Posts from May 2015

May 14th, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Petty in the Penny Press!


Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, tls1and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:

Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.

That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:

Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.

And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:

British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.

And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:

At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.

There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.

If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.

Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:

Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.

Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fanstls2 and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …

It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:

Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.

The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.

Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.

June 2nd, 2013

No Anxiety of Influence in the Penny Press!


Throughout the year, the New York Review of Books is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reprinting excerpts from pieces by some of its most lauded contributors. The excerpts appear on the last page of every issue, and considering the lineup of literary powerhouses the NYRB has always boasted, you’d think the presence of such a Parthian shot would cast a pall backward over the whole issue.

nyrbjuneCase in point this latest issue, which features an excerpt from Gore Vidal’s famous two-part review of the 1973 bestseller list, aptly titled “The Ashes of Hollywood. It’s one of Vidal’s most famous pieces, and it’s a cocksure periodical that assumes – even hopes – that its present-day contributors can measure up.

The wonder of the NYRB, of course, is that they can. It’s what makes that final page so oddly, reassuringly triumphant.

This issue is odd, however. The front cover bills it as the “University Press Issue,” but in reality this seems to describe no so much a theme as a tic: of the 20 books reviewed in the issue, only 7 are published by university presses, and that’s not even the highest percentage – 8 of the issue’s slots are given to essays that don’t review books at all. The NYRB might just as well have called it the “Special Reporting Issue”

This is bittersweet news to somebody like me, since I’m just about as aware as a layman can be of the sheer number of fascinating books put out every season by university presses (including all the ones that don’t have 5 million dollar endowments like the ones backing most of the presses that are reviewed in this issue). The vision of an NYRB issue genuinely devoted to university press offerings is tantalizing, but luckily, the issue’s overall quality softens such pining.

David Cole’s piece on gun control, for instance, hits all the usual sobering statistics, but with fresh vigor:

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide.

Likewise Anna Somers Cocks, in her essay “The Coming Death of Venice?” hits some very familiar notes – how endless politics and bureaucracy in Venice are thwarting any real attempts to save the city from spiritual and even physical destruction. Cocks takes particular aim at the head of Venice’s powerful Port Authority, Paolo Costa – I wouldn’t be surprised if the man fires off an angry retort for the next issue; in fact, I can’t see how he can avoid doing that, or getting a flunky to do it, since Cocks pretty much blames him for single-handedly sinking the city:

In the meantime, the city is being eaten up by damp. Every inch of sea level rise counts now, because the water has overtopped the impermeable stone bases of most buildings and is being absorbed into the porous bricks, fragmenting them and washing away the mortar. The damp has reached the upper floors and is rusting through the iron tie rods that hold the houses together.

Of course, this being the Penny Press, it’s not all brie and Chablis. Andrew Butterfield turns in a review of a new Albrecht Durer exhibit up at the durerNational Gallery, and although the piece in general is very good (as I’ve come to expect from this author), it’s also got its share of dippy art-writing, as when he loses himself in admiration of the quick drawing Durer did of his fiancée Angnes:

In its frank portrayal of an informal moment of unguarded emotion, there had never been a drawing quite like this before. Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Durer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

A glance at this miraculous sketch suggests that Durer was in fact ‘fascinated’ with learning how to draw the folds in Agnes’ sleeve – her face, clearly an afterthought, barely has two lines in it.

Even worse comes from an even better writer: the great Eamon Duffy starts his review of The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken and Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley with this supremely annoying line, no doubt foisted on him by the NYRB’s copy desk:“If an anthropologist from the star system Sirius were to teleport to earth to conduct a field study of Christianity, where would she go?”

So idiotic political correctness has expanded along the starways even as far as Sirius? So intergalactic civilizations, too, must forever atone for the fact that Mrs. Pankurst wasn’t allowed to vote? So it’s not PC even to hint that a field anthropologist from the Sirius system might be an it? Yeesh.

Even so, reading these fantastic pieces and all the rest in this issue naturally prompts a subversive question: just how legitimate is the question of influence-anxiety, anyway? In other words, just how good were those illustrious names of yesteryear?

A look at Vidal’s famous essay doesn’t exactly allay the suspicion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Vidal’s attack is withering of course, but on a re-reading, its blunderbuss nature becomes more evident. He lays out his case that the bestselling authors in question aren’t even novelists at all – his insinuation is that they’re all failed screenwriters. And that would be fine and even funny if there weren’t some seriously good authors on the list he’s mocking – and if there wasn’t such a strong impression he’s dismissing them too:

I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties as a preface to the ten bestselling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to recreate new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film maker) recall past success and respond accordingly. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature.

Catch the subtle cattiness even when he’s trying to be nice: Solzhenitsyn and Renault may be in SOME way rooted in literature, but they’re still interlopers, pointedly identified by non-novelist professions. However positive Vidal may be about them (and it’s not all that positive, or rather, it’s not all that much about them – he spends his entire section on Renault, for instance, talking about his own gay novel The City and the Pillar), it’s pretty clear they appall him not much less than their peers on the list. It’s a low move (and his super-subtle blink-and-you-miss-it vicious canard about Aldous Huxley in the same piece is even lower), the type of thing you might have been able to do if you were dear friends with Barbara Epstein, but not actually up to the standard on display in the rest of this issue.

So the present is safe from the past, in this case. Sighs of relief all around, especially from those of us who toil to bring out a literary review journal every month.


May 23rd, 2013

Penguins on Parade: Not Yet!


We can pause roughly mid-way in our Penguin Alphabet to daydream about all those great books out there that for one reason or another (critical unpreparedness, zealously guarded copyright, etc.) have never quite made it into the Classics canon – but very much deserve to. The full list of such Not Yet Penguins would be quite long and would encompass all the literary disciplines, but in this quick little alphabet-within-an-alphabet, we can look at a handful of them and wish we could walk into our nearest evil chain bookstore and buy them:


1. Apollonius of Rhodes: The Argonautica – Since it’s such a fantastic story, The Voyage of the Argo has had many English-language translations over the centuries. Penguin has had the venerable E. V. Rieu edition for decades. But Penguin also has an institutional penchant I’ve mentioned before: they find great editions and bring them into the fold. The best edition of Apollonius by far is Peter Green’s Argonautica from 1997, with its playful translation and its brilliant notes. This is an Argo book fit to stand for a century – and so, fit for Penguin

penguin lowell2. Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers – I’m far from the only person to suggest this particular elevation; in an incredibly productive career of fiction-writing, Burgess never wrote anything that even approaches the sheer cumulative power of this doorstop novel about sin and redemption and more sin. It just got a snazzy new hopeful reprint, but it’s destined to get a Penguin Classic, and it’s tempting to want it now.

