Thursday, 1 January 2015

GORE VIDAL Julian (1964)

Abacus/Little, Brown & Company UK, 2001

Julian was Christian in everything except his tolerance of others.  He was what the Christians would call a saint.  Yet he swung fiercely away from the one religion which suited him perfectly, preferring its eclectic origins, which he then tried to systematize into a new combination quite as ridiculous as the synthesis he had rejected.  It is a strange business and there is no satisfactory explanation for Julian's behavior...Granted, no educated man can accept the idea of a Jewish rebel as god.  But having rejected that myth, how can one then believe that the Persian hero-god Mithras was born of light striking rock, on December 25th, with shepherds watching his birth?  (I am told that the Christians have just added those shepherds to the birth of Jesus.)  Or that Mithras lived in a fig tree which fed and clothed him, that he fought with the sun's first creation, the bull, that he was dragged by it (thus symbolizing man's suffering) until the bull escaped; finally, at the command of the sun god, Mithras stabs the bull with a knife and from the beast's body came flowers, herbs, wheat; from the blood, wine; from the seed, the first man and woman.  Then Mithras is called up to heaven, after celebrating a sacramental last supper.  Time's end will be a day of judgment when all will rise from their graves and evil will be destroyed while the good will live forever in the light of the sun.

The Novel:  Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus was the sixty-third Emperor of Rome, known as 'Julian the Apostate' because he unsuccessfully attempted to break the stranglehold Christianity had come to exert over the Empire he'd inherited –– somewhat reluctantly, according to most historians –– from his cousin and staunchly Christian predecessor Constantius II in 361CE.  (Constantius II was himself the third son of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome who was later canonized by the Catholic Church for the part he played in eradicating paganism and encouraging his subjects to convert to the 'one true religion.')  By personally embracing and officially sanctioning a return to the Hellenistic polytheism of his Augustan forbears, Julian sought to strengthen and reinvigorate an Empire which he feared was in danger of being destroyed from within by religious dissent and from without by the barbarian hordes which, for years, had been harassing it along its borders in Central Europe and the Middle East.  Born in either 331CE or 332CE in the Empire's eastern capital Constantinople (today known as Istanbul), Julian died from a wound received in battle on 26 June 363CE while leading a campaign against the Persians in Mesopotamia, ending a reign which, though brief in duration, had been notable for its many wise and efficiently-implemented reforms and its emphasis on the study and appreciation of philosophy, rhetoric and other predominantly 'Greek' forms of culture and religious observance.

Julian is Gore Vidal's imaginative recreation of the Emperor's short but surprisingly well-documented life, a masterly historical novel notable for its wit, humor, intelligence and unapologetic debunking of the Christian ethos and the arrogant (not to mention unproven) assumption that the Christian deity was the 'one true God' and that any other belief system must, by implication, be automatically heretical and therefore 'wrong.'

The story, which is mostly told by Julian himself in memoir form with acerbic and occasionally comedic interpolations from his teachers and literary executors, the Greek philosophers Libanius and Priscus, begins with his birth and childhood in the Roman province of Bithynia (modern day Turkey).  He's raised here as a Christian under the watchful eye of Eusebius, Bishop of Nicodemia and his private tutor, the strict and clever eunuch Mardonius.  When Eusebius dies, Constantius II has Julian and his elder half-brother Gallus taken to Macellum, the Imperial estate in distant Cappadocia, where they spend the next six years living under the supervision of George, that province's trusted Christian bishop.  

It is in Cappadocia, while painstakingly reading his way through the bishop's extensive library, that Julian is first exposed to philosophy via the works of the Neo-Platonist thinker Plotinus – something that provides him with some much-needed spiritual comfort, given that his life, along with that of the older, more dashing but exceedingly cruel Gallus, is in constant danger from their wary and paranoid cousin the Emperor, who has had every one of their other relatives, including Julian's own parents, executed as a precautionary measure.  The half-brothers remain in exile until 351CE when, with Gallus newly-installed as the Empire's 'Caesar of the East' (a kind of junior Emperor who governed the eastern half of the Empire while Constantius II was busy governing and pacifying its western provinces), Julian is finally given permission to return to Constantinople. 

