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From the Archives: Alfred Kazin on Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal passed away yesterday at the age of 86. In this 1992 review of his works, Alfred Kazin parses Vidal's views on politics, history, and religion.

"American life for the writer is so desperate that it has driven Gore Vidal to live abroad."

— Erica Jong, The New York Observer, June 29, 1990

One night in Rome, in 1975, the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini told me that Gore Vidal was thinking of becoming an Italian citizen and had sought his advice on the matter. Barzini was beside himself with scorn, but I was impressed. Until then I had not seen Vidal as the exasperated radical that he claimed to be; he seemed to be playing the part of a weary patrician at Hollywood dinner tables, where it was easier to chatter on about America as a "sinking ship" than to describe hard-pressed American lives in his novels. And I understood his addiction to apocalyptic images as rage against the demeaning of homosexual love. "The heterosexual dictatorship has got to go!" he once wrote. "And I'm here to challenge it, and I'm here every time I can put an end to it." 

Of course Vidal not only adored Italy (what American writer discovering it after the war did not!) but could actually afford to live there much of the year, year after year. He was in a few years to acquire a magnificent estate in Ravello perching on the Mediterranean coast. But for a writer so dependent on the American market, and so enthusiastically playing the part of an American grandee in devastated Italy, even to think of joining himself to this scene as a naturalized Italian! Clearly, I had missed the man's very real political despair, the intellectual darkness he favored and its sense of urgency.

The urgency has also to do with his other favorite role: the anti-Christian revivalist of paganism. Nothing would be more foolish than to regard Live from Golgotha, Vidal's farce parodying Acts of the Apostles (it follows the Gospels in the New Testament and describes St. Paul's missionary journeys to extend the still primitive Church), as nothing but bawdy entertainment for the bathhouse boys; since nothing about the human body, what it can do and what can be done to it, including all incessant acts of violence, war, and so on, is news even to children watching television, Live from Golgotha, though it tries to shock, is actually no dirtier than anything else these days. What makes Vidal's book different are its "pagan" emphases, its affirmations. The only unsullied character in the book is Petronius singing the soft winds of classic Italy. Vidal made a point of allowing only a gay magazine, The Advocate, to see the text before the publication date. But since any normal person these days is more interested in sex than in religion, the joke is on the book buyers. Vidal's target in this book is Christianity, which was founded by Jews.

Read the full article here.