3. Frank Conroy: Stop-TimeMillions of people have read and enjoyed Conroy’s ebullient memoir, widely regarded as his best book (the too-neat ending of the otherwise-magnificent Body & Soul mitigating against it). A Penguin Classic (preferably with the original mass market Penguin paperback cover-art) would help to put this wonderful book where it belongs: on every high school curriculum, right next to The Catcher in the Rye

4. Pete Dexter: Paris Trout  – I’ve praised Dexter’s seedy, malevolent masterpiece before – in a long career full of great, fearless novels, this is the greatest of them all, as stark and unforgettable as a punch to the face. It’s lodged firmly in the alternate-canon of the 20th century along with John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, William Wharton’s Birdy, and M. A. Harper’s For the Love of Robert E. Lee. All of those works deserve Penguin Classics, and so does this one.

5. John Evelyn: Diaries – Evelyn’s more famous contemporary Samuel Pepys is the better known for keeping a diary, but Evelyn’s is every bit as picaresque and very nearly as fascinating, and it’s long overdue for a Penguin Classic.

6. Henry Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage – This fussy, hilariously frumpy 1926 classic of mandarin hectoring is now a curiosity, of penguin westvikingcourse; in an age where someone in a bookstore conference call can say “I’d like to surface a concern and group-interface it” and not get laughed out of the room (or where young people who like something can write “This. I can’t.” and not prompt inquiries about their mental health), there is no such thing anymore as correct grammar or usage, and the children of 2013 will grow up into adults of 2050 who communicate directly cortex-to-cortex via node implants, so the whole concept of grammar and syntax – correct or incorrect – will be meaningless to them. Nevertheless, Fowler’s book sold by the metric ton and shaped the public and private communication of two generations of people – and an annotated version could be immense fun.

7. Charles Greville: Diaries – Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville, courtier extraordinaire during the first half of the 19th century, filled eight jam-packed volumes of memoirs before he simpered off this mortal coil, covering the reigns of King George IV, King William IV, and Queen Victoria. In 1963 the great Louis Kronenberger crafted out of that sprawling mess a gem of a volume, which he titled The Great World, and that’s the volume Penguin should dig up and reprint, with a pretty Thomas Lawrence portrait on the cover.

8. Frank Herbert: Dune – Naturally, some copyrights will be contested more fiercely than others! Brian Herbert and the Herbert estate will defend this one to their last crysknife and lasgun, but in this list we’re only dreaming – and that the greatest science fiction novel of all time should have a nice plump Penguin Classic (a line deplorably deficient in sci-fi in the first place) is a very sweet dream.

penguin housekeeping9. Washington Irving: The Life of George Washington – Irving is already warmly inducted into the Penguin Classic fold, but this gigantic 5-volume work of his – which he (no mean literary judge) considered his life’s masterpiece – has fallen to silence, and that’s a shame. It’s biography on a big, romantic, Walter Scott scale, and, incredibly, it’s great reading throughout. With nifty onion-skin paper, Penguin could cram the whole thing into one fat volume.

10. Tony Judt: Postwar – Penguin already publishes Judt’s masterful tome on Europe in the wake of World War Two, and moving it over to the Classics line would not only be a fitting tribute to its cool, passionate brilliance but also a much-needed acknowledgement that works of history can be classics in their own right, regardless of whether or not their styles or even their facts go out of fashion. Reprint lines just generally tend to resist the idea that history can also be literature – the field is too vexed, so they steer clear of it entirely. Penguin Classics of In Flanders Field or The Mask of Command or The Roman Revolution (or even Carlyle’s The French Revolution, which you’d think would long since have earned its spot) would be wonderful things – and Judt stands in that select number.

11. Lawrence of Arabia: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T. E. Lawrence’s astonishing, incantatory memoir of the Arab revolt against the Turks during the First World War is, for good or ill, one of the great works of the 20th century, as strange and unforgettable as its author. A handy Penguin Classic paperback – preferably with extensive maps and all of its traditional illustrations – feels a long time in the arriving, and if it brought more readers to Lawrence’s personal epic, so much the better.

12. Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove – McMurtry’s flinty, mordantly funny Western about two retired Texas Rangers making an enormous cattle-run from south Texas to Montana has been reprinted by the author’s publisher ad infinitum, and maybe someday it’ll get the Penguin Classic it so obviously deserves.

13. Eric Newby: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – All of Newby’s books deserve canonization, but if one slim volume (suitable, again, for school curricula penguin greenbadly in need of new blood) has to be chosen, it should be this one, as vivid and gripping as a tropical fever-dream.

14. Edwin O’Connor: The Last Hurrah – Of the handful of truly great American novels about politics, this one is by far the most humane, wry, and flat-out hilarious, and like all great American novels, it lovingly describes a world that’s entirely vanished. Extra justice, then, if the book itself doesn’t vanish – and what better way to insure that than a spiffy Penguin Classic?

15. Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time – Given the givens, it’s slightly baffling why Penguin hasn’t done this behemoth already; perhaps Powell’s literary heirs are as prickly and contentious as he himself was. But as mentioned, lawsuits and counter-suits can’t touch us here in the sanctuary of our dream-list, where we can imagine a sumptuous two-volume box-set with those enticing black spines.

16. Quintus of Smyrna: The Trojan Epic – The magisterial 2004 annotated translation by Alan James of Quintus’ great continuation of Homer’s Iliad is the obvious choice for elevation to the Penguin ranks – to fill a conspicuous gap, since they’ve never had an edition of this infectious ancient potboiler before. Everybody who’s ever wondered what happened in between the Iliad and the Odyssey (let alone anyone who’s ever been foolish enough to attempt telling those stories) owes a huge debt to humble Quintus … and perhaps an equally big debt to Alan James, for giving the poem the treatment it deserves.

