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 …