Few discussions of the essay fail to begin etymological: essai, ‘assay’, ‘trial’, ‘attempt’. The project of the essay is interrogative, investigative, exploratory, provisional; the essayist’s duty is to seek a personal confrontation with Montaigne’s question, so characteristic in its quizzical severity: que sais-je? Or so we are told. In practice, though, the essay tends to be more or less the precise opposite of such a sober and responsible self-examination. The writers who have used the form in the questioning spirit – the essayists, from Montaigne to Stanley Cavell, who generate a sense that the act of writing is for them a genuine process of intellectual exploration – are far outnumbered by those for whom the essay is a forum for pyrotechnics and exhibitionism, for politics and for performance. The history of the essay – from Hazlitt on his first acquaintance with poets to Orwell on the sex life of the common toad – is the history of writers taking a break from other forms in order, not to ask themselves que sais-je? but simply to strut their stuff.
Hardly anybody has done that to better effect than Gore Vidal, whose essays are unmistakably a performance – more of a self-celebration than a self-interrogation, and none the worse for that. United States is a fat volume which gathers within its pages all (as far as I can tell) of the essays that Vidal has published in book form. (Vidal remarks at one point, à propos a biography of his old chum Eleanor Roosevelt, that if the book had been shorter it ‘would have had a smaller sale but more readers’. True for this 1300-pager too, perhaps.) It is divided into three sections: ‘State of the Art’, which deals with literature; ‘State of the Union’, which deals with history and politics; ‘State of Being’, which deals with ‘personal responses to people and events, not to mention old movies and children’s books’.
If nothing else were known about Vidal one could reconstruct the outlines of his life from these pages. Born in West Point in 1925 (delivered by an army doctor who went on to be Eisenhower’s physician: ‘Just indigestion, Mamie,’ he told Mrs E. on the night of the President’s first heart attack); son of a soldier who went on to be Roosevelt’s minister of aviation (and as a result the first child to fly across the USA, and a boyhood friend of Amelia Earhart’s); maternal grandson of the blind Senator T.P. Gore (whom the young Vidal once collected from the Senate wearing nothing but swimming trunks, whereupon ‘finally, the Vice President, Mr Garner – teeth like tiny black pearls and a breath that was all whisky – came down from the chair and said: “Senator, this boy is nekkid.”’) He enlisted in the US Navy at the age of 17, and published a novel about his experiences, Williwaw, two years later; wrote five more novels in the next four years; spent ten years working as a contract writer for MGM (which included an uncredited feat of script-doctoring on Ben Hur, into which Vidal inserted a much-needed homosexual subplot); twice ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate; wrote 17 more novels; lived to memorialise (in essays in this book) his friends John Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Italo Calvino, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anaïs Nin ...
In this kind of summary Vidal’s life sounds almost comically glamorous and eventful. One of the secrets of his social and professional success lies in the combination of class circumstances into which he was born: grand enough not to feel frightened by anything, and not to be in any way impressed by the trappings of power and state; but at the same time not disempoweringly affluent, and wholly without any belief that the world owed him a living. To put it another way, few people with so many opportunities also possess so much determination to make the most of them.
The intellectual upshot of this is a highly unusual degree of freedom from received ideas, especially from standard wisdoms about politics and from the moral axes of Judeo-Christianity. ‘The family, as we know it, is an economic, not a biological, unit.’ ‘The fact that half of those qualified to vote don’t vote in Presidential elections is proof that the third republic is neither credible nor truly legitimate.’ ‘On 16 September 1985, when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation, the American Empire died.’ ‘There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo or heterosexual acts.’ ‘The great unmentionable evil at the centre of our culture is monotheism.’ ‘There is only one party in the United States, the Property party, and it has two wings: Republican and Democrat.’ One hears all of these ideas stated a good few times in the course of United States; which makes it a little cheeky of Vidal to complain about the repetitiousness of Nabokov’s Strong Opinions.
As to whether or not the arguments deployed by Vidal are convincing: it seems to me that the question is a kind of category mistake, and that the character of his essays – their performative nature, the high literary sheen of their intelligent complacency – means that they are about as likely to convert anybody to their point of view as, say, The Soul of Man under Socialism. Readers are much more likely to turn to Vidal for – to steal one of his own phrases – ‘the gossip and the jokes’, such as, for one instance among thousands, his description of the Nobel Prize for Literature as ‘a sort of rigged good citizenship medal, awarded by a largely monolingual club of a small nation noted for its literary taste, cuisine and criminal detection (clue; not Belgium)’. Or: ‘Like many blind people, my grandfather was a compulsive sightseer.’ Or:
I remember thinking that I had made the right choice in 1959 when we were casting The Best Man, a play that I had written about a Presidential convention. An agent had suggested Ronald Reagan for the lead. We all had a good laugh. He is by no means a bad actor, but he would hardly be convincing, I said with that eerie prescience which has earned me the title the American Nostradamus, as a Presidential candidate.