17. Mary Renault: The Last of the Wine – Again, copyright tangles us up: Renault’s fantastic historical novels were once a part of Penguin’s UK-only lineup. But what we need is a smart, elegant Penguin Classic of this heartbreakingly beautiful book (which would also be a godsend to high schools, except it would be yanked from students’ hands as soon as the first Bible Belt teacher actually read it).

erasmus luther18. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works – This is another shocking omission, not mitigated in the least by Penguin’s line of individually-printed plays (even though that line is constantly being updated and is wonderful); there’s no shortage of great fat annotated one-volume Shakespeares out there – Penguin’s editors should pick the best one they can get on the cheap  (perhaps the nice fat volume put out by Running Press?) and do it up beautifully, preferably in one of their gorgeous “Deluxe” editions.

19. J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings – This and #23 are admitted moon-shots, but this list is about an imaginary bookshelf – and the jewel in the crown of such a bookshelf would be Tolkien’s seminal work of epic fantasy, as last in a thick square-bound Penguin volume, perhaps with a cheesy-wonderful cover illustration by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

20. John Updike: The Book Reviews – Some book critics (OK, I) confidently predicted that the entire Updike fiction-industry would begin to ossify and collapse in on itself the moment he was no longer alive to keep it going, and those critics were exactly right: with every passing season, Updike’s onanistic novels are more clearly revealed as the ephemera some of us always knew they were. But this has had the curious and unexpected side-effect of allowing his nonfiction some extra room to breathe. A collection of his ambling art reviews has already been published and done well; Penguin should amass 500 of his best book reviews (from volumes like Odd Jobs and Hugging the Shore) into one big collection and get somebody other than Martin Amis to write the introduction.

21. Gore Vidal: United States – And while we’re on the subject of massive essay-collections, Gore Vidal’s masterpiece has needed canonization since the first moment it appeared.

22. T. H. White: The Once and Future King – As with Tolkien, so too here: although this stunning, moving fantasy epic has had some very nice editions penguin megover the years, it’s unlikely White’s literary executors are going to be selling it to Penguin any time soon – but we can dream.

23. Xue Tao: The Brocade River Collection – Western readers (and, let’s be honest, Eastern readers as well, who are now thoroughly indoctrinated into the noxious practice of “teach to the test” and so are growing up every bit as culturally illiterate as their fatter Western counterparts) will have no knowledge of 9th century China’s Xue Tao, and that’s a shame: in her own day, she was renowned both for her lively, fun-poking manner (something of a staple of the Tang Dynasty, but she was reputed to be exceptional) and for her lovely verse. The Brocade River Collection was once a massive anthology of that verse, but even the fragments that survive, if properly annoated, would make a fantastic and eye-opening Penguin Classic.

24. Marguerite Yourcenar: The Memoirs of Hadrian – It’s difficult to classify Yourcenar’s masterpiece, although countless attempts have been made. But Penguin’s already published a paperback of this powerful, surreal historical novel, years ago (and not in the U.S., of course); in the intervening time, the work as stayed every bit as vital, so induction into the Penguin Classics pantheon ought to come to Hadrian at last.

25. Zhu Xiao Di: Leisure Thoughts on Idle Books – The relatively tiny handful of Westerners who know of Zhu Xiao Di at all would probably argue that his quietly affecting memoir Thirty Years in a Red House is the work of his that deserves its own Penguin Classic, but I disagree: the author’s merry, digressive, endlessly inquisitive mind is best captured in his collected book reviews, the reading of which is about as close as most readers will ever come to chatting with the author over the Brattle bargain carts on a beautiful summer afternoon, or chatting with the author on a blustery walk across the Mass. Ave. bridge in the autumn, or chatting with the author over a little table at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown.

But then, we’re charting dream-titles here, so there’s no reason both books can’t make the list, and plenty of runners-up besides: Joy Adamson’s Born Free, for instance, or Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, or the Renaissance memoirs of Vespasiano, or the two novels of Jeremy Leven, or the nature books of Edwin Way Teale, or a dozen others. The Penguin line is ongoing, after all, and it’s full of surprises.


August 1st, 2012

Gore Vidal

For most of your long life, you looked to this uneasy translation with a mixture of dread and prurience, and now it’s upon you (“townsman of a stiller town,” from a poem you professed to hate and yet memorized, as was your way in all things), and the rest of us – your literary heirs, executors, apostates, and survivors – can say, with a kind of painful bewilderment, “The 20th Century is over.”

You were beautiful, and then you were elegant, and then you were a magnificent ruin – you talked better than most of the talkers, wrote better than most of the writers, and when it counted, you were brave. In all its virtues and vices you epitomized the country you abandoned.

The ‘bookchat world’ you held in such merciless contempt will now bury you in the encomiums that so pre-emptively appalled you (“They’ll say such dreadful soupy things about one – the open bar will beckon”), but time, perhaps, will be kind. And in the meantime, we’ll do the thing you wanted most: we’ll remember you – the writer, the raconteur, the polemicist … the last paladin of Camelot.

July 7th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Ammianus Marcellinus!

Some Penguin Classics will inevitably provoke a hearty “Who the Hell is that?” even in well-educated company, and a permanent occupant of that category is the fourth century Greek army officer and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who dreamed of standing on the same level as his beloved Tacitus but never rises to more than a weak approximation of the master.

A.M. wrote thirty-one books of Roman history, thirteen of which have not survived (the whole work – and especially those first thirteen books, which had a sustained, almost manic tempo that readers loved and bought out whenever fresh copies became available). What we have left covers about twenty-five years (A.D. 354-378) in the tumultuous life of the Eastern Empire, seen in the reign of five emperors: Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, your eyes no doubt seized on one of those five names – Julian, known as the Apostate, the subject of four English-language historical novels, including one hum-dinger by Gore Vidal that’s fondly remembered by everybody who’s ever read it (that happy old phrase, ‘an author at the height of his powers’ very much applied to Vidal at the time, three-quarters of a century ago). A.M. is one of our primary sources for the remarkably well-documented life and times of Julian, and as an army officer he knew the man personally.

