Friday, March 29, 2013

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written in a very straight-forward writing style, the style is a little too direct and at times comes off as amateurish. It took me a little more time to get used to this and the self-hating narrative that usual.

Written in 1948 and revised in 1965, I decided to read the revised version and then to re-read the last two chapters on the original to compare the endings. Much has been made about the revision, most people think it was censored at the time and revised later due to laxer standards, but this is not the case. As Vidal says in the introduction, he was encouraged to censor aspects of the 1948 edition and didn't. The 1948 edition is very gay, very obvious and really remarkable for it's time.

I believe the book was re-written mainly as a lot of gay men in 1965 were stepping out of the self-hating phase and moving toward liberation, and Vidal's original seemed dated. I don't know that the re-write was really necessary, although I suppose it did keep the book in the spotlight longer than it otherwise would have been.

The book starts off with a decidedly 1940's feel, as seen in this quote:

"After breakfast Christmas morning, Shaw telephoned his mother in Baltimore and talked to her for half an hour, regardless of the cost"

A whole half hour!

The book, even the '65 edition, still leans to melodrama, as shown by this quote:

"None suspected that he had forsaken the Church because he was homosexual. For a long time he had tried to exorcise the unnatural spirit, demanding furiously of God that he be freed of this terrible inclination. He prayed continually. But in the end, God failed him, and he turned to Hell. He studied a book on witchcraft, celebrated a Black Mass, tried to sell his soul to the devil in order to be free of lust. But the devil had no use for him either, and so Paul Sullivan abandoned all religion."

I know a version of this happened to a lot of gay men, but the one does not result necessarily in the other. God and religion letting you down doesn't necessarily lead to devil worship, especially to the sell your soul extreme. This being said though, I do remember in this period of my own life flipping through the Satanic Bible, so maybe it's not that far off. It's just over the top.

I suppose I liked the revised ending more, but not by much. They were similar, and for most of the book the aspects I enjoyed were the history parts of gay life in the mid-century, with the characters being secondary.

An example of something that was removed from the 1948 edition is the word 'abnormal' below:
"One night Jim visited a mixed bar; there were both normal and abnormal people here."

This over-stating of a future Utopia where everyone was out was also removed in the later edition:

"For by an open love of other men as well as of women wars might cease and a new period might come about; one in which there would be more peace and more self-fulfillment than there is now."

There's a lot of put downs in this book, and the characters generally do it to themselves. They torture themselves to feel tortured, they can't accept themselves and they can't change. The more I read of this, the more this point of view turns from a tired old cliche to a sad state of being for a generation of lost souls. This sad state is worth reading.

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