Cato of the Antipodes

John Cotter in Open Letters Monthly:

9780679755722In literature as in life, there is something to be said for indeterminacy, poetical ambiguity, and the aching, open synapses of incomplete ideas. But the essays of Gore Vidal are a break from all that, a weather station in the Alps. When the air is clear, you can see across borders; when it’s cloudy, chats by the fireside agitate and charm.

Atypically for a critic of the 20th century, Gore Vidal does not subordinate his perceptions to any school or ideology. This is why he can be trusted. For models, he looks to the worldly, progressive belletrists of the late 19th and early 20th century: Henry James, William Dean Howells, Henry Adams. Note the absence of their immediate predecessors: Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson. Vidal is not a romantic—his mind is empirical. Though he reads with a sympathetic eye, his judgments are sonorous with authority.

Though he often writes of politics, he is a critic and a satirist rather than a pundit, and much of even this work comes by way of book reviewing. “I start from the premise that the creator is ‘right,’” he notes, in the introduction to his second collection of essays, Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship. “I try to inhabit his work, to enjoy it, to be—very simply—had by the artist. Only later does one attempt to answer the question: to what extent has the maker of the world accomplished what he set out to do?” Mark that try. Vidal is a natural skeptic, and one of the pleasures of his criticism is the extent to which he refuses to be had by certain writers, try as they might. He claims to feel no pinch of sadism, and though his dismissive aperçus are rightly famous (on John Barth: “This isn’t bad, except as prose”; on Theodore Roosevelt: “Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight”), I don’t want to go on quoting them here, because they fill up space all too often in newspaper profiles and what Martin Amis calls the “shithead factfile” that precedes interviews. Isolated, these blow-gun darts of observation shock and amuse, yes, but they also diminish the author, show him only as a drawing-room wit and not the serious reader and thinker that, on more thorough perusal, he reveals himself to be.

More here.