Gore Vidal

By Razib Khan | July 31, 2012 9:36 pm

Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.

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Comments (10)

  1. On a genetics note, while I disagree with his politics, he was quite enjoyable in his role in the genetics laced movie GATTACA. From the nucleotide bases in the title to the genetic engineering that’s woven throughout the plot, it’s one of my favorite films.

    I was too young in middle school to appreciate Burr upon a first reading, but it’s rather amazing how many of its controversial themes have since come to the fore also due to genetic analysis (most notably Jefferson fathering slaves).

  2. Grey

    I remember liking Creation a lot and now i think of it, and if i remember right, some of the themes have a latitudinal aspect which i didn’t notice at the time. I’ll have to read it again.

  3. ackbark

    I like Creation a great deal as well, also Empire, though I’ve always found his utter dislike of Theodore Roosevelt mystifying since I don’t think they actually disagree about anything.

  4. TJR

    In contrast Julian and Creation are the only books of his I’ve read, or indeed could name.

    In Creation I remember particularly enjoying the sophisticated Persian protagonist making fun of the filthy, unwashed Greek barbarians. Achaemenid Persia always tends to get a bad press because we mostly know it from Greek sources, but it wasn’t bad by the standards of the time.

  5. Grrrowler

    I was pleased to see you mention Julian; that happens to be one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, it is an interpretation of history, but one that rings with me. It’s is definitely worth reading by anyone who hasn’t discovered it yet.

  6. ackbark

    Sometime around writing Hollywood Vidal became deathly ill and lost his focus and energy and never recovered and seems to have been a highly isolated person thereafter.

    I’ve never seen just what his illness actually was.

  7. reader

    Creation is the book I would take to a desert island to read and read again. Every time you read it you get something new and fresh. A great story that links the basis of all the world’s major religions – and the origins of life itself. The central concept – that one man could have known Pericles, the Buddha and Confucius – is breathtaking.

  8. Pincher Martin

    Vidal was prolific in a much wider range of writing than any of his peers. He tried his hand with some success at stage plays, television and movie scripts, literary and political essays, historical novels, science fiction (Messiah), satirical novels (Myra Breckinridge), detective novels (the Edgar Box books) and memoirs. With the exception of poetry, he succeeded commercially in all the forms he put his hand to. But if he is remembered and celebrated by future generations, it will be for his literary essays and historical novels.

    Vidal was a superb literary critic. As a political critic, he was too over-the-top and inaccurate in his judgments to be effective, and many of his political essays are embarrassing to read today. Not so his literary musings. He wrote wonderful essays on Dawn Powell, his old friend Tennessee Williams, the Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum, Italo Calvino, and many other literary topics. He was a formidable enough literary critic for some in the 1980s’ literary establishment to crown him the heir to America’s best-known literary critic at the time, Edmund Wilson. (Vidal, in typical fashion, agreed with the compliment, but said he wrote better prose than Wilson — which was true, but ignored the fact that Wilson had a far more formidable and wide-ranging intellect that wasn’t weighed down by political polemics.)

    Vidal’s historical novels are usually much better known by readers than his literary criticism. He wrote seven historical novels on the United States and two on the classical world. The best in the former category are Burr and Lincoln, the latter of which was probably the single time in all of Vidal’s historical writings where he gave up his own unique voice (ironic, detached) to allow his protagonists’ voices to take the lead.

    The obit writers had plenty of time to refine their pieces on Vidal. His heyday was in the seventies and eighties. The last really fine piece of original writing he put out was the outstanding first volume of his memoirs, Palimpsest, in 1995. Even back then, the memoir felt like someone closing the book on his life, and I don’t remember the reading public ever anticipating another work by Vidal since. The bibliographies which show Vidal has been busy since are misleading. Most of the stuff published by Vidal in the last decade has been reissued political crap and old ideas that he has said before. Was he short of money? Or did he just want to stay relevant to the informed public?

    Who knows for sure. But one idea I wouldn’t dismiss is that Vidal always saw himself a politician and so he was returning to his roots in being a political polemicist as his mind and other interests atrophied.

  9. Creation taught me a number of things. It served as an introduction to that Axial Age which brought one of the great transformations in human history, political and religious. Live from Golgotha was fun. That’s the only two books from him I’ve read. Julian now goes on the wish list.

  10. omar

    I too am a fan of Creation and Julian. I also loved Burr. The Empire books I could never finish. Kalki was good fun too.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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