Until recently, I had only vague notions of who Gore Vidal was. Mostly, I thought of him as an actor because of his appearance as Professor Pitkannan in the 1994 film With Honors. A while back, I picked up the audio book version of Gore Vidal’s massive United States: Essays 1952-1992. At the time, I was intrigued on two counts. First, and foremost, “essays.” I love the form, and enjoy reading essays, and am always looking for new sources. I’ve read and re-read E. B. White (probably my favorite essayist), Andy Rooney, John McPhee, Isaac Asimov, and many others. So when I saw a 60+ hour audio book containing more than 100 essays, I couldn’t resist.
I did resist reading it, however, for many months. Until just the other day, when, while browsing for something to read to close out 2021, I settled on United States. Of course, I’m not likely to finish so long a book, even at the 1.7x speed that I listen at, before the end of 2021. But I wasn’t going to let that technicality get in the way.
I am now about 15 essays into the book and find that I can’t stop reading it. This, despite the fact that there are large sections of it that feel over my head. I picked up the e-book so that I could highlight passages and make notes along the way. I am particularly amused by the tone of the essays, which some across so self-assured that I am almost fooled into agreeing with everything I read, even those parts that I don’t understand.
The first part of the book focuses on the arts so what I have been reading is a lot of criticism and reviews of other writers, and in particular, of novels. It seems to me that Gore Vidal knows everything–or that he is such a good writer that he makes it seem like he knows everything. As one who considers myself fairly well-read, I am often at a loss reading Vidal’s essays. That said, by sheer coincidence, he seems to be focusing several of his essays on writers of what he calls the “new” novel. (His contempt for this is no less severe than for what I suppose is the “old” novel.) These include writers like Donald Barthelme, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a few others, all of whom I read for one class in my senior year in college on “meta-fiction.” He refers several times, for instance, to Barthleme’s The Dead Father, which I first read sometime in 1994 and again in 1999.
Often, when reading these essays, my mind goes elsewhere because I can’t always follow the references, clearly having read less than Vidal. The thing is: I can’t stop reading this book. Indeed, as the title suggests, the book covers essays published between 1952 and 1992, representing “two thirds of the essays or pieces” that Vidal published during that span of 40 years. But Gore Vidal lived until 2012, so I did some searching and found a second volume, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. And then I found his memoirs, beginning with Palimpsest. I bought them all.
I can’t yet say what I think of these essays, but the fact that I can’t stop reading them must say something. There is a rhythm to the language Vidal uses that I admire, although it isn’t my style. It might be the opposite of, say, E. B. White, in fact. But that’s a great thing about writing. Style has an affect separate from content. I can say that I am enjoying this book, even when I am not exactly sure what I am enjoying. I suspect that as I move into more familiar territory, later in the book, things will clear up for me a bit.
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