21 AUGUST 1982, Page 23

On the warpath

Duncan Fallowell

Let the cardinal sin be committed and a short review begin boringly. Here is the first sentence from Gore Vidal's Collected Essays 1952-72 (published here in 1974), an essay called 'Novelists and Critics of the 1940s' which he wrote in 1953 at the age of 28. `It is a rare and lucky physician who can Predict accurately at birth whether a child is to become a dwarf or a giant or an ordinary adult, since most babies look alike and the curious arrangements of chromosomes which govern stature are inscrutable and do not yield their secret order even to the shrewdest eye.'

One cliche — 'rare and lucky'; one Platitude — `most babies look alike'; one totally redundant clause (the last one); ex- tremely weak from the biochemical point of view; an overall tone both flat-footed and simple-minded: not bad going for a first sentence, especially one by a 28-year-old who liked to play teenager, hated to be thought a bore, but hoped to be a prophet When he grew up.

In the blurbs which accompany Vidal's Works much is made of the youth at which he began. He was born in 1925. His first novel Williwaw appeared in 1946. The equally flaccid The City and the Pillar, 'the first American work to deal sympathetically with homosexuality etc', appeared in 1948. The latter is always said to have had a succes de scandale but one never comes across anyone having heard of it at the time

in those days Gore Vidal seems to have been better known as a young American who wandered round Europe with a tennis racquet.

One thing is sure — he may have started early but he was no child prodigy. He did however become an enfant terrible — even- tually. This was around 40 years of age, when at last he began to write things worth reading, when the belief that there is something profoundly disgusting at the heart of American life — now his richest vein — began to glitter in his prose and give a sulphurous edge to what might otherwise have remained merely an engaging faggot stYle. This sense of disgust is first detected in its pure form in an essay on Edmund Wilson in 1963. Then the Sixties happened and there were people being disgusted everywhere you went. Vidal's targets became clear: the official American systems horrible sex, politics, money, religion and the norrible way they are all confused with each other. He became famous on television as the man with whom you didn't lightly cross epigrams — all that bitching round Europe

had certainly tuned up the repartee.

Vidal now moved to a higher plane. He turned properly to novels for the first time in 1964 when it dawned on him that script- writing for films and television, which in the Fifties was all he had been doing (plus the odd review), would not guarantee him the immortality he rather thought he was entitled to. His reputation as a novelist has since become sound and there is a strong lobby for calling Creation, the novel he published last year, Vidal's masterpiece.

Meanwhile Vidal and the Essay were get- ting into their stride. Stamina and nerve in- creased and so did the pace which now became brisk. When Matters of Fact and of Fiction came out, the next book of essays along the line, covering the period 1973-76, he was not going to make the same mistake twice vis a vis openers. This time the very first sentence of the first essay is: 'Shit has its own integrity.' It is a mock quotation but clearly much has been learned, many continents crossed or, more accurately, discarded. The 'shit' theme, especially in connection with American public life and society, moves firmly into the centre of Mr Vidal's message for the world. our rulers are perfectly corrupt but they are not incompetent' he wrote in his famous `State of the Union' article for Esquire in 1975. Coming from a stylish upper class American middlebrow this kind of thing can attract attention, especially when repeated every other page or so regardless of subject.

This new book of essays, as compa- nionable and prickly as the previous two, begins sagely: 'Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St Paul, Minnesota...' Sage is clearly the next refinement of the role. The toga is already laid out on the bed and is that a hint of the Cosmic Smile in the jacket photograph, or just plain old- fashioned self-congratulation? Vidal ap- proaches 60, the targets do not blur — in- deed they acquire greater clarity as the Six- ties recede and the West moves into a cold- er, more rigorous phase, in which minorities are well advised to keep alert. And Vidal might be advised to vary his angle of shot. In several of these essays he scarcely does more than you would expect, whereas surprise is as crucial to his method as venom (so much so, as far as venom is concerned, that when he likes a subject he can often be totally paralysed — see his long, long, essay on Frank Baum's Oz books, this collection's one solid flop). Also, it has to be mentioned, Mr Vidal commands high fees in major organs. There is something almost cosy about the enmity with which he and straight America view each other. They have agreed to differ and complacency is there. Next stop — self- righteousness? Some would say that stop was passed a long time ago and is what has kept Vidal going ever since.

In fact self-righteousness is what keeps most Americans going a lot of the time, and so the gift of irony in Vidal is a rare and lucky event. Here is the opening of his essay on Italy: 'Since World War II, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism. This was not the work of a day.' What beautiful movement. Here he is on Doris Lessing's spiritual quest: 'She is filled with the spirit of the Sufis, and if there is one thing that makes me more nervous than a Jungian it is a Sufi.' Goodbye, Doris. Even at his worst, as on the Oz books, the promise of a sud- den joke draws one on.

Such strokes make Vidal frequently ir- resistible, especially for Europeans for whom he is the nicest kind of American, containing all the brashness and directness one expects in a good mover from the New World plus the assumptive reverberation we demand in all cultural experience. He is not at all comfortable on the emotional plane — too nervous of the ways his cuffs may be grubbied, his hair-do disordered, the doors to his weaknesses torn open — and this is his major, probably fatal weakness as a novelist. But this elimination of the emo- tional in favour of a precise and cynical strategy produces marvellous essays, in an almost cocaine-like way, to invigorate a tor- pid mind.