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Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

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“The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal” (Gore Vidal)

I’ve read a few of Gore Vidal’s 24 novels, and actually agree with this slightly prickly review by Louis Bayard – Vidal is best as an essayist.

Vidal has confessed that his primary passion in life is not writing but reading, and judging from these deeply informed essays, I can well believe it. Others may suspect him of less pure motives. His social circle has been notable for its glamour, and his willingness to grant audiences to every reporter who comes calling has passed well beyond compulsion. Interviews, in general, bring out his very worst grandstanding impulses and goad him into his most insupportable statements (a bizarre defense of Timothy McVeigh, for instance, and the usual cockamamie theorizing about 9/11).

Vidal’s well-documented reputation as a go-to provocateur has made it all too easy to overlook his astonishing work ethic: 24 novels, five plays, two memoirs, screenplays, television dramas, short stories, pamphlets and more than 200 essays. As this particular collection makes clear, Vidal writes to live. Approvingly, he recalls the final days of Edmund Wilson: “He was perfect proof of the proposition that the more the mind is used and fed the less apt it is to devour itself. When he died, at seventy-seven, he was busy stuffing his head with irregular Hungarian verbs. Plainly, he had a brain to match his liver.”

Plainly, too, Vidal has a brain to match his self-regard. And late at night, when the blandishments of ego subside and a new book lies open in his lap, his lifelong, half-requited love for the novel still burns bright — no matter that the novel itself is fading into insignificance. “Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end,” he wrote in 1967, “if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.”

[From Lou Bayard’s review of “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal” | Salon Books]

From Amazon/Reed Elsevier:

Vidal’s daunting career has encompassed 24 novels, 11 essay collections, six plays, two memoirs and countless occasional writings. This new collection is an entry point into this literary giant’s work for a new generation of readers, offering some of Vidal’s most famous and entertaining essays from the past 50-odd years. Compiled and introduced by Parini (The Last Station), Vidal’s literary executor, the pieces range across Vidal’s far-flung areas of expertise, resting most frequently and contentiously on literature and presidential politics of the past and present. His assessment of The Top Ten Bestsellers of January 7, 1973, is a savagely meticulous dissection of middlebrow American taste, while American Plastic tacks in the opposite direction, skewering the academy-approved, theory-based fiction of Donald Barthelme and William Gass with derisive glee. Vidal’s comfort in puncturing conventional wisdom with his wit and analysis is fully displayed throughout, most notably in his discussion of the battle over the Kennedy legacy in The Holy Family and the controversial Black Tuesday, which condemns the Bush administration for its alleged imperial ambitions in the wake of September 11.

Though, many of the essays chosen for this new collection have been previously published in United States: Essays 1952-1992. If you already own that, not much need to repurchase the same writing in different jacket.


“United States” (Gore Vidal)

This mammoth omnibus of 114 essays is vintage Vidal, a marvelous compendium of sharp wit and independent judgment that confirms his status as a man of letters. The prolific novelist/critic offers withering putdowns of the French “new novel,” billionaire Howard Hughes and bestseller lists. He displays a reporter’s hard nose for facts in travel pieces on Nasser’s Egypt and Mongolia. He pens definitive portraits of H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, Anthony Burgess, L. Frank Baum. He reminisces on his boyhood friendship with Amelia Earhart, who, we learn, was in love with Vidal’s father, Eugene, FDR’s director of commercial aviation. Mingling patrician impulses and egalitarian, subversive sentiments, Vidal takes unfashionable stances, as when he urges the legalization of drugs or ending military aid to the Middle East, including Israel. His sense of the United States as hub of an overextended empire informs pieces on “American sissy” Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, CIA spook E. Howard Hunt and the bloated military budget.

Written by Seth Anderson

June 23rd, 2008 at 9:12 am

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