Gore Vidal was the finest essayist in the English-speaking world from 1950-2000.
| JULIAN, VIDAL AND ME|
Moving from the periphery to the centre
Gore Vidal(1925- ) was arguably the finest essayist in the English-speaking world in the last half of the 20th century. He was always on the periphery of my emerging literary and intellectual life while I lived in Canada(1943-1971) in my youth and young adulthood. When I moved to Australia(1971-2012) he was even further out on that periphery. When I retired from the world of jobs and 70 hours a week nose-to-the-grindstone gradually in the years 1999 to 2005, I began to make-up for this hole, this lacuna, among a host of other missing parts in the general cultural attainments of my mind, my literary life.
In May 1964 Vidal’s novel Julian was published. It was historical fiction thick with research that fascinated and engaged readers. It recounted the life of the Roman emperor Julianus II. This emperor is known to history as "Julian the Apostate" who tried, during his short reign that began in 361 A.D., to forsake the emergence of Christianity and return the old religions of Greece and Rome to his empire.
Julian was a phenomenal bestseller; it also earned uniformly positive reviews. Vidal, in publishing Julian, re-established himself as a prominent and best-selling novelist, and he would continue producing novels rather prolifically for the rest of his career. By the time I came to read Vidal in the first years of the 21st century, though, he was in his 80s, and the bloom seemed to be off his literary rose to put it kindly.
In 1964 Vidal was well into his literary career, a career which was just beginning when I was conceived in 1943 in Hamilton Ontario. In that spring and summer of ’64, when Julian was first in the bookshops, I turned 20. I had a summer job with the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. Now known as Bell Canada, this company employed me in the London Ontario area to test telephone poles for internal decay. By the end of the summer and the start of the academic year 1963-4 in September, I was working part-time for the T. Eaton Company in its Hamilton store sending the previous day’s cash register tapes to Eaton’s central office in Toronto. These two jobs, with several others from 1963 to 1967, helped to finance my four years at university, a costly process then and much more costly now.
By the time I began my second year at the end of September at McMaster University in an honours History and Philosophy course, Vidal’s historical novel was selling very well. Based solidly upon ascertainable or probable fact, with its colour and movement, its imaginative re-creation of history, its excursion into romance, its often self-indulgent and irresponsible use of facts, Julian was a delightful interpretation of a portion of history that caught Vidal’s fancy; Julian’s reign was also a critical stage in the evolution of the first four centuries of the history of Christianity.
In his evocation of Julian the Apostate, Vidal was able to penetrate to the depths of human meaning, with his chromatic play of personalities and events. Vidal’s historical vision created a design not wholly remote from parable or allegory as is some historical fiction. What it was that interested Mr Vidal in Julian as a subject for fictionalized biography I do not know, but it was a happy inspiration. Vidal has not been impressed by the contributions of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions and Julian was one of his first pieces of writing that articulated his critique.
Julian himself is a vivid and attractive figure, surely the most engaging of the Roman emperors during the decline. His reign was brief, only 16 months. In A.D. 363, at the age of 32, he was killed in battle; but his short career was a notable one, and it is not too much to say that the last months of his administration altered the course of Western history. Moreover, he challenged our interest and sympathy as a complex, witty, unpredictable human being. We know him today by the name his Christian enemies called him, "Apostate," though we do not much bother to inquire into the nature of his "apostasy," if indeed it ever existed.
The emperor Julian has come down to us as a kind of historical poke: a combination of bogey-man and Judas Iscariot, a philosopher who made fun of his own beard, wrote stilted panegyrics upon persons whom he sincerely hated, persecuted various deserving Christian bishops, ridiculed the Holy Trinity, and attempted to re-establish the cult of the old pagan gods. We are told also, though not by Mr Vidal, that he died in agony of Early Christian remorse with a verse of Swinburne on his lips: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean!"