Franklin Library US, 1981
Philosophy now becomes the dominant passion of Julian's life, so much so that he plans to make the study and practice of it his lifelong occupation.  He first becomes the pupil of the philosopher Aedesius and then of Aedesius' own pupil Maximus, who convinces him to abandon Christianity in favor of returning to the old Roman polytheistic religion, which involves the worship of various gods via animal sacrifice and other such 'heretical' practices.  Julian, who has now grown into a garrulous young man of the priggish undergraduate variety, is living and studying grammar and rhetoric in the city of Nicodemia when news reaches him that Gallus, whose elevation to the role of Caesar has transformed him into a corrupt and vicious monster, has been assassinated at the request of Constantius II.  Fearful that Julian might try to avenge his parents' deaths by staging a coup against him, the Emperor has him summoned to the Imperial court at Milan where he's kept prisoner for a year, only to be released in 354CE at the urging of the Empress Eusebia who arranges for him to travel to Athens where he hopes to resume his interrupted studies.  His stay in the Greek capital proves to be a short one, however, lasting only until October 355CE.  One year later he's summoned back to Milan, where he's crowned 'Caesar of the West' and married off to Helena, Constantius II's unattractive twenty-nine year old sister.  Immediately after the wedding he's packed off to Paris, where he's saddled with the unenviable task of subduing the rebellious German tribes making trouble for the Empire along the Rhine despite having received no training whatsoever as either a soldier or a military tactician. 

The time Julian spends in Gaul (modern day France) proves to be the making of him.  He successfully outfights the Germans, winning a famous victory over the Alammani tribe and another over the Franks of the Lower Rhine soon afterwards.  These victories make him popular with his Gaulish troops, whose strong sense of personal loyalty to him is strengthened by his defiance of an order, issued by Constantius II in February 360CE, to send them east to defend the Empire's eastern border against the invading Persians.  (The Gauls aren't opposed to the idea fighting, per se.  What they object to is being obliged to travel such vast distances to do it.)  Although Julian tries to comply with the order, he's put in an untenable position by his troops, who burst into his tent during what's intended to be his farewell banquet and proclaim him Emperor, forcing him, at swordpoint, to either accept the title they seek to bestow on him or be executed on the spot.  Under his leadership, the Gaulish legions set out for Constantinople, intending to do battle with Constantius II and the eastern legions which have, for economic reasons of their own, chosen to remain loyal to him.  Before the armies can meet, however, news arrives that Constantius II has died, leaving instructions in his will that Julian is to become his sole successor.

The new Emperor enters Constantinople in triumph on 11 December 361CE and almost immediately sets about the task of restructuring not only life at court but also the public, economic and religious lives of the Empire itself.  Insisting that all religions will be tolerated under his rule, he then uses his Imperial power to exclude Christians from working as teachers and public servants while doing everything possible to restore his beloved paganism to what he feels should be its rightful place as the official state religion.  He lives an ascetic life, rigorously avoiding sex (his wife died in or around 329CE, possibly as a result of poison secretly administered by the then-Empress Eusebia, who feared that any children her sister-in-law might have with Julian would weaken her own position and thus see her lose her Imperial status), wine and the eating of meat, tirelessly devoting himself to the problems of state and his unrealized (and probably sabotaged) plans to rebuild the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, razed to the ground by besieging Roman legions in 70CE.  Never entirely certain of the loyalty of his eastern armies, Julian attempts to permanently secure their allegiance by launching a campaign against the Persians, feeling that a victory over the Persian king Sapor II will also win him the unwavering support of his own restless troops.  The decision to pursue this campaign, however, proves to be a rare and serious miscalculation.  Despite some impressive early victories, the campaign falters when, having won a battle outside its gates, the Roman army fails to press its advantage and capture the Persian capital.  Trapped deep in enemy territory, the Romans are obliged to use a different line of retreat than the one they originally planned to use, the result of which is Julian's own death, of a not immediately fatal spear wound, in June 363CE.

Edhasa Literaria Spain, date unspecified
The appeal of telling Julian's story in novelistic form lies not so much in its historical accuracy –– which is, of course, flawless –– but in Vidal's ability to bring the treacherous, religiously divided and very dangerous world of the later Roman Empire to life for the modern reader by focusing on the humanity of his characters and their many foibles, eccentricities and, above all, vanities.  The philosophers Libanius and Priscus dislike each other and rarely agree on anything, as the 'notes' they inscribe on Julian's autobiographical manuscript so frequently and humorously reveal.  Gallus is portrayed as a narcissistic control freak, while Constantius II comes across as a fourth century version of today's overstressed company director, struggling to keep his unwieldy Empire together while never daring to show his true feelings in case reliable friends suddenly become unreliable enemies who try to snatch it away from him.  Julian himself comes across as a bit of a humorless long-winded pedant, as zealous in his quest to re-establish the worship of the old gods as his ideological foes the Christians are to establish the preeminence of what they just as zealously insist is the 'one true God.'  His efforts to return Rome to Hellenism are laughable and, in another sense, sad –– a reminder of the fact that it's impossible for human beings to recapture or even try to replicate the past, no matter how committed they may be to proving how much better things were for everybody 'back in the good old days.'

