the seven articles on fiction are on the dilemma of the modern novelist and the first is a hilarious examination of “The Top Ten Best Sellers.” It gives us the Genesis of a wit’s bleak argument that will develop:

The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century…. Most of these books [the ten best sellers] reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years…. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature.

Even Solzhenitsyn gingered up his Tolstoy in August 1914 with some very bad film sequences, as Vidal later on shows. The famous fire in Hollywood was described as a “holocaust”—“the style you see must come as naturally as that”—and since Gore Vidal himself worked a bit on Ben Hur and was able to persuade “the art director to remove tomatoes from Mrs. Ben Hur Senior’s kitchen,” he knows his profitable sins from the inside.

He goes on from this send-up of the old movies to graver problems. Now addicts of science and technology, and doped by television, we have become Fact-and-Thing fetishists, the facts being no more than pictures.

One interesting result of today’s passion for the immediate and the casual has been the decline, in all the arts, of the idea of technical virtuosity as being in any way desirable…. There is a general Zen-ish sense of why bother? If a natural fall of pebbles can “say” as much as any shaping of paint on canvas or cutting of stone, why go to the trouble of recording what is there for all to see?

And

Regardless of what games men in the future will want to play, the matter of fiction seems to be closed. Reading skills—as the educationalists say—continue to decline with each new generation.

Fashion may, from time to time, bring back the nineteenth-century novel as a freak, or a brief repentance, but

it is literature itself which seems on the verge of obsolescence, and not so much because the new people will prefer watching to reading as because the language in which books are written has become corrupt from misuse.

Hopefully” recall the “holocaust.”

These particular remarks—written in 1967, a date which already seems dead, though, for some reason, we are still alive—come from what was evidently a heroic struggle with the nouveau roman, which to myself, though less in Nathalie Sarraute than in Robbe-Grillet, is a tuneless chant about people as objects. (I preferred Pinget, who dehumanized his people by interrogation; they had at least the common human quality of being the accused.) Gore Vidal argues back with patience. “Character” and “subject,” as we know, went out: the novel became an autonomous artifact and no longer a conscious representation of anything outside itself. The enemy was humanism and the subjective: i.e., phrases like “the majestic peaks” were correctly said to be metaphysical, though surely no serious writer since George Sand has used such over-bosomed images. And, remember, even the mellifluous Ruskin was given to the measuring of things and counted the waves of the sea outside Venice. A writer has more than one mind.

The nouveau roman was not really exportable because the French habit of formulation is relieved by periodical escapes into rhetoric, a resource closed to pragmatic Anglo-Saxons. The link with film in the nouveau roman is obvious though its most successful effects were taken from “stills” or “slow motion”—the last a respectable device of traditional comedy. Gore Vidal is pretty fair in his examination and gives marks here and there, though, like myself, he hates a cult and the pretentious idea of experiment needing a capital letter. Every novelist of serious talent is his own laboratory, obliged to experiment in order to discover in himself his talent which indeed may depend on making something positive out of his disabilities. Ideological delusions start the engine which sets the artist going. Tolstoy thought he was a philosopher and was not. And so we have to allow the Experimentalists their scientific aspirations, knowing they will arrive eventually elsewhere.

If Gore Vidal belongs to the sharp-minded opposition crying Woe, he is fair and even generous in debate. I have long thought that “character” lives in a man’s or a woman’s dissident underground life and always suggests more than the sociable surface. I can see that in mass societies the individual may be ashamed of a visible individuality. This is a real difficulty for the novelist. There are no “characters” in Greek drama; the people are graven images of the fates and passions. We may all be avant-garde without knowing it. For faceless drama may be replacing—and in ourselves—the novel which, in the eighteenth century, killed the drama, as indeed the change in Stendhal’s career shows. He, like Flaubert and Joyce, is one of the rare avant-garde figures of the past.

A more sinister enemy to the novelist, and indeed to reading itself, is the “teaching” of the novel in the Academy by textual analysis. The critics and professors, Saul Bellow has said, have begun to see themselves as the true heirs and successors of the classics. This is mild compared with Gore Vidal’s extension of the attack: for him the university has become an industrial corporation or self-interested bureaucracy in which the object analyzed is thought to be inferior to the analysis itself. Of course, this is a continuation of the old war between the novelist and the intellectuals, transferred to a scene in which the former has a hard job cadging an audience or a living. In a society of technologists you take your novel, your marriage, your children, to the analytical engineer, as you take your car to the garage.

One is grateful that Gore Vidal has got this off his chest with happy malice. One can agree or disagree with his 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.

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