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The Prodigious Pessimist

In his essay about the top ten best-sellers on the New York Times fiction list of January 7, 1973, Gore Vidal gave a characteristically withering notice (“Tolstoi hangs over the work like a mushroom cloud”) to Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. He finished with the remark, “I fear that the best one can say of Solzhenitsyn is goré vidal (a Russian phrase meaning ‘he has seen grief’).” I’d always taken this as a joke—rather a below-par joke by Vidal’s standards—until I checked it out with my Russian housecleaner.

Горе видал!” she said. “Yes, but it is worse than grief. It is terrible. A woman, she have five sons, her only children, they all are killed at once in the war—goré vidal! It has many, many meanings. ‘I was beaten so much nothing hurts me any more’—goré vidal. Sometimes it is sarcastic: we say ‘goré vidal!‘ like Americans say ‘Fuck you!’ It is very common. I use it all the time.” Later she sent me a list of synonyms for goré translated from her Russian dictionary. They included misfortune, disaster, mischief, distress, calamity, accident, adversity, ills, misery, affliction, bad luck, grief, sorrow, anguish, woe, poverty, melancholy, depression, and yearning.

This may not be the sublime coincidence that it first appears. Vidal was fourteen when he changed his given names from Eugene Luther (or Louis as it appeared on his birth certificate) to Gore, in honor of his maternal grandfather, Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. It seems entirely possible that the precocious teenage autodidact knew exactly what he was doing when he concocted for himself a coded identity suitable for a Young Werther, fated for great sorrows. At any rate, the name perfectly encapsulates Vidal’s trademark brand of prodigious pessimism delivered with high wit.

Grief is his specialty as an essayist, most particularly grief over the decline of the United States from the best hope of the Enlightenment, via its disreputable adventures as a land-grabbing imperial power (Polk’s war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War in the Caribbean and the Pacific), to its emergence under Harry Truman as a “national security state,” and its present sorry condition of mass functional illiteracy and corrupt and bloody-handed government (the one being the inevitable product of the other). In the grand sweep of Vidal’s aquiline view, American history has been a succession of tragic follies, and his essays, in their still-uncollected totality, amount to a massive prose Dunciad of literary and political knaves, hacks, and blockheads.

Like Pope, who in life was just 4'6” tall, Vidal writes about the world from a dizzy altitude. “Patrician” is the word that attaches itself to him like a burr (no pun intended) in reviews, but it falls far short of describing his self-appointed loftiness. Certainly his upbringing in Washington, D.C., placed him among Americans born to power like members of a European aristocracy, but Vidal’s peculiar coterie is not so much aristocratic as an eclectic, all-time, all-star hall of fame. Here Jacqueline Kennedy is to be found making small talk with Juvenal, Horace, and Montaigne; Voltaire with Cary Grant; the Adamses, John Quincy and Henry, with Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Clare Booth Luce…. Keeping the company of the famous dead, he writes as one of them, in language that combines—often in the same sentence—a kind of posthumous gravity of tone with the vernacular dash and sarcasm of the here and now.

His persona as an essayist took a long time to develop. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, Vidal’s reviews and opinion pieces, though always elegant and sardonic, were clearly the incidental byproducts of his work as a novelist and playwright. It wasn’t until around 1970 that the Nixon administration gave him a target commensurate with his capacity for scorn, and the character of “Gore Vidal,” possibly his best fictional creation, sprang fully to life, as Vidal took on Nixon himself and such Nixonian figures—prize dunces all—as Walter Annenberg, E. Howard Hunt, and Howard Hughes. In these essays, the writer emerges as someone of titanic self-assurance and vast historic memory, torn between superior amusement at the antics of his victims and disgust at their chicaneries. In a world so degraded, the chief consolation is the lonely pleasure of the ironist, practicing his craft at the silly world’s expense.

During the 1970s, Vidal’s essays increasingly took on the form of dramatic monologues scored for his own voice, that fastidious, world-weary drawl. Years of writing plays (his last one was An Evening With Richard Nixon And…, produced in 1972) probably helped to equip him with his exceptional ability to replicate the sound of speech on the page, with every pause and change of tone clearly registered in a system of precise punctuation intended as much for the ear as for the eye. He turns his readers into listeners, alert to the sly sotto voce aside, slipped between parentheses, the sudden rise in pitch, signaled by a satiric question mark, the lethal afterthought, preceded by a long dash, at the end of what had seemed a finished sentence.

His best essays are aural performances in which—as in stand-up comedy—the timing is everything. Byron did this in his letters, Mark Twain did it, Max Beerbohm comes close, but I can think of no other modern writer, with the possible exception of the playwright Alan Bennett, in his published diaries, who has succeeded as well as Vidal in transforming lines of cold print into an instantly audible speaking voice.