Vidal’s literary opinions are just as forcefully expressed. There is a long list of enthusiasms: for William Howells and Ulysses S. Grant, for Logan Pearsall Smith, Frederick Prokosch, Edith Wharton, Leonardo Sciascia, Thomas Love Peacock and Henry Miller: ‘If he often sounded like the village idiot, that was because, like Whitman, he was the rest of the village as well.’ But alongside the blessings, kicks and curses is a running lament for the novel, which Vidal sees as being in deep trouble. From 1956 (a remarkably early date for his brand of gloomy prognosis): ‘After some three hundred years the novel in English has lost the general reader (or rather the general reader has lost the novel), and I propose that he will not again recover his old enthusiasm.’ The printed word, Vidal claims, has lost the battle for a mass audience to the moving image; the bulk of today’s ‘serious’ fiction is written not to be read but to be taught.
This last point, I would say, is much less true than the argument which precedes it – no doubt the fact that most American writers are also university teachers makes things look different to Vidal. (Incidentally, his comments about this country aren’t always distinguished by their accuracy. At one point, in the course of an aside about Mrs Thatcher, he describes the British Isles as ‘sunnily arid’.) The novel is not a given fact of our culture whose preeminence is guaranteed for all time. Its rise was inextricably mixed with the growth in particular kinds of leisure; as that leisure becomes increasingly consumed by other media, other forms of attention, the novel’s audience is bound to – well, if not necessarily to dwindle, then at least to change its expectations for the form, and its demands of it.
Cynthia Ozick’s way of engaging with these questions is to ignore them – to ignore them with a pointed, Bacchantic ferocity. She is a hierophant of literature as High Culture; and her worship of literature has in it, as well as the obvious note of celebration, a quality of melancholy, even of tragedy. In a wonderful essay about Eliot – ‘T.S. Eliot at 101’ – she points out that ‘Eliot did once fill a football stadium. On 30 April 1956, fourteen thousand people came to hear him lecture on The Frontiers of Criticism at the University of Minneapolis.’ But the essay modulates to a very different note: ‘it may simply be that it is in the renunciatory grain of America to resist the hierarchical and the traditional ... Looking back over the last forty years, it is now our obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot. What we will probably go on missing for ever is that golden cape of our youth, the power and prestige of high art.’
Ozick tells her stories well, as the Eliot essay shows. She has a talent for making credible stories out of writers’ lives – ‘credible’ in the sense that one can imagine the writer she evokes going on to write the books we know to have been written. It’s a test that biographical narratives often fail: the more complete and compelling the circumstantial detail of, say, Ellman’s Joyce or Painter’s Proust or Edel’s James, the less likely it seems that the man could have written the books; the better we come to know the artist, the greater the seeming gap between him and the work. But in Ozick’s essays, it isn’t like that, largely because she makes the writing career the central drama of the life.
This method is on display in her title essay, which studies the relationship between James’s disastrous experiences in the theatre – when he took the stage on the opening night of Guy Domville he was booed to the rafters – and the murky inwardness of his later fiction.
By paring away narrative rumination and exposition – by treating the novel as if it were as stark as a play-script – he uncovered (or invented) a host of labyrinthine depths and devices that have since been signally associated with literary modernism. For one thing, representation, while seeming to keep to its accustomed froms, took on a surreal quality, inscrutably off centre. For another, intent, or reason, gave way to the inchoate, the inexpressible ... An unaccountable presence, wholly unseen, was at last let in, even if kept in the tale’s dark cellar: the damnèd shape, the sacred terror. The tale began to know more than the teller, the dream than the dreamer; and Henry James began his approach to the Kafkan.
This talent for impassioned evocation is not all there is to Ozick. There is a severity to her criticism, which takes the form of a deep suspicion of the purely aesthetic. In an essay not included in the present collection she says that ‘the German Final Solution was an aesthetic solution: it was a job of editing, it was the artist’s finger removing a smudge, it simply annihilated what was not harmonious’. She also wrote that the 19th-century novel was ‘a Judaised novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment’. Auden said that he had within him a ‘mad clergyman’, who often got an outing when he was writing critical prose; Ozick has a deranged rabbi, who is, it seems to me, rather under-represented in What Henry James Knew. (The book at no point admits to its own status as a selection from other volumes of essays.) The only real glimpse one has of him here comes in the essay on Truman Capote:
What continues in Capote, and continues in force, is the idea that life is style, and that shape and mood are what matter in and out of fiction. That is the famous lie on which aesthetics feeds the centuries. Life is not style, but what we do: Deed. And so is literature. Otherwise Attic jugs would be our only mentors.
