In 1904, when Leonard Woolf steamed off eastward to become a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service, he took with him seventy large and well-printed volumes of Voltaire, the edition of 1784, in Baskerville type. In Ceylon his duties were not light—from time to time it became necessary to hang a felon. Fortunately, in compensation, native women were available, and also, it appears, cheap. Very little more is heard from Leonard Woolf about Voltaire or the Baskerville type.
If I were planning to embark for a far place and stay for several years I think I’d take my forty-six volumes of the writings of Gore Vidal. (The forty-sixth, a collection of short fiction called Clouds and Eclipses, has just appeared. ) This count does not include the pseudonymous work, which would be for another essay. Given that print is smaller now, and margins meaner, I probably have about as much wordage of Gore Vidal’s as Leonard Woolf had of Voltaire’s; and the two men, Voltaire and Vidal, seem to me to have several things in common. Both were brilliant talkers; likewise brilliant satirists. Both initially needed money and worked very hard to get it. Both also needed courts: Where better to place their well-sharpened darts than in royal rumps?
Fortunately, they had courts: Voltaire the Versailles of Louis XV, as well as the Berlin of Frederick the Great and courts of lesser brilliance. Vidal had the Kennedy Camelot in Washington, D.C., as well as the courts of several emperors of the silver screen: Sam Spiegel, for example, and there is probably no better example.
Gore Vidal has the looks of a prince, the connections of a prince, more wit than any prince I can presently recall, and a prose style that should be the envy of the dwindling few who realize that prose style matters, both for the glory of it and also because if one makes one’s living mainly by the making of prose sentences, as Gore Vidal has, it’s nicer if the sentences are strong, supple, and pleasing. And his are.
One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality—or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.
As a rule I don’t keep magazines—if I did I’d need a new barn for them—but I have clung doggedly for almost four decades to the issue of Encounterdated December 13, 1967, which contains an essay by Gore Vidal called “French Letters.” I drag the …