With this shift in style came the freedom to spin off into digressive anecdotes, marginalia, cadenzas, grace notes, spur-of-the-moment conceits, in the manner of the after-dinner speaker talking extempore. In a Vidal essay, no matter how grim the matter in hand, or how pressing the logic of the argument, there’s always room in which to joke; and it is often the jokes and asides that stick most firmly in the mind. For instance, most readers who’ve followed Vidal’s writing over the years will remember the moment—or rather the several paragraphs—when he labored under the misapprehension that Hilton Kramer was a hotel in the Catskills. But in what context was this said, and in which essay? I had to look it up (it appears in “Sex Is Politics,” 1979). Or where did he christen Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Professor Pendulum”—the name with which all of Schlesinger’s work has, for me, been inextricably associated ever since? (“Monotheism and its Discontents,” 1992.) Similarly, the most memorable single paragraph in “Dawn Powell: The American Writer” (1987) has precious little to do with Powell, though it was in her Greenwich Village apartment that Vidal met a “handsome young poet” with whom he went to visit E.E. Cummings, another of her guests at the party:

Not long after, the young poet and I paid a call on the Cummingses. We were greeted at the door by an edgy Marion. “I’m afraid you can’t come in.” Behind her an unearthly high scream sounded. “Dylan Thomas just died,” she explained. “Is that Mr. Cummings screaming?” asked the poet politely, as the keening began on an even higher note. “No,” said Marion. “That’s not Mr. Cummings. That is Mrs. Thomas.”

Beside that marvelously compact story, the novels of Dawn Powell tend to rather fade in their significance.

Such sudden, unexpected entertainments and disruptions are part of Vidal’s essential method. They keep the audience on its toes (“What on earth will he say next?”), and give his essays the kind of three-dimensionality more often found in theater than in discursive prose. Most importantly, they recreate on the page a first-class mind in action, at once severely rational, rich in personal memories, alarmingly well-read, and almost indecently prone to fits of impious laughter. It only adds to the liveliness of his stage presence that the persona of Vidal the essayist has the heroic vanity of a Caesar.

Of Vidal’s book of essays United States, which won the National Book Award in 1993, Jay Parini writes that it “offers a vast treasury of good reading, but…should have been published with little wheels and a retractable handle.” I have to say that my own copy of the book, in bound-galley form, has been read and reread, mostly in bed, over the last sixteen years; I’ve never felt the need of wheels or handle, and it’s a tribute to the quality of Random House glue that it hasn’t yet (quite) fallen apart. So Parini’s new selection of Vidal’s essays is a sampler for the weak-wristed. Twenty-one of the twenty-four essays he includes were published in United States ; of the remaining three, only one—an epic bad review of John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies—is drawn from Vidal’s last major collection, The Last Empire (2001), and the remaining two, “Black Tuesday” and “State of the Union, 2004” are post–September 11, post–Patriot Act pieces by Vidal in his recent pamphleteering mode.

Parini himself is a remarkably versatile writer—novelist, poet, critic, and biographer—but I’m baffled by this selection. That Parini is also Vidal’s literary executor makes one wonder how far the hand of the executee guided that of the executor when it came to preferring some essays to others. The book is divided into two sections, “Reading the Writers” and “Reading the World,” with the balance tipped firmly in favor of the literary over the political, and the long essay over the short (the pieces here average out at around nineteen pages, those in United States at eleven.)

The usual excuse of publishers for such productions is that they will “introduce a new generation of readers” to the author, but it’s hard to imagine a new reader being easily won over to Vidal by the first essay in the book, “Novelists and Critics of the 1940s” (1953), an elegant if now slightly obscure defense of the work of Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Vidal himself, against their neglectful treatment by such critics of the day as Malcolm Cowley and J.W. Aldridge.

Nor will the new reader thrill to “French Letters” (1967), despite its alluring title, which is a careful, unenthused examination of the nouveau roman, and the only essay of Vidal’s that reads uncomfortably like a homework assignment. The first real taste of red meat for the new reader arrives on page 73 with “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction” (1974), in which Vidal, his persona now fully in place, takes on the nouveau roman in its Americanized form, and memorably divides novels into “R and R” (rest and recuperation) and “R and D” (research and development). Reading such R and D types as Barth, Barthelme (also Barthes), Pynchon, and Gass, Vidal is funny, scathing, and warmly appreciative (especially of Gass) in equal parts. No one, even Gass, escapes the lash, and no one, even Barth, is found to be without merit (of The Sot-Weed Factor, Vidal writes, “…as I read on and on, I could not so much as summon up a smile at the lazy jokes and the horrendous pastiche of what Barth takes to be eighteenth-century English”). “American Plastic” is the best, most entertaining, and most judicious of Vidal’s forays into the literature of his own time. Yet it’s followed, twenty pages later, by “The Hacks of Academe” (1976), an essay that covers much of the same ground in a more caustic tone, and which reads, in the context of this ruthlessly pared-down selection, like déjà vu all over again.

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