Gore Vidal, historical novelist

We were driving from Georgia to Panama in one of those new-fangled Chrysler Jeeps. Stopped for the night at an old Brownsville hotel. It must have been 1975.

The hotel TV had one channel, Mexican. We opened our beers and watched a discussion panel argue lit crit. The three Mexicans spoke in Spanish; Gore Vidal listened in Spanish and answered in English, so we could follow a quarter of the conversation.

This was not the witty, quick, entertaining Gore Vidal you saw on US TV or in essays; this was an intense, agitated, but dull man making pedantic points flatly in a subject he was unfit to discuss. We were watching Gore Vidal, writer of bad historical novels, purveyor of awful fictional techniques and wooden dialog, a kind of alter ego to the public persona that will not be remembered in the obituaries coming out now.

Just as his contemporary, Shelby Foote, converted himself from a great novelist to an indifferent nonfiction writer, Gore Vidal transformed himself from a great essayist into a miserable author of history novels. Foote's switch brought in money and an adoring public. Vidal's switch must have lost him money and public. But he kept at it.

Shortly after Lincoln came out, I visited the Strand bookstore downtown in New York and there was one of those new book displays: a mountain of Lincolns. They were autographed hardbacks marked down to $5 each. (I bought two.)

The reader of this blog is most likely to have read Lincoln (among Vidal's works), so let me refresh a few memories here.

There was a lineal plot which, since it conformed to past timelines, sucked the anticipation out of the ordeal of reading. Reading was an ordeal because the prose was dry and earnest and it moved in straight lines. Characters were not integral to the plot but were inventory items on an historical checklist; they had to be present, kept busy somehow. They had to be there in the fiction because they had been there in history.

For Gore Vidal, the historical novel was a meander that touched on past events in the correct order leaving most in, regardless of story value. If you were a buff, I suppose the appeal might be to make a list of all the people and events included. Maybe that was the challenge for him - how much history he could pile into a fictional format.

When Anthony Powell, Olivia Manning, and Evelyn Waugh chose to write fiction about WWII, there was very little outright war in their books and no Great Men. Had their contemporary Vidal chosen to do a novel about that experience late in his career, it would have had scenes with Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and all the major military personalities. It would have conformed to the events of what we now call public history.

And the technique would be awful.

Those who know Vidal's essays know how old fashioned his writing style was. But within the essay form, he was adept, and the essay itself is a forgiving vehicle for conservative prose.

In the world of historical novels, Vidal's vintage nonfiction style slumped into a childish primitivism that never even reached the level of pulp fiction, say an Edgar Rice Burroughs or a Sax Rohmer. In Lincoln, for example, there is a scene with John Wool. Wool is of no interest in the novel and serves no plot purpose. Vidal uses Wool's imagined words to convey essential historical information - background - that is not necessary for fiction. We interrupt this novel to bring you this important public service announcement.

Further, what the Wool character says and the way he says it has no Wool in it at all, if you know your Wool, and could as easily be read aloud on the nightly news or mouthed by a gypsy fortuneteller.

This is one example of bad practice; there are many more and they are painful.

If we had enough critics in this society and in publishing especially, the first question in a Gore Vidal interview in the last decades would always have been, "What do you think you are doing?" followed by, "And whom are you doing that for?"

Of course, if we had enough such critics this blog would not be needed.


Update (8/7/12)

The general run of obits have been insincere and comically inept but check out these two:

Andrew Ferguson - AF is a favorite essayist of mine but Vidal was better at essays. On the other hand, AF did better Lincoln stuff.

Taki - Taki has a message for conservatives: don't go right-wing on Vidal!! Think of Taki as someone constantly striving to be as offensive as Vidal was (in his own way).

Vidal belonged to a time when our world could take insult and offense in stride and even laugh at its own politics. Those were the days, let me tell you.

(Have I been kicked off the Internet yet?)