And of course, only someone strongly tempted by the ‘famous lie’ of aesthetics would feel the need to denounce it so heatedly.
It’s instructive to compare-and-contrast Ozick’s approach with that of Joan Didion. Ozick is intensely suspicious of the aesthetic, but her essays are all about writers; Didion floats past on a bubble of style – her style is the first thing you notice about her, and you never stop noticing it – but her essays are all about the world: she never mentions other writers. One of her great strengths is that she is interested in interesting things: in murder (here, the killing of ‘a 33-year-old road-show promoter ... who was last seen alive getting into a limousine to go to dinner at a Beverly Hills restaurant, La Scala, and was next seen decomposed, in a canyon off Interstate 5’); in movies (there’s a superbly bitter screenwriter’s-eye-view account of the 1988 Writers’ Guild strike); in politics (Washington, LA and New York varieties); in gossip (on Nancy Reagan, whose White House nicknames included ‘Evita’ and ‘The Hairdo with Anxiety’, and whose edgy cluelessness is fixed for all time by a single detail: ‘At a state dinner for José Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, she seated herself between President Duarte and Ralph Lauren’).
To these interesting subjects Didion brings an angularity of vision and a talent for noticing and decoding whatever has been taken to be marginalia. It’s as if she has been sent to take revenge for Gertrude Stein’s famous dismissal of her (Stein’s) home town, Oakland: ‘there’s no there there.’ But there is a there there, and there always was; and Didion is at her best in describing subjects where people on the inside say there is nothing to discuss – subjects which have been, as it were, pre-dismissed. The strongest essay in this collection is an account of travelling with the press corps during the Presidential election of 1988. The piece takes as its central image a corny airport ritual in Michael Dukakis’s campaign, when he would throw a baseball back and forth with his aides. ‘What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a set-up and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too naive to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.’ The narrative of Presidential elections, Didion argues, ‘is made up of many such moments, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line’. She is a remorseless noticer of things she isn’t supposed to notice, and she isn’t shy about drawing a moral. In the course of her account of the trial of the youths who raped and battered a young woman jogging in Central Park – the ‘wilding’ case – she arrives at this conclusion, an apology for the politics of regarding the disregarded: ‘The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experiences that constitute the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities.’ Perhaps, after all, we aren’t so far away from Ozick’s distrust of the aesthetic.
With all three of these writers, I find myself wanting to pay a compliment that is never taken as being a compliment: I want to say that I prefer their non-fiction – their essays – to their fiction. But you can’t say that without its being taken as a backhanded insult. A belief that the novel is the senior literary form has become one of our culture’s most passionately automatic received ideas; the assumption is so prevalent that it can’t fail to be dubious. Non-fiction is often better-written, better-organised, better-realised, more interesting than fiction; it’s just that novels are, in some inchoate and deeply unexamined way, ‘taken more seriously’. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to take novels seriously, and one of them is the fact that the form still offers both the most extended and the most intensive immersion in someone else’s imaginative universe: to read a novel is the closest we can ever get to experiencing what it is like to be someone else. That’s the best reason for a long-term confidence in the survival of the form, however much psychic territory is taken over by the newer media. But I don’t think that’s why novels have the status they do have. What has happened is that the novel – writing novels, ‘being a novelist’ – has acquired prestige, the prestige that accrues to tokens of high culture and high art; which is an unhappy development. Films don’t need that kind of prestige, because they are simply too interesting, too glamorous, too much the dominant art form of our century. But opera has it, and poetry has it: we give to poetry a respect which is no more than the measure of our indifference. The novel should beware being looked up to; it’s not a good omen. Vidal:
For some years I have been haunted by a story of Howells and that most civilised of all our Presidents, James A. Garfield. In the early 1870s Howells and his father paid a call on Garfield. As they sat on Garfield’s veranda, young Howells began to talk about poetry and about the poets that he had met in Boston and New York. Suddenly, Garfield told him to stop. Then Garfield went to the edge of the veranda and shouted to his Ohio neighbours: ‘Come over here! He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!’ So the neighbours gathered around in the dusk; then Garfield said to Howells, ‘Now go on.’
A lot can happen to a form of expression in a hundred-odd years.