There are germs of truth in some of these details, but the picture is a distorted one. Julian had a Christian boyhood, if the fashionable Arianism of the Constantinople of his cousin Constantius Augustus deserves the name Christian; but the murderous example of his own family and the internecine theological squabbles of his preceptors soon disgusted him with Christianity; his genuine philosophical bent and romantic tendency toward antiquarianism made it easy for him to see himself as a throwback to the pagan past.
His attempt to reimpose the old gods--or, rather, the old gods as seen through a mist of Mithras-worship and degenerating neo-Platonism--failed because he was utterly unrealistic in assessing the hearts of men and in evaluating the theological and political forces with which he had to contend. He was, it would seem, a schizophrenic, a philosopher and man of letters, yet one of the most spectacular military commanders since Julius Caesar. He was also a fanatical conservative in religion, yet a cynical and disillusioned exponent of freedom of worship; a sensualist, a man of the world, yet at the same time an almost compulsive ascetic. And, above all things, he was alive, enchanted with living, intensely and drivingly engaged.
It is this quality of flashing vitality that Mr Vidal admirably captures in his book. One may have reservations as to the literary and polemical value of much that goes on in his pages, but the breathing actuality of his Julian is not to be denied. The form itself is favorable and flexible: a kind of diary, notes and observations jotted down by the tireless Julian, with a choral antiphony of comment by two of his elderly mentors who survive him to copy and gloss his manuscript. Needless to say, no such manuscript exists; but Mr Vidal has drawn so intelligently upon Julian's actual writings and those of historians and theologians contemporary with the Emperor that the texture and tone of his narrative are persuasively in character.
A neurotic, witty, pensive, reckless, domineering, sincerely humble young leader emerges so clearly that even in his less felicitous moments, we believe in him and like him. It is evident that Mr Vidal has learned much from the Robert Graves of the Claudius books: the freshness of the speaking voice in narrative soliloquy, the inevitable but discreetly managed modernization of diction, outlook, action.
One has reservations, of course. The pageantry and local colour, inescapable in historical novels, are too often touched by intimations of Hollywood. There are elephants, dancing girls and tumblers; as well as jewelled fat eunuchs--platoons of them. There is at least one considerable orgy during which some readers, at least far back in the 1960s, would have seen as unutterable vice; there is also one of the funniest scenes of sexual intercourse, at least for the 1960s, that was then permitted to escape into print.
Mr Vidal is generally unsuccessful in his attempts to demonstrate Julian the theological controversialist in action. The metaphysical speculation is so superficial, so text-book adolescent, that one wonders why those frightful bishops, hammering each other's skulls with homoiousion and homoousion,1 took the young Apostate so seriously in the first place. Here, clearly, Mr Vidal has got beyond his depth and has innocently betrayed his hero; but the fact that this blemish does not impede the flash and drive of his narrative testifies to the beguiling power of his wit, his craftsman's sleight of hand.
Plato once said that in the ideal society philosophers would be kings or kings philosophers. Julian was of the calibre to prove Plato's point. Mr Vidal does not show us this, and his failure is what ultimately keeps the novel from rising above the level of high entertainment.2 –Ron Price with thanks to 1theological controversy on the nature of Christ; and 2Dudley Fitts, Engaged in Life and in a Pagan Past, The New York Times on the Web, 31 May 1964.
For most of my life Gore Vidal
has been out on my vast periphery
with his erudition, his literary opus,
his humour and wit, as well as my
busy life with no time for novels
and his fine-tuning of American
society which he was so good at.
His analysis, his witty historical
perspectives, trenchant words of
critique & delightful personality
gradually came into my life as I
took a sea-change, retired early
and reinvented myself as a new
millennium opened & I became,
by degrees, a poet and publisher,
writer & author, researcher and
scholar at the ends of the earth in
Tasmania, the last stop on the way
to Antarctica if one takes the route
on the long western Pacific-rim.
I wish you well, Gore, as you head
into your last years on this earthly
coil. I wonder to myself whether I
will have much contact with you in
that land of lights and its world of
forgiveness forever and ever. Thanks
for your contribution to my life as you
move from that periphery to a centre,
at least one of the myriad new centres.
17 May 2012