Julian is also a novel about politics, but politics seen almost exclusively from an ironic, humanistic viewpoint in which the ups and downs of Imperial Rome are subtly and cleverly contrasted with the equally interesting if no less venal world of 1960s Washington.  (Vidal himself ran for office several times and was friendly with John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963 while the book was being written.  It was in Vidal's former bedroom, in the house belonging to his grandfather, that John and Jacqueline Kennedy spent the first night of their honeymoon.)  The Roman Empire and the democracies of the modern era are notable, Vidal suggests, not so much for their differences as for their many ludicrous similarities –– the seemingly endless array of schisms and petty feuds they inspire, the secret deals and the associated social and political pitfalls they give rise to, the inability of what are supposed to be intelligent, trustworthy and rational men and women to agree on anything, ever, for longer than a few hours at a time.  Julian, prig though he is, is also an idealist and the world – especially the political world –– is, as everyone acknowledges, no place for idealists.  As Vidal himself explains in his brief but pithy introduction:  'During the fifty years between the accession of Julian's uncle Constantine the Great and Julian's death at thirty-two, Christianity was established.  For better or worse, we are today very much the result of what they were then.'  A novel like Julian serves as a valuable reminder of how little we and the world our politicians do such a lacklustre job of pretending to run on our behalf have changed in the past two thousand years.

GORE VIDAL, c. 1964
The Writer:  The obituary published in the 1 August 2012 edition of The New York Times cuts through to the essence of what made Gore Vidal such a fascinating writer and, in another sense, such a difficult one to define.  He was, his obituarist Charles McGrath wrote, 'an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right.  Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent.'  Versatility, as Vidal himself may have been the first to admit, is not necessarily regarded as an asset in the dog-eat-dog world of American publishing, which tends to prefer its authors to work within neatly defined categories and takes a dim view of those who can't or will not do this.  Vidal wrote bestselling historical and satirical fiction, television dramas, film scripts, successful Broadway plays, two well-received memoirs and hundreds of social, literary and political essays and somehow still found time to run for a seat in Congress, appear on dozens of TV talk shows where he spoke honestly and unashamedly about his life as a homosexual, play supporting roles in movies like Gattaca (1997) and soap operas like Mary Hartman (1976) plus conduct a long-running public feud with right-wing columnist and writer William F Buckley.  (The feud, which dragged on for years and saw both men sue and counter-sue each other several times, began because Vidal called Buckley a 'crypto-Nazi' during a live 1968 television debate.)  He was a writer who not only reported and commented on his era, he was an artist who literally embodied it, becoming and remaining an indispensable part of the American literary scene for over sixty years.

Vidal was born Eugene Louis (or Luther, sources disagree) Gore Vidal in the Cadet Hospital of the West Point Military Academy in upper New York state on 3 October 1925.  His father, a two time Olympic athlete, was the Academy's aeronautics instructor who would later go on to co-found three major US airlines while his mother Nina –– a prominent socialite, part-time actress, alcoholic and future Senatorial candidate for the Democratic Party whose son grew up despising her –– would marry three more times following their 1935 divorce.  (Her second husband, the stockbroker Hugh D Auchincloss, eventually went on to marry the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, hence the Vidal/Kennedy connection –– a connection that Vidal, who understood how appealing the Kennedys were to a nation lacking its own royal family, never tired of alluding to in interviews.)  Vidal was mostly raised by his mother after his parents divorced but spent his happiest hours, he later said, at boarding school and in the Washington DC home of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the blind Democrat Senator for Oklahoma.  It was his grandfather, whom he enjoyed reading to as a child, who inspired what would become his lifelong interest in politics and social issues.  

Vidal graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1943 and immediately enlisted in the Reserve Corps of the US Army.  After a brief training period in Virginia, he joined the Army Transportation Corps and was sent to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska where, after rising to the rank of Warrant Officer and serving three years as First Mate on a transport ship, he contracted hypothermia and rheumatoid arthritis and was sent to a VA hospital.  It was on board ship, while making a run between Dutch Harbor and Chernowski Bay, that he wrote the bulk of what became, in 1946, his first published novel Williwaw.  This was followed in 1947 by In A Yellow Wood and two years later by The City and the Pillar, a book considered corrupting and deeply shocking in its day due to its frank portrayal of a young gay man struggling to confront and accept his 'aberrant' sexuality.  The book was dedicated to 'JT,' a pseudonym for Vidal's boyhood lover Jimmie Trimble whom he'd met at boarding school in the 1930s.  Vidal always claimed that Trimble, who died in 1945 during the battle to capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, was the only person he ever truly loved.  Boasting in later life that he'd enjoyed the favors of more than a thousand lovers before the age of twenty-five – a list which allegedly included Hollywood actors Tyrone Power and Fred Astaire and fellow writers Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac he nevertheless maintained a stable relationship with Howard Austen for more than thirty years which only ended with Austen's death from cancer in 2003.  