A.M. was born around 330 in Antioch, home of the famous rhetorician Libanius (who features as a main character in Vidal’s book, and as a stand-in for a contemporary professor Vidal famously, er, knew). Antioch was the ‘jewel of the East’ – a sprawling, gorgeous place in which to grow up if your family was well enough connected. A.M.’s obviously was, and in 354 we find him attached to the staff of General Ursinicus, who was dispatched to deal with a massive Persian invasion of Mesopotamia in 359. A.M. went with him and saw a great deal of action and intrigue. His book has all the narrative excitement of the best patches of Livy, but he himself was no armchair historian, creeping around the old Julian library stacks and suffering only from eye-strain; our author was often in the thick of things, as when he and the rest of Ursinicus’ command come upon Antoninus, a renegade Roman who’d made a tidy sum selling insider knowledge to the invading Persians:

We, as I said, were about to set off for Samosata and were on the march before it was fully light, when as we reached a point of vantage the gleam of shining arms struck our eyes. An excited shout proclaimed that the enemy was upon us, so in obedience to the usual signal we halted in close order. Prudence suggested that we should neither take flight, since our pursuers were in view, nor yet meet certain death by giving battle to an enemy who were our superior in numbers and cavalry. At last, when a clash became absolutely inevitable but while we were still in doubt about our tactics, some of our men were rash enough to run out in front of our lines and were killed. Both sides pressed forward, and Antoninus, leading a troop spoiling for the fight, was recognized by Usicinus, who denounced him in violent terms as a traitor and a criminal. Therupon Antoninus took from his head the tiara which he wore as a badge of honor, sprang from his horse, and, bowing so low that his face almost touched the ground, addressed Ursicinus as his patron and master, at the same time clasping his hands behind his back, a gesture of supplication among the Assyrians.

But the main focus of this history (and this would still be true, one suspects, even if we still had the missing first half) is Julian: his rise, his ideas and attitudes, his all-around wonderfulness, and his military victories against the sometimes staggering forces of the East (when A.M. writes about “gleaming” war-elephants, he’s referring to the fact that they were often outfitted in extensive and terrifying armor that glinted in the sun). His narrative’s emotional peak is reached when he gets to the year 363, in which A.M. joined young Julian’s expedition against the Persians – and dies in combat, in the middle of a big, chaotic battle into which the ‘philosopher’-emperor had ridden without armor. In his meticulous and often delightfully caustic notes to Walter Hamilton’s translation, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill quips:

A. says nothing of the part he played in this battle: one suspects he was in the centre, panicking at the smell and noise of the elephants. Other sources have various explanations for Julian’s extraordinary lack of armour (the heat, or a conviction of invincibility): none can bring themselves to suggest that he was courting death as a way out of the disastrous situation into which he had led the Roman army.

Wallace-Hadrill is a dream-annotator for a work like this: he’s effortlessly authoritative but not at all reverential. Actually, A.M. seems to have generated precious little veneration from anybody who’s ever read him – he’s too involved (he was part of the group of officers in the aftermath of that terrible battle who banded together and chose the hapless Jovian to be Julian’s successor), too partisan at times, and he can be just a bit florid in his style. Gibbon used him gratefully as a guide for this period, but – in true Gibbon fashion – also did a bit of sniffing, remarking that A.M.’s “superfluous prolixity is disagreeably balanced by his unseasonable brevity.” There’s just no pleasing some people.

In a way, A.M. gets the last laugh, because his book itself is pleasing – it’s fast-paced and gripping and utterly personal (his famous digressions alone, on virtually any topic that crosses his mind, are worth the price of this wonderful Penguin volume)(needless to say, this Penguin volume is also pretty much the only popular edition of A.M. that’s ever existed – I’d sing an aria of praise to Penguin Classics, but that’s what this whole regular feature is for, isn’t it?).

It wasn’t a fluke that it was a best-seller in A.M.’s own lifetime: he lived a fascinating life at or near the center of some important events, then he wrote a fascinating book about it all. And then, two thousand years later, Penguin came along and made a Classic out of it for $8. Used, online, your copy might even be less!


September 9th, 2010

Homage to Daniel Shays!

Our book today is Gore Vidal’s 1973 essay collection Homage to Daniel Shays, containing high-point pieces from 1952 to 1972, spanning subjects from literature to cinema to theater to politics, presented in chronological order. The old Vintage paperback I’ve had for years is 450 pages long, which is a whole hell of a lot more hospitable than the wrist-straining 1100 pages of Vidal’s surpassing masterpiece United States. I’ve praised that latter volume as one of the 20th century’s greatest works of nonfiction (although it occurs to me I’ve never posted the whole 50-item list here at Stevereads), but as a certain Dutch humanist well knew, sometimes we need a psalter in the field even more immediately – and more personally – than we need the big Bible back at home. You can carry Homage to Daniel Shays around in your pocket, and you should.

Vidal considered himself a multi-form genius, a Renaissance man capable of brilliant performance in almost any kind of endeavor. He was disastrously wrong, of course: his plays are almost unactably preachy, his novels are ill-disguised (and often ill-digested) history lectures, his screenplays are embarrassingly lachrymose, and his forays into actual politics exuded a dangerously Borgia-esque self-delusion that would make any sane person seek the good old-fashioned self-interest of a Johnson, or a Bush.

But as an occasional essayist, he was brilliant. And as a literary journalist, writing up long, discursive pieces for Commentary or The New York Review of Books or Esquire (pieces that were supposed to be book reviews but inevitably ended up being much more), he was unsurpassed in his century.

True, he has his hobby-horses, but any consistently good public writer will have those; they constitute a signature and are to be treasured in equal measure as they’re lamented. If you read Homage to Daniel Shays with an evaluative squint, you can watch these writer-tics slowly worming their way right to the center of the apple (the collection’s idiotically sensationalistic title is a good tip-off). Vidal’s besetting hobby-horse was his megalomania, and it’s a bit disconcerting to see it in embryo even half a century ago. In his famous essay on the writers of the 1940s, there’s more than a hint of self-regard (which, for Vidal, is always mixed with self-pity):

On a social level, the hostility shown these essential artists is more important than their occasional worldly successes, for it is traditional that he who attempts to define man’s condition demoralizes the majority, whether relativist or absolute. We do not want ever to hear that we will all die but that first we must live; and those ways of living which are the fullest, the most intense, are the very ones which social man traditionally dreads, summoning all his superstition and malice to combat strangers and lovers, the eternal victims.

