Imperial Dope

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Creation by Gore Vidal
    Heinemann, 510 pp, £8.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 394 50015 6

Creation is a novel that describes, creates and analyses history, and it is not the first of Gore Vidal’s novels to do so. He has already devoted a lengthy trilogy to American history, and Julian, though set some eight hundred years later than Creation, shares the new novel’s concern with history both political and religious in the ancient world. Both books examine critical ways in which ideas of a more or less religious kind impinge on and determine political and imperial growth. Julian’s apostasy could have prevented the development of the Christian Church and radically affected the progress of the Western world, and the novel captures a period of ideological instability. Similarly, in Creation, the counterbalance of emergent oriental religions is caught at the moment when paganism was being overthrown, and the course of world civilisation to a great extent conditioned.

Julian was also technically interesting in going beyond the I, Claudius autobiographical procedure to an autobiography interpolated and interpreted by records written from other viewpoints. The effect of this was both to intensify the feeling of actuality which is one of the main fascinations of the historical novel, and to create, from the plentiful and contrasting sources available, a historiographical demonstration of the merely partial reliability of such sources. It also brought into a challenging proximity the novel’s imaginative liberty and the fairly commonplace notion that historical records are themselves frequently possessed of a covert imaginative element. Though drama and dramatic poetry had been able purveyors of such a dialectic for centuries and had illustrated both the ideological nature of the historical imagination and the more personal cognitive incoherence of events when seen from several different viewpoints, Vidal had opened up the novel to this more sophisticated kind of historical analysis for the first time. In Messiah, too, Vidal had examined the mechanics of religious propagation by inventing Cavesword, a religion of the future whose mundane origins are rapidly mythologised and bureaucratised by being written down.

The narrative technique of Creation is also one which captures the translation of an oral into a written tradition and suggests something of the vicissitudes to which texts are susceptible: the narrator, Cyrus Spitama, a fictional grandson of Zoroaster and Persian ambassador to Periclean Athens, dictates his life-story in blind old age to his great-nephew Democritus. There is no reason to think that Democritus alters anything, but towards the end he does interpolate a passage which alludes to his own opinions as he remembers them many years later, and at the end indicates how he has taken the step of dividing the story into nine books. Cyrus is initially persuaded to relate his history when he expresses his outrage on hearing Herodotus lecture on the Persian Wars. Though the point is not made explicit, the posthumous arrangement of Cyrus’s alternative historical text is presumably an imitation of the way Herodotus’s history was posthumously divided into nine books by Alexandrian librarians. Herodotus’s books were named after the Muses, but in Vidal’s a parodic spiral of initiation takes place in which increase in knowledge and experience brings obfuscation and blindness rather than enlightenment.

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