Saturday, November 6, 2010

UNITED STATES: ESSAYS 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

"What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America." -- Gore Vidal

The above line is from Vidal's review "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements" (1960), reprinted in United States, a wrist-achingly large volume that I keep within easy reach of my writing desk because it's a great book to pick up and read at random. Almost every one of its 1271 pages (not counting index) contains something perfectly phrased, elegantly provocative, deliciously witty, and/or shockingly true. United States is one of my bibles, and I frequently turn to it for leftist inspiration. Along with his fabulous memoir Palimpsest, this is the essential nonfiction Vidal (there's no such thing as 'essential Vidal' in fiction; his novels are so varied and consistently good that pretty much everything is essential, from Julian to Myra Breckinridge to Creation to Lincoln and beyond), and the vast intellectual range in evidence both here and in his novels marks Vidal as that rare thing, an authentically cosmopolitan writer, a literary citizen not just of America, but of the world. Those European critics who accuse American writers of insularity and provincialism (Nobel bigwig and all-around Swedish dork Horace Engdahl comes to mind) should be politely reminded that Vidal and Paul Bowles and W. E. B. Du Bois and William T. Vollmann and even Paul Theroux are all, yes, American writers. And their wildly cosmopolitan works, as much as the more domestic fictions of Updike, Carver, Oates, et al, constitute American literature.

True, Vidal calls the book United States, and the 'matter of America' is a focus of much of the work herein, but these essays also range from modern Rome to modern Mongolia, from the mafia-infested Italy of Sciascia to the fantastical one of Calvino, from the far out worlds of Doris Lessing's science fiction to the even farther out ones of neoconservative homophobia (in the deserves-to-be-classic essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"). Vidal was writing against the neocons before most people even knew their collective name. He was criticizing and satirizing the French new novel at a time when most readers were still trying to understand it. (Myra Breckinridge is, among much else, a killing parody of the ecole de Robbe-Grillet.) And his warnings about the dangers of the academicization of literature now appear dismally prescient. Elsewhere in this endless Borgesian book of sand we find entertaining memoirs of Vidal's friends Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles, a survey of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, essays on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy (another friend of Vidal's), an assessment of Yukio Mishima, an account of a 1963 trip to Egypt, and a scathing polemic against monotheism. It's all here, most of it's true, and every word of it is worth reading. If you don't already own a copy of United States, get your hands on one ASAP. It is not to be missed.

1 comment:

Joe Miller said...

Thanks for the heads up on this collection. His musings on Calvino and the piece titled 'Sex Is Politics' are fantastic.

His review of Henry Miller's Rosy Crucifixion had me laughing my ass off. It's easily the best book review I've ever read. A few of my favorite passages: "Like shadows in a solipsist's daydream, the other characters flit through the narrative, playing straight to the relentless old exhibitionist whose routine has not changed in nearly half a century. Pose one: Henry Miller, sexual athlete. Pose two: Henry Miller, literary genius and life force. Pose three: Henry Miller and the cosmos (they have an understanding). The narrative is
haphazard. Things usually get going when Miller meets a New
Person at a party. New Person immediately realizes that this is no ordinary man. In fact, New Person's whole life is often changed after exposure to the hot radiance of Henry Miller. For opening the door to Feeling, Miller is then praised by New Person in terms which might turn the head of God— but not the head of Henry Miller, who notes each compliment with the gravity of the recording angel."

"At least half of Sexus consists of tributes to the wonder of Henry
Miller. At a glance men realize that he KNOWS. Women realize that he IS."

"Yet Henry never seems to do anything for anyone, other than to
provide moments of sexual glory which we must take on faith. He
does, however, talk a lot and the people he knows are addicted to his
conversation. "Don't stop talking now...please," begs a woman
whose life is being changed, as Henry in a manic mood tells her all
sorts of liberating things like "Nothing would be bad or ugly or
evil— if we really let ourselves go. But it's hard to make people
understand that." To which the only answer is that of another
straight man in the text who says, "You said it, Henry. Jesus, having
you around is like getting a shot in the arm." For a man who boasts
of writing nothing but the truth, I find it more than odd that not
once in the course of a long narrative does anyone say, "Henry, you're full of shit." It is
possible, of course, that no one ever did, but I doubt it."

"Sentences swell and billow, engulfing syntax. Arcane words are put to use, often accurately: ectoplasmic, mandibular, anthropophagous, terrene, volupt, occipital, fatidical."

"Then, lurking pale and wan in this jungle of rich prose, are the Thoughts: "Only the
great, the truly distinctive individuals resemble one another.
Brotherhood doesn't start at the bottom, but at the top." Or: "Sex
and poverty go hand in hand." The interesting thing about the
Thoughts is that they can be turned inside out and the effect is
precisely the same: "Sex and affluence go hand in hand," and so on."

"From the beginning of the
United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate. Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the
vice of thinking. Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth. This may well be true but Miller is hard put to prove it, if only because to make a case of any kind, cerebration is necessary, thereby betraying the essential position. On the one hand, he preaches the freedom of the bird, without attachments or the need to justify anything in words, while on the other hand, he feels obligated to write long books in order to explain the cosmos to us. The paradox is that
if he really meant what he writes, he would not write at all. But then
he is not the first messiah to be crucified upon a contradiction."