But reading Vidal – and especially reading as taut and snapping a collection as Homage to Daniel Shays – with this kind of evaluative squint is just plain wrong. Not only are you thereby blinding yourself to the full register of what our essential artist is doing, you’re depriving yourself of the wonderful sharpness of his wit – a quality that was never more obvious or brought to higher pitch than when he was using it to estimate the worth of wits that equaled it. Vidal could be an unforgiving colleague; in prose as in life, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. When Mary McCarthy wrote a scathing review of Tennessee Williams’ absurd play A Streetcar Named Desire, Vidal was outraged. But when it comes time to assess McCarthy’s theater criticism as a whole (that criticism forms a briskly bracing little book we’ll get to in the fullness of time here at Stevereads), he’s not only fair but happily quotable:

But aside from Miss McCarthy’s forty whacks at [Tennessee] Williams, when I finally came to read her collected criticism I was struck by her remarkable good sense. Uncorrupted by compassion, her rather governnessy severity, even cruelty, derives from the useful knowledge that the road to kitsch is paved with good intentions, and that one must not give the “A” for ambition without also giving simultaneously the “E” for the thing poorly effected. The theater needs continual reminders that there is nothing more debasing than the work of those who do well what is not worth doing at all.

Naturally, Homage to Daniel Shays includes pieces on the Kennedys. How could it not? Their very existence in the realm of politics fundamentally upset Vidal’s preconceived role as youthful denouncer of the musty exclusivity of the halls of power. If you’ve gained a large measure of your notoriety at Georgetown parties by being the best-looking anti-Eisenhower in the room, it’s a bitter turn of events when a better-looking anti-Eisenhower gets elected lord of all Georgetown parties. Vidal took that bitter pill, wrapped it (poorly) in civic concern, and tried for thirty years to force it down his readers’ throats, with no success whatsoever. But in the attempt, Vidal’s unmatched eye for detail caught moments and currents that deserved preservation, as painful as they are to read today:

As Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges (at sixty-two the oldest member of the Cabinet) remarked, “There I was a few months ago, thinking my life was over. I’d retired to a college town. Now … well, that fellow in there” (he indicated the President’s office) “he calls me in the morning, calls me at noon, calls me at night: Why don’t we try this? Have you considered that? Then to top it all he just now asks me: Where do you get your suits from? I tell you I’m a young man again.”

As with most public pundits who overestimate themselves sufficiently to write about politics (as the aforementioned Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t should shut the fuck up”), Vidal was never better than when writing about literature. Here as everywhere else in his writings, he was the voice of enlightened conservatism, the holder of standards, the champion of “the thing done right.” He was too much the craftsman ever to agree with the young writer’s disdain of craft (however, eh, personally pleasing he might find the young writer himself), and he was too much the traditionalist not to agree in spirit with Norman Podhoretz’s famous gripe, “A feeling of dissatisfaction and impatience, irritation and boredom with contemporary serious fiction is very widespread.” (He might have added, in that dry patrician tone of his, “of course when Norman says that, he means he’s impatient and bored,” but what difference would that make? In this, Podhoretz was a pure weather-vane: brainless and accurate).

Hence if the avant-garde ever looked to Vidal as the most promising of the older literary lions on the scene, they were sorely disappointed to encounter after all an unapologetic purist:

No doubt there are those who regard the contradictions in [the charlatan Alain] Robbe-Grillet’s critical writing as the point to them – rather in the way that the boredom of certain plays or the incompetence of certain pictures are, we are assured, their achievement. Yet it is worrisome to be told that a man can create a world from nothing when that is the one thing he cannot begin to do, simply because, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot dispose of himself. Even if what he writes is no more than nouns and adjectives, who and what he is will subconsciously dictate order. Nothing human is random …

United States is the gigantic banquet of which Homage to Daniel Shays is the exquisite sampler; here are all the strengths of Vidal the essayist with almost none of the weaknesses that began to creep to the forefront of his work in the late 1970s, as biting turned to gnawing and acid turned to acid reflux. The kind of death Vidal should have had – in an expensive hotel room, atop Bret Easton Ellis, after a glorious PEN/Faulkner speech, in 1990 (with United States to then be the posthumous volume it was so obviously meant to be) – has eluded him (only truly lucky bastards get what they deserve), and despite the counter-example of Vidal’s eerily sedate doppelganger Louis Auchincloss, all work must eventually decline. But we’ll always have these magnificent words, and it seems only fitting to let them have center-stage at the end:

Affluence, publicity, power, can these things be said to “corrupt” the artist? In themselves, no. Or as Ernest Hemingway nicely put it: “Every whore finds his vocation.” Certainly it is romantic melodrama to believe that publicity in itself destroys the artist. Too many writers of the first rank have been devoted self-publicists (Frost, Pound, Yeats), perfectly able to do their work quite unaffected by a machine they knew how to run. Toughness is all.

March 13th, 2010

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away in the Penny Press!

I confess, I was curious to know what kind of response Vanity Fair readers would make to that bad-tempered little snipery by Christopher Hitchens that I mentioned here, the piece in which he takes shots at Gore Vidal for ever daring to disagree with him. I was worried that Vidal himself would respond and perhaps embarrass himself. That appears not to have happened (I find it impossible to believe VF would refrain from telling us all about it), but the magazine did see fit to print one letter objecting to the whole thing. It’s from Ben Farrington, and it reads:

I cannot allow Christopher Hitchens’s latest piece in V.F. to pass without comment. This was an extraordinarily nasty and cowardly attack on an elderly man, Gore Vidal, who, judging from recent appearances, may not be in a position to defend himself.

I have been a great fan of Mr. Hitchens’s writing and have been entertained by his numerous outings and pithy quotes, but this sort of ad hominem attack is poor form.

To which Hitchens replies from high atop his high horse:

I don’t write articles in order that they ‘pass without comment.’ But Gore Vidal is much more gravely insulted by his defender Ben Farrington than he was by my words. I attacked Gore Vidal for what he had said and written (as far back as 2001), and praised him for many things he had written earlier. I made no reference at all to his mental or physical condition. That unhappy job has been taken on by Mr. Farrington, who convicts only himself of the charge he falsely levels. Even at his lowest, Vidal merits a more dignified defense than that.

The disparity between the tone of the letter (“I’ve been a fan, but this is poor form”) with the tone of the response (“gravely insulted”) is the first tip-off to the kind of dirty pool Hitchens is playing here: that Vidal is in mental decline is so heavily implied in Hitchens’ original piece that his “I’m shocked, shocked to hear someone say it” pose in his response here can only be the most disingenuous kind of carnival-barking. And it’s made that much worse, that much more cowardly, by the fact that Farrington’s letter wasn’t the only one VF received defending Vidal – it was just the easiest one for Hitchens to tee up and swat onto the fairway.

