Wednesday, November 08, 2006


James Marcus has the most heavenly interview with Gore Vidal at his blog House of Mirth. There's lots of good stuff there, better just go and read it if you have any bent that way, but I especially liked this bit (it's all very appropriate for the post-election moment in any case--and I still think that Julian is Vidal's best novel, though of course Robert Graves is the supreme master of the genre--hmmm, reminds me I still haven't gotten hold of a copy of Imperium...):

GV: It was my decision not to go to Congress. I nearly won it in 1960--I ran 20,000 votes ahead of Jack Kennedy, who pulled down the whole ticket. There was a great anti-Catholic backlash in the district, which none of us were prepared for. But four years later, in 1964, the seat was mine if I wanted it. I had just finished Julian, however, and decided that I didn't want to go to Congress. Simple as that.

JM: Did you give the idea serious consideration?

GV: Oh, in 1960 I wanted to win.

JM: And in 1964?

GV: No. I'd got a place in Rome by then, Julian had come out, and I was a novelist once more. Also: you can't do both. A writer's job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away. So you have two opposing forces in you, and you can't function that way.

JM: Can you think of a single example of somebody who's done both things decently?

GV: I can't. Clare Luce had her plays written for her. Winston Churchill was a windy self-promoter, writing stories about himself and his family. There have been very good writers who have been president, of course. Wilson was a very good writer, Roosevelt wasn't too bad, but again, it was all self-promotion.

JM: What about Lincoln as a stylist?

GV: Lincoln, I've always said, was probably the greatest American writer. And a close second was Ulysses S. Grant. But they're not creative writers.

Oh, and the other most delightful thing about the interview is that Marcus uses the term "Minié balls"! (Here's the Wikipedia definition.) I love the name, but I also love the glimpse it gives into an alternate universe--I did a lot of research on ordnance and weaponry for my new novel, which has a serious history-of-technology-type component--my heroine is in the girls' rifle corps at school (I have never fired a gun, I am sorry to say, I am going to go and get some actual shooting experience I hope before writing the more non-cadet-practice-type-actual-in-the-wilds-of-Swedish-Lapland-shooting sequel), also the American Civil War played out all differently in this world--and there are various reflections on bullet shape....

On which note--history of technology, that is, not rifles--I made an amazing discovery the other day. There is a fantastic little chemistry museum in the basement of Havemeyer Hall at Columbia! Here's the real link for the museum (site under construction)--I only had time the other day (I was waiting for my instructional session on how to use the fairly-idiotproof-but-you-have-to-get-trained-before-they-give-you-a-room electronic classroom technology) to look at the exhibits in the hallway but I am going to go back at the earliest opportunity and see everything. There was a very good exhibit on matches (I love the term "comb matches," it is so descriptive and yet also so estranging), and also some beautiful glass tubes with lovely early twentieth-century labels describing the gases contained in the them & instruments involved in the discovery of the x-ray & similar--it was an enchanting surprise....

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