Vidal blamed the controversy caused by the publication of The City and The Pillar for what he deemed to be his subsequent snubbing by the New York literary establishment –– a statement challenged by critic Harold Bloom, who suggested that his lack of critical recognition owed more to his decision to work in the 'unfashionable' genre of historical fiction than to his outspokenness about homosexuality and other equally contentious issues.  Vidal went on to publish ten more novels between 1949 and 1954, half of which were popular, money-earning mysteries written under the pseudonyms 'Edgar Box, 'Katherine Everhard' and 'Cameron Kay.'  An easier and more reliable source of income proved to be the new medium of television, which he began writing for in 1955, eventually combining his success in this field (he could allegedly churn out a completed shooting script in a weekend, making him popular with producers) with an equally successful stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, serving as uncredited 'script doctor' for films such as Ben Hur (1959) in addition to adapting his own award-winning political play The Best Man (1964) for the screen.  

In 1960, weary of Hollywood and the artistic compromises it demanded of him –– and newly installed in a large home in Dutchess County, New York –– Vidal stood for election as the Democratic candidate for Congress under the name 'Eugene Gore.'  He failed to win the seat but won more votes than any Democratic candidate –– including future President John F Kennedy –– had won for more than half a century in what was considered to be a safe Republican stronghold.  Politics became increasingly dominant as both the subject of his fiction – he published the first part of his 'Narratives of Empire' series Washington, DC in 1967, one of six novels that examined American history through the eyes of one family between the Revolution and the 1950s –– and as the subject of the dozens of essays he wrote for publications like Esquire, The Nation and Vanity Fair over the ensuing decades.  

Vidal's outspokenness on political issues gradually saw him assume the role of 'elder statesman' of the American Left, casting a critical and highly acerbic eye on the nation's leaders, their policies and their unwillingness to challenge or even intelligently question the prevailing status quo'There is only one party in the United States,' he famously wrote in 1977, 'the Property Partyand it has two right wings:  Republican and Democrat.  Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt –– until recentlyand more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of handBut, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.'  Despite expressing these and other equally cynical (if perfectly valid) sentiments, he ran for office again in 1982, this time for pre-selection as the Senatorial candidate for California –– an election he lost to the incumbent Senator Jerry Brown, who in turn lost his seat to his Republican opponent, ex-actor Ronald Reagan.  

Vidal relocated to Italy in the early 1960s, buying a hilltop home in the town of Ravello which boasted panoramic views of the Amalfi coast.  It was here that he wrote Julian (1964) and his controversial, genre-breaking 'transgender' novels Myra Breckinridge (1968) and its sequel Myron (1974) along with many of the other works, both historical and satirical, which saw him consolidate his position as a writer of seemingly limitless originality.  His relationships with his fellow writers were no less prickly than they were with political and ideological opponents like William F Buckley, climaxing in a 1971 pre-broadcast brawl with Norman Mailer on the set of The Dick Cavett Show and several very public run-ins with Truman Capote, against whom he once won a suit for libel after Capote wrongly claimed that he'd been 'kicked out' of the Kennedy White House.  He also championed the work of forgotten American writers like William Dean Howells and his friend, the immensely talented and unjustly ignored novelist and playwright Dawn Powell.

GORE VIDAL, c. 2009
Following the death of Howard Austen in 2003, Vidal returned permanently to Los Angeles to live out the remainder of his life as America's crankiest if most eloquent man of letters.  He continued to speak out loudly and often on social and political issues, characteristically refusing to get caught up in the euphoria which followed the election of Barack Obama despite his sincere admiration for the new President's intelligence.  'America,' he said in an interview published in The Times three years before his death in July 2012, 'is rotting away at a funereal pace.  We'll have a military dictatorship pretty soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together.' 

Click HERE to visit THE GORE VIDAL PAGES, an online resource site featuring excerpts from the writer's fiction and non-fiction work and many useful links.  Another useful site, THE GORE VIDAL INDEX, can be visited by clicking HERE.  (Be aware, however, that many of its links no longer seem to work.)

You might also enjoy:
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)
JOHN WILLIAMS Stoner (1965)
IRWIN SHAW The Troubled Air (1951)

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