Which is extra frustrating this time around, since this issue of Vanity Fair also features a new piece by Hitchens that’s actually playful, immensely readable, and even instructive (on the debit side, it’s only 140 characters long, as the Tweeterization of great American magazines continues apace). It’s called “The New Commandments,” and the bulk of it is Hitchens taking a snide but smart tour of the Ten Commandments and their attendant cloud of Scriptural addendums and clarifications. True, he’s willfully obtuse on some points (especially “Thou Shalt Not Kill”), but overall the piece is amusing (hence my reluctance to pass over it without comment!).

By far the biggest laugh in the piece comes when Hitchens actually writes “I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism” when the article is 100 percent entirely based on doing exactly that. And by far the most interesting part is when Hitchens indulges himself in creating the “new commandments” of the title. The tone sometimes veers way too close to the nauseating Upper West Side pan-validation so endemic to moral discourse today (“Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child” … “Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature …” etc.), but it’s always fun to see what other people’s Ten would look like, and some of these – “Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions” – remind us (and these days we desperately need the reminder) that Hitchens is, in fact, one of the foremost humanists of our time. Say what you want about the man (and I’ve said plenty), he’s not only actively thinking his way through life, he abhors mindlessness in all its forms. We need to hear from that Hitchens as often as possible.

One puzzling note: at one point Hitchens writes “It’s difficult to take oneself with sufficient seriousness to begin any sentence with the words ‘Thou shalt not.’” As long-time readers of Stevereads will know, I have no difficulty taking myself seriously enough to mimic the Almighty! This naturally got me thinking about my own Ten, done up ala Vanity Fair (not to be confused with my ongoing list of Steve’s Pet Peeves, which is currently at 117 and healthily growing! The latest was added just yesterday: When people fifty yards in front of you stop and hold a door open for you, then get irritated when you don’t effing run in response). Let’s give it a whirl, shall we?

1. Thou Shalt Not Be Pretentious
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Lazy
3. Thou Shalt Not Postpone Necessary Work
4. Thou Shalt Not Smoke
5. Thou Shalt Not Eat Meat
6. Thou Shalt Not Summarize Last Night’s “Lost”
7. Thou Shalt Not Talk to Children as though They were Sugarplum Fairies
8. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Thy Dogs
9. Thou Shalt Not Talk on Thy Phone in Public
10. Thou Shalt Not Say “Going Forward” or use “Impact” as a Verb

See? That wasn’t so hard! Believe me, the ‘Thou Shalt Not’s get easier as you go along! Perhaps Hitchens should give it a try. He could start with “Thou Shalt Not Take Cheap Shots” and go from there.

gratuitous shot of rancid tobacco addict Kellan Lutz, from this issue

January 16th, 2010

Penny Press Addendum: The Lying in Winter

gore vidal by piotr lesniak

I knew something like this was coming, and I thought I was prepared to control my outrage. A friend alerted me to a one-page squib in the latest Vanity Fair (I intended to wholesale ignore the issue, since it was boring enough to feature a philandering famous athlete the cover) in which Christopher Hitchens – him again! – takes a public potshot at Gore Vidal. I acquired the page in question (a single page! I’m starting to wonder if the brevication bug I spotted over at the Atlantic isn’t as widespread as termites throughout the printed world), and boy, it sure packs a lot of sly vilification and sloppy vituperation into only a few paragraphs.

The tiff – such as it is – arises from the fact that over a decade ago, Vidal apparently began referring to Hitchens as his heir apparent in the realm of literary gadfly-hacks, then 9/11 happened and the Iraq war began, and not only did two writers find themselves on different sides of the issue (Hitchens famously supporting the war, Vidal applying the same ‘Washington must have known’ gambit to 9/11 as he’s done for years to Pearl Harbor), but Vidal began publicly scoffing at the very idea that he ever nominated Hitchens as his successor.

The little squib in Vanity Fair is a decidedly odd production. Hitchens starts off with some tepid praise of the Vidal That Was (I honestly think Hitchens has grown so enamored of his linguistic virtuosity that he thinks he’s the only person who can see when his praise is tepid … like he’s having a good little laugh behind his hand as he fools us all into thinking this is the face of his enthusiasm – it seems impossible, but if it’s true, somebody really needs to remind this guy that you can’t have private little jokes if you’ve published every thought you’ve ever had for the last twenty years) – he’s our Wilde! – then immediately starts in with the pussy-footed knocks:

I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.

This is only the first whiff of the scurrilous cowardice that animates this little jingle (“very, very minor tendency,” in truth? But not so minor you don’t bring it up, right?)(and if any of you imagine for a second that Hitchens himself has ever forgotten even the smallest slight, real or imagined, I’ve got a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you). Things get worse when Hitchens starts talking about a lengthy interview Vidal recently granted to the London Independent, in which Vidal goes into Full Crank mode, gnawing on about the downfall of America, the dominance of China, and whatever other favorite sawhorses he felt like talking about with the interviewer. Hitchens affects to deplore such rhetoric – “What business does this patrician have in gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?” he plaintively asks, a rather ironic inquiry coming from the in-house apologist for The Nation.

It’s only toward the end of the piece (that is, immediately after its beginning) that Hitchens veers close to what is probably his true motivation. He’s talking about Vidal issuing that repudiation of the very idea that he would call Hitchens his successor:

Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted – I have the correspondence – and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character – a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.

How about if we call it assisted suicide? Does that make base betrayal a bit easier to swallow?

The sordidness of this business is very efficiently encapsulated in that horrifying line “I have the correspondence” (the equally loud and only barely unspoken second part, “…and I’m happy to publish it” certainly goes a long way toward explaining Vidal’s towering, disillusioned bitterness with the world in general). Hitchens trots out as much of the Independent interview (I’m not sure they’ll appreciate the gesture, gutter market that they apparently are) as he thinks will serve his purpose of charting a mental decline, including this knee-jerk summary Vidal gives of some of his famous writing coevals:

Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.

