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Summer 1995

The City and the Pillar

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Gore Vidal
Much has been made—not least by the Saint himself—of how Augustine stole and ate some pears from a Milanese orchard. Presumably, he never again trafficked in, much less ate, stolen goods, and once this youthful crime (“a rum business,” snarled the unsympathetic American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) was behind him, he was sainthood bound. The fact is that all of us have stolen pears; the mystery is why so few of us rate halos. I suspect that in certain notorious lives there is sometimes an abrupt moment of choice. Shall I marry or burn? Shut the door on a life longed for while opening another, deliberately, onto trouble and pain because...The “because” is the true story seldom told.

Currently, two biographers are at work on my sacred story, and the fact that they are trying to make sense of my life has made me curious about how and why I have done—and not done—so many things. As a result, I have begun writing what I have said that I’d never write, a memoir (“I am not my own subject,” I used to say with icy superiority). Now I am reeling haphazardly through my own youth, which is when practically everything of interest happened to me, rather more soon than late, since I was force-fed, as it were, by military service in the Second World War.

My father once told me, after reviewing his unpleasant period in public office, that whenever it came time for him to make a crucial decision, he invariably made the wrong one. I told him that he must turn Churchill and write his own life, demonstrating what famous victories he had set in motion at Gallipoli or in the “dragon’s soft underbelly” of the Third Reich. But my father was neither a writer nor a politician; he was also brought up to tell the truth. I, on the other hand, was brought up by a politician grandfather in Washington, D.C., and I wanted very much to be a politician, too. Unfortunately, nature had designed me to be a writer. I had no choice in the matter. Pears were to be my diet, stolen or homegrown. There was never a time when I did not make sentences in order to make those things that I had experienced cohere and become “real.”

Finally, the novelist must always tell the truth as he understands it while the politician must never give the game away. Those who have done both comprise a very short list indeed. The fact that I was never even a candidate for the list had to do with a choice made at twenty that entirely changed my life.

At nineteen, just out of the army, I wrote a novel, Williwaw (1946): it was admired as, chronologically, at least, the first of the war novels. The next year I wrote the less admired In a Yellow Wood (1947). Simultaneously, my grandfather was arranging a political career for me in New Mexico (the governor was a protégé of the old man). Yes, believe it or not, in the greatest democracy the world has ever known—freedom’s as well as bravery’s home—elections can be quietly arranged, as Joe Kennedy liked to explain to you.

For someone twenty years old I was well situated in the world, thanks to two published novels and my grandfather’s political skills. I was also situated dead center at a crossroads rather like the one Oedipus found himself at. I was at work on The City and the Pillar. If I published it, I’d take a right turn and end up accursed in Thebes. Abandon it and I’d turn left and end up in holy Delphi. Honor required that I take the road to Thebes. I have read that I was too stupid at the time to know what I was doing, but in such matters I have always had a certain alertness. I knew that my description of the love affair between two “normal” all-American boys of the sort that I had spent three years with in the wartime army would challenge every superstition about sex in my native land—which has always been more Boeotia, I fear, than Athens or haunted Thebes. Until then, American novels of “inversion” dealt with transvestites or with lonely bookish boys who married unhappily and pined for Marines. I broke that mold. My two lovers were athletes and so drawn to the entirely masculine that, in the case of one, Jim Willard, the feminine was simply irrelevant to his passion to unite with his other half, Bob Ford: unfortunately for Jim, Bob had other sexual plans, involving women and marriage.

I gave the manuscript to my New York publishers, E. P. Dutton. They hated it. One ancient editor said, “You will never be forgiven for this book. Twenty years from now you will still be attacked for it.” I responded with an uneasy whistle in the dark: “If any book of mine is remembered in the year 1968, that’s real fame, isn’t it?”

To my grandfather’s sorrow, on January 10, 1948, The City and the Pillar was published. Shock was the most pleasant emotion aroused in the press. How could our young war novelist...? In a week or two, the book was a best-seller in the United States and wherever else it could be published—not exactly a full atlas in those days. The English publisher, John Lehmann, was very nervous. In his memoirs, The Whispering Gallery, he writes, “There were several passages in The City and the Pillar, a sad, almost tragic book and a remarkable achievement in a difficult territory for so young a man, that seemed to my travellers and the printers to go too far in frankness. I had a friendly battle with Gore to tone down and cut these passages. Irony of the time and taste: they wouldn’t cause an eyebrow to be lifted in the climate of the early sixties.” But only twenty years ago the book was taken from Dennis Altman as he arrived at the airport in Sydney, Australia. Altman challenged the obscenity law under which the book had been seized. The judge in the case acknowledged that under the law he was obliged to administer, the book was obscene, but then, in a famous obiter dicta, he wrote that he thought the law absurd: in due course, it was changed. Meanwhile, even today copies of the book still fitfully blaze on the pampas and playas of Argentina and other godly countries. As I write these lines, I have just learned that the book will at last appear in Russia, where a Moscow theater group is adapting it for the stage.

