This literary season has been filled with the best sort of reviews: cutting ones. The type that breed blood. Franz Kafka, the Great Gatsby, Alice Munro–each has been bloodied by, respectively, Joseph Epstein of the Atlantic Monthly, Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books and Kathryn Schulz in New York magazine. It is interesting to note that like all true, great literary takedowns the targets are long dead. Sure, they have defenders but these defenders are nothing like the greats themselves. And if we, as that colorful and star-studded aphorism implies, stand on the backs of giants surely they do not need help defending themselves?
Perhaps they do. I find the best excitement when the writer, or writers, ‘bump’ back. In person and as loud as can be. It is always better when the writer that has written the book in question takes his or her would be critics to task. Personally, I cannot help but recall all the biting remarks of Gore Vidal. He is an excellent example. He is the example. If you have not read his historical novels then you have missed out on a fascinating portion of the American literary landscape. If you have not read his essays, then you have also missed out on a great wit. When I peruse his defenses one has to wonder how the current targets would fair. Kafka, I’m sure, would only sink deeper into self-pity and despair. Otherwise, however, it is something of a mystery.
What is not is in Lincoln, An Exchange, where Vidal is at the top of his game. “It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So, as the pot boils and I chop this pile of footnotes fine, let me explain to both pigeon and the no doubt bemused readers of these pages…” How often does the first page of a reply sing so eloquently? His barbs are almost as quick as his pacing, which never falters in a steady, upwards beat to a crescendo that declares ‘I am Vidal, I am right.’ It is a textbook example of intellectual hilarity and enjoying to read. It beats not only to the sound of a inner tune but drives his targets into the ground.
“So either Current is as wrong about this as he is about me, or he is right… and anyone who draws attention to the discrepancy between their own past crudities and their current falsities is a very bad person indeed, and not a scholar, and probably a communist as well.”
Alternatively, “As Current is as unknown to me as Lincoln was to him in his book The Lincoln Nobody Knows, I could hardly have been personal.”
And, perhaps best of all, “But although he no longer holds to his views on Lincoln and the blacks as presented in The Lincoln Nobody Knows (a book, he’ll be relieved to know, I never took seriously, largely because of the megalomaniacal title in which has inserted himself).”
When one reads Vidal doesn’t their heart, just a little, sing? If Jonathan Swift was right, and we moderns are the bees who produce honey and wax–the overused “sweetness and light”–then Vidal is certainly the sting. It is a loss for the country that Vidal’s “disturbing presence” on the American scene has stopped. Wherever he is I’m sure he’s making enemies and stirring the pot.