Hitchens laments: “One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second.” But long-time readers of Vidal will instantly point out that he’s never shown all that much grace or generosity to those of his contemporaries he considers fools (indeed, several of the top-form enshrined quotes Hitchens alludes to are savage – and savagely funny – toward other writers). And there’s also the fact – apparently weightless to Hitchens but perhaps not to everybody – that those three literary assessments, in addition to being flippant, are entirely accurate.

But Hitchens criticisms miss two bigger points by a mile, and a reader looking to understand this little squib will be hard-pressed to understand how this could be. First, sarcastic flippancy hasn’t replaced wit or profundity on the subject of, say, Vidal’s literary peers – we in fact have the wit and profundity, on all three of those writers and hundreds more, fully preserved in Vidal’s essays. What’s the man supposed to do at age 85? Endless parrot his best lines, or endlessly coin new ones? He’s old and intermittently sick and running out of time – perhaps he’s entitled to a little sarcasm, especially if he’s feeling like his interviewer could come up with better questions.

But the second big point is the more important of the two, and it’s one every other eager young(er) literary gun out there should heed before they launch their own little broadsides against the old lion: Vidal is in what we used to call his dotage. This isn’t to say he’s demented, not at all (or at least not necessarily) – but he is, though it seem impossible for such an erstwhile paragon of youth, granddad. Granddad gets cranky (being old is, as is commonly attested by the old and universally disbelieved by the not-old, no picnic); granddad has pet theories that aren’t always sensible; granddad can be abrupt, and his abruptness can hurt feelings. A year from now, two at the most, and granddad won’t be here anymore – and he knows it, and he hates it. The lesson of the story? Once granddad is in his dotage, you suffer him in silence. Period. You don’t justify yourself. You don’t try to win old arguments. You don’t produce his correspondence. You suffer him in silence, and you thereby hope to be treated so well when it’s your turn.

The vital thing to remember when you finish this little squib of Hitchens’ is the relative scale of what we’re seeing here. Yes, the Vidal That Is continually says unworthy things in unworthy ways. But Hitchens has been writing professionally for what? Thirty years? More? And for that he has what to show the year 2210? So far: nothing. Ephemera, often bashed out hung over ten minutes before deadline. Thirty years ago, Vidal had produced a body of work almost unequalled by any 20th century practitioner of English – and that was before he collected United States or wrote Palimpsest. It entitles him to forbearing silence whenever the tawdriness of his dotage makes an appearance. It obliges Hitchens and his ilk to shut their disrespectful yaps about inscriptions on frontispieces.

And that doesn’t even touch on the obligation shat upon by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, whose typically sanctimonious issue preface revs the readers’ appetite for the squib to come, sarcastically saying, “As you well know, our columnist has never used his soapbox for anything less than a well-turned intellectual inquiry. In this issue, the topic happens to be somewhat personal, but no less intelligent: Gore Vidal. Vidal has written for and appeared in this magazine going back to the first Bush administration …”

Yes he has, and what thanks does he get for it from his editor? The respectful silence I mentioned? No, he gets a squib by an attack-dog greenlighted against him. On the chance that it’ll interest ten people, or better still, draw a response from Vidal himself.

Such a response might come, and no doubt Carter is hoping it’ll be salacious and Hitchens is hoping it’ll be conciliatory (or, lacking that, looney). Me, I’m hoping – though I know it’s impossible – that it’s somehow magically from the Gore Vidal of twenty or so years ago (you know, around Hitchens’ age). Imagining that riposte – and the party-colored carpet-smears that would be all that remained of Hitchens afterwards – is pretty much the only thing that put a smile on my face about this wretched little piece.

We’ll talk about books next time, to cleanse the mental palate.

January 5th, 2010

United States!

Our book today is  Gore Vidal’s mammoth collection of essays, United States, which was published in 1993, won him the National Book Award, and will almost certainly stand as the greatest work of his long and varied career (I write ‘almost’ here out of superstitious reflex – Janus-faced rumors have abounded for years, after all: that the man is so far deteriorated mentally that he can no longer distinguish past from present or craft a coherent line of prose, and that the man has been steadily working on a book that will strike amazement, both hallowing and exploding the very notion of late style). His various scripts and stage plays are embarrassments of catty infighting; his novels are radically uneven in the way that can only come from a having a sense of literary entitlement to write novels in the first place. Each is a grand soiree of the season – any hint of a work ethic is entirely absent. So meticulous triumphs like Julian or Creation will give way to narcissistic cryptograms like Hollywood or The Golden Age (or the breathtakingly horrifying Live from Golgotha); Vidal has amassed a cadre of loyal fans over the decades, and in his novels he forces them to read the tea leaves of his creative moods, without seeming to care about their embarrassment, or his own.

But his essays – by turns dazzling and erudite and chatty and tossed off and so, so often brilliant – soar. Here the various lamentable trainings his early life gave Vidal (that true literary success was success in writing fiction, or that the 19th century concept of writing theme-fiction was, gawd help us, still an artistically valid thing to do in a post-Fitzgerald world) are burnt and purged away. What remains is polished stone – it can take any weight, and it glitters when the light hits it just right.

The essays in United States span four decades, from 1952 to 1992, and Vidal divides them into three large categories: The State of the Art, in which he concentrates on writers and books, The State of the Union, in which he concentrates on how seldom the Kennedys took his advice, and The State of Being, in which he allows chit-chat to run gloriously, uncontrollably rampant. Each section has its appeals, and because each moves forward in time independently of the others, each has its perils as well, although all the perils can be summarized in one quick warning label: like Oedipus, Lear, and Elvis, Vidal started out gorgeous and (therefore?) grew to be quite mad.

Any re-reading of United States will involuntarily stumble across the madness, alas. The same old brass-notes are hit again and again – hidden conspiracies of the wealthy and powerful, secret cabals chortling over their unparalleled – and undetected – control over all aspects of American society, every missed taxi cab or miscalculated meal check a knowing wink from paymaster to plaything. The regular harping on such notes is the price we pay for admission to the genius – and the humor – of the rest, as soiling a price as it might be, especially since the sincerity of Vidal’s jeremiads is severely undercut by his painfully obvious longing to be invited into a cabal or two. Those invites never come (we never implored him, across party lines and unanimously, to be our President! He’s bigger than the rest of us, he’s let bygones be bygones, but you can tell this still bothers him), and out of bitterness he reacts like all autocrats – by calling for revolution:

True revolution can only take place when things fall apart in the wake of some catastrophe – a lost war, a collapsed economy. We seem headed for the second. If so, then let us pray that that somber, all-confirming Bastille known as the consumer society will fall, as the first American revolution begins. It is long overdue.