What did my confreres think? I’m afraid not much. The fag writers were terrified; the others were delighted that a competitor had so neatly erased himself. I did send copies to two famous writers, fishing, as all young writers do, for endorsements. The first was to Thomas Mann. The second was to Christopher Isherwood, who responded enthusiastically. We became lifelong friends. Through Joseph Breitbach I was told that André Gide was planning to write an “appreciation,” but when we finally met he spoke only of a handwritten, fetchingly illustrated pornography that he had received from an English clergyman in Hampshire.

At fourteen I had read Thomas Mann’s Joseph books and realized that the “novel of ideas” (we still have no proper phrase in English for this sort of book, or, indeed, such a genre) could work if one were to set a narrative within history. Later, I was struck by the use of dialogue in The Magic Mountain, particularly the debates between Settembrini and Naphta, as each man subtly vies for the favors of the dim but sexually attractive Hans Castorp. Later, there would be complaints that Jim Willard in The City and the Pillar was also dim. But I deliberately made Jim Willard a Hans Castorp type: what else would someone so young be, set loose on the world—the City—that was itself the center of interest? But I did give Jim something Hans lacked: a romantic passion for Bob Ford that finally excluded everything else from his life, even, in a sense, the life itself. I got a polite, perfunctory note from Thomas Mann, thanking me for my “noble work”: my name was misspelled.

Contemplating the American scene in the 1940s, Stephen Spender deplored the machinery of literary success, remarking sternly that “one has only to follow the whizzing comets ofMr. Truman Capote and Mr. Gore Vidal to see how quickly and effectively this transforming, diluting, disintegrating machinery can work.” He then characterized The City and the Pillar as a work of sexual confession, quite plainly autobiography at its most artless. Transformed, diluted, disintegrated as I was, I found this description flattering. Mr. Spender had paid me a considerable compliment; although I am the least autobiographical of novelists, I had drawn the character of the athlete Jim Willard so convincingly that to this day aging pederasts are firmly convinced that I was once a male prostitute, with an excellent backhand at tennis. The truth, alas, is quite another matter. The book was a considerable act of imagination. Jim Willard and I shared the same geography, but little else. Also, in the interest of verisimilitude I decided to tell the story in a flat gray prose reminiscent of one of James T. Farrell’s social documents. There was to be nothing fancy in the writing. I wanted the prose plain and hard.

In April 1993, at the University of New York at Albany, a dozen papers were read by academics on The City and the Pillar. The book has been in print for close to half a century, something I would not have thought possible in 1948, when The New York Times would not advertise it and no major American newspaper or magazine would review it or any other book of mine for the next six years. Life magazine thought that the greatest nation in the country, as Spiro Agnew used to say, had been driven queer by the young army first mate they had featured only the previous year, standing before his ship. I’ve not read any of the Albany papers. For one thing, it is never a good idea to read about oneself, particularly about a twenty-one-year-old self who had modeled himself, perhaps too closely, on Billy the Kid. I might be shot in the last frame, but I was going to take care of a whole lot of folks who needed taking care of before I was done.

There were those who found the original ending “melodramatic.” (Jim strangles Bob after an unsuccessful sexual encounter.) When I reminded one critic that it is the nature of romantic tragedy to end in death, I was told that so sordid a story about fags could never be considered tragic, unlike, let us say, a poignant tale of doomed love between a pair of mentally challenged teenage “heteros” in old Verona. I intended Jim Willard to demonstrate the romantic fallacy. From too much looking back, he was destroyed, an unsophisticated Humbert Humbert trying to re-create an idyll that never truly existed except in his own imagination. Despite the title, this was never plain in the narrative. And of course the coda was unsatisfactory. At the time it was generally believed that the publishers forced me to tack on a cautionary ending in much the same way the Motion Picture Code used to insist that wickedness be punished. This was not true. I had always meant the end of the book to be black, but not as black as it turned out. So for a new edition of the book published in 1965 I altered the last chapter considerably. In fact, I rewrote the entire book (my desire to imitate the style of Farrell was perhaps too successful), though I did not change the point of view or the essential relationships. I left Jim as he was. He had developed a life of his own outside my rough pages. Claude J. Summers, in his book Gay Fictions, recently noted that of the characters:

only Jim Willard is affecting, and he commands sustained interest largely because he combines unexpected characteristics. Bland and ordinary, he nevertheless has an unusually well-developed inner life. Himself paralyzed by romantic illusions, he is surprisingly perceptive about the illusions of others. For all the novel’s treatment of him as a case history, he nevertheless preserves an essential mystery. As Robert Kiernan comments (Gore Vidal), Jim Willard is Every-man and yet he is l’étranger...the net effect is paradoxical but appropriate for it decrees that, in the last analysis, we cannot patronize Jim Willard, sympathize with him entirely, or even claim to understand him. Much more so than the typical character in fiction, Jim Willard simply exists, not as the subject of a statement, not as the illustration of a thesis, but simply as himself.

Not long ago I received a telephone call from the biographer of Thomas Mann. Did I know, he asked, the profound effect that my book had had on Mann? I made some joke to the effect that at least toward the end of his life he may have learned how to spell my name. “But he didn’t read the book until 1950, and as he read it he commented on it in his diaries. They’ve just been published in Germany. Get them.” Now I have read, with some amazement, of the effect that Mann’s twenty-one-year-old admirer had on what was then a seventy-five-year-old world master situated by war in California.

Wednesday 22, XI, 50

...Began to read the homo-erotic novel “The City and the Pillar” by Vidal. The day at the cabin by the river and the love-play scene between Jim and Bob was quite brilliant. —Stopped reading late. Very warm night.

Thursday 23, XI, 50

...Continued “City and Pillar.”

Friday 24, XI, 50

...In the evening continued reading “The City and the Pillar.” Interesting, yes. An important human document, of excellent and enlightening truthfulness. The sexual, the affairs with the various men, is still incomprehensible to us. How can one sleep with men—[Mann uses the word Herren, which means not “men” but “gentlemen.” Is this Mann being satiric? A rhetorical question affecting shock?].

Saturday evening 25, XI, 50

...in May 1943, I took out the Felix Krull papers only to touch them fleetingly and then turn to Faustus. An effort to start again must be made, if only to keep me occupied, to have a task at hand. I have nothing else, no ideas for stories; no subject for a novel...Will it be possible to start [Felix Krull] again? Is there enough of the world and are there enough people, is there enough knowledge available? The homosexual novel interests me not least because of the experience of the world and of travel that it offers. Has my isolation picked up enough experience of human beings, enough for a social-satirical novel?

Sunday 26, XI, 50

Busy with [the Krull] paper, confusing.

Read more of Vidal’s novel.

Wednesday 29, XI, 50

...The Krull papers (on imprisonment). Always doubts. Ask myself whether this music determined by a “yearning theme” is appropriate to my years...Finished Vidal’s novel, moved, although a lot is faulty and unpleasant. For example, that Jim takes Bob into a Fairy Bar in New York.

I am pleased that Mann did not find the ending “melodramatic,” but then what theme is more melodramatically “yearning” than Liebestod? In any case, the young novelist who took what seemed to everyone the wrong road at Trivium is now saluted in his own old age by the writer whom he had, in a certain sense, modeled himself on. As for Mann’s surprise at how men could sleep with one another, he is writing a private diary, the most public act any German master can ever do, and though he often refers to his own “inversion” and his passions for this or that youth, he seems not to go on, like me, to Thebes but to take (with many a backward look) the high road to Delphi, and I am duly astonished and pleased that, as he read me, he was inspired—motivated—whatever verb—to return to his most youthful and enchanting work, Felix Krull.

Some of my short stories are almost as lighthearted as Thomas Mann in his last work. One of them, “The Ladies in the Library,” is an unconscious variation on Death in Venice. Three variations on a theme: Mann’s Hans Castorp; then my own, Jim Willard; then a further lighter, more allegro version on Jim in the guise of a character whom he appropriately called Felix—the Latin for “happy.”



Gore Vidal was the author of Myra Breckenridge, Lincoln, Matters of Fact and Fiction, and numerous other books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several screenplays and plays. He was a consulting editor to The Threepenny Review from its earliest years until his death in 2012.

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