Vidal was a genius early and lauded as a genius early, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he so quickly grew to believe that he was the only sighted man in a country – a world – full of the blind. But as stylistic tics go, it’s pretty damn annoying, especially for those of his readers who might, perhaps, know a thing or two about history themselves. Here he is in 1983:

To understand Nixon’s career you would have to understand the United States in the twentieth century, and that is something that our educational, political, and media establishments are not about to help us do. After all: no myth, no nation.

This couldn’t come any closer to Vidal writing “I am the only person in the world who can understand Nixon’s career,” and if you swap out the subjects you find it repeated throughout United States, to irksome effect.

But it’s only one effect in a vast menagerie, so it’s easy to forgive! This is a huge book (an intensely satisfying 1300 pages) of endless delights, and it would be wrong to say Vidal’s overweening egotism – that sense of him and only him – wasn’t one of those delights, perhaps even the greatest of them all. As the pages fall like individual flakes of snow, you soon find yourself socked in talk, buried in badinage, shuttered in schadenfreude . When Vidal finds himself sitting across from a zeppelinesque Orson Welles, watching the great man’s face redden with laughter, and he asks himself – which is to say, he asks aloud in front of us – what he would do if Welles had a stroke right there, you know the answer will not be – could never be – “call a doctor.” Lucky for Welles, it never happens – it would be a hard, hard thing for the creator of Citizen Kane to choke to death on his shrimp scampi while an epigone struggles for the right epigram.

The spotlight never really wavers, even when (perhaps especially when) our author is trying to waver it. In a charming little 1985 piece he wrote for Architectural Digest (most of the really charming pieces in this book weren’t written for self-consciously literary venues, which may constitute Vidal’s ultimate pronouncement on those venues and their readers), “At Home in a Roman Street,” he tries with an utterly deliberate insincerity to present himself as somehow not epochal:

Literature? Two blocks to our north, back of the Pantheon, Thomas Mann lived and wrote Buddenbrooks. Nearby, George Eliot stayed at the Minerva Hotel. Ariosto lived in Pantheon Square; Stendhal was close to us. I myself have written at least a part of every one of my books from Washington, D.C., to Lincoln in this flat. The last chapters of Lincoln were composed on the dining room table.

Italo Calvino now lives at the north of the street, and we cher confrere one another when we meet. Then we move on. Yes, we are all growing old. But a baby’s being born to the wife of the hardware-store owner, while a half-dozen babies of a few years ago are now men and women. So – plenty more where we came from. That is the lesson of the street. Meanwhile, what time is it? Free the bejeweled ladies held captive! Daffodils, tulips, and mimosa! What time is it? The same.

The humor here is bruising – we cannot believe that ‘plenty more where we came from’ even if we want to. And given how thoroughly, how openly Vidal disbelieves it, we often very much do want to believe it – but it’s not possible. The sheer power of the achievement that is United States admits of no quibbling – the book has only one real equal in the 20th century (and only because nobody in that benighted era succeeded in creating equivalent volumes for the two or three other giants whose periodic deadline-work still lies scattered over a thousand fields; indeed, given the parlous state of publishing today, these volumes might never get created), the collected essays of V.S. Pritchett, and in a 1979 appreciation, Vidal has the quick and entirely amiable good grace to acknowledge it (although not, of course, without hobby-horsing around):

The fact that America’s English departments are manned by the second-rate is no great thing. The second-rate must live, too. But in most civilized countries the second-rate are at least challenged by the first-rate. And score is kept in the literary journals. But as McDonald’s drives out good food, so these hacks of Academe drive out good prose. At ever level in our literary life they flourish. In fact, they have now taken to writing the sort of novels that other tenured hacks can review and teach. Entire issues of “literary journals” are written by them. Meanwhile, in the universities, they are increasing at a positively Malthusian rate; and an entire generation of schoolteachers and book chatterers now believes that an inability to master English is a sign of intellectual grace, and that a writer like Pritchett is not to be taken seriously because he eschews literary velleities for literary criticism.

But the extended, sonorous wonder of Pritchett’s collected literary essays is a decidedly high table affair, as elevated as it is elevating. In United States readers are treated (and there in the end no better word – for all its maddening mannerisms and in glowing conjunction with its gargantuan length, this book is one seemingly unending treat) to a much wider register – the backstairs and the kitchen are invited to mix in the merriment. The verbal portraits here are so vivid as to be actionable, as in this 1965 take on the deservedly forgotten fourth-rate novelist John Horne Burns:

In 1947 The Gallery by John Horne Burns was published, to great acclaim; the best book of the Second World War. That same year Burns and I met several times, each a war novelist and each properly wary of the other. Burns was then thirty-one with a receding hairline above a face striking in its asymmetry, one ear flat against the head, the other stuck out. He was a difficult man who drank too much, loved music, detested all other writers, and wanted to be great (he had written a number of novels before the war, but none was published). He was also certain that to be a good writer it was necessary to be homosexual. When I disagreed, he named half a dozen celebrated contemporaries. “A pleiad,” he roared delightedly, “of pederasts!”But what about Faulkner, I asked, and Hemingway. He was disdainful. Who said they were any good? And besides, hadn’t I heard how Hemingway once …

We can note the cat-like delicacy with which the author refrains from quite actually calling The Gallery the best book of the Second World War; we can see the significance always given to asymmetry by the flawlessly symmetrical; we can laugh out loud at Gore Vidal calling himself a war novelist; we can share a fraternal certitude that “a pleiad of pederasts” was never roared delightedly at any point in Western history … but the point is, we do all these things while in the full torrent of the narrative, as helplessly swept away as if we couldn’t tell a velleity from a strawberry daiquiri. That’s the prevailing power of United States: it’s the apotheosis of gossip.

In 1959 Vidal wrote, “All of us tend more or less consciously to arrange our personas in an attractive way,” and certainly United States stands as a vast monument to the author’s own such floral arrangements, perhaps the most psychopathically self-serving yet overwhelmingly entertaining example of such an arrangement since The Education of Henry Adams. And besides, haven’t you heard how Adams once …