on 28 December 2000
The only Vidal novel I had read previously to this had been Myra Breckinridge which i had not been particularly impressed with. I had heard that his historical novels were a different kettle of fish, but being a history buff I tend to avoid 'historical novels'. This one certainly might bring about a change in my reading habits. Its an absolutely brilliant book and I certainly cannot recommend it enough. Based around the interactions between an aspiring journalist in the New York of the 1830s and the aging and notorious Colonel Aaron Burr - war hero, ex-vice president, murderer of Alexander Hamilton and accused as the villian of an infamous plot to break up the united states and set himself up as king of Mexico, the novel serves to not only provide an 'alternative' look at the American War of Independence, the framing of the Constitution and the characters of several of the founding fathers, but also to illuminate the political culture of the subsequent years. It is wonderfully written, intelligent, questioning, witty, often laugh-out-loud-funny and ultimately enormously touching and sad. Mr. Vidal sticks to the facts for most of the way through - it is in the interpretation that he runs counter to the current of received history. After reading this one just cannot think of Jefferson et al with the same unquestioning hero-worship one is indoctrinated with in the classroom. Though this book was written a couple of decades ago, I have only reccently read it. It set me on a path to reading a number of Mr Vidals other historical novels. Certainly it is one of the best books I've read in a long time.
on 1 December 2002
I ignored Gore Vidal for most of my life. He was always way too media for my tastes. Especially after that encounter with Mailer on the Cavett show those many years ago. I had a friend who was in the movie version of Myra Breckenridge, so I saw that film in a Manhatten cinema and wished I hadn't. It just confirmed my prejudices towards Vidal. What I discovered after reading this book was that I'd been doing myself a disservice.
Gore Vidal is the wittiest, and thankfully, one of the least lugubriously erudite, historian we have. Burr and Schuyler come across as three-dimensional characters, much more so than Washington or Jefferson ever have.
Yes, this is biased, not to mention jaundiced, history. We must remind ourselves that it is an historical novel, not purporting to keep strictly to the facts. Washington comes across as a militarily incompetent, but poticially shrewd egomaniac. Jefferson is not treated too reverentially either.
Burr, whom we know from American History classes only because he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, comes across as a witty and urbane statesman who perhaps didn't display the greatest amount of common sense in that murky New Orleans business.
This novel opened my eyes about Vidal and I promptly went on a Vidal tear, reading five of his other books. I'd stick to the American History novels (particularly Lincoln), however. I found Creation to be a lot more contrived than his other works (and I love Byzantine/medieval history). If you want a good picture of Byzantium, stick to Procopius.
American history (back in my day) stopped after the world turned upside down, briefly reappeared as the White House, as it later was, burned and then fell silent until the American Civil War. It is precisely in this Terra Incognita that Gore Vidal places his life of Aaron Burr, vice-president, slayer of Alexander Hamilton and supposed traitor. The long life of Burr and his many roles in the young republic make for an interesting account (made a little difficult by the jumping back and forth between decades). However, even I can spot Gore goring (appropriately) sacred cows with a vengeance. Few escape a sound thrashing, and Washington and Jefferson least of all. I cannot comment on the accuracy of these views but it is rather as if Private Eye had been involved. The topic is a fascinating one, and I greatly enjoyed it, but I do not think I will take it as a balanced account.
on 27 March 2009
Burr is enormous, in every sense of the word, in length, in content, in style, and the man himself. Gore Vidal is a brilliant writer, a pleasure to read, but you do have to want to know a lot about American history to get the most out of this book. The research needed to write a book of this calibre is self-evident, but set aside a good chunk of undistracted time to enjoy it.
I just re-read this book, which I read about 20 years ago, and I must say that it passed the test - there were wonderful and hilarious things in it that I didn't remember and it held my interest the whole time. You get a near-totally jaundiced view of our American mythology and sense of uniqueness, all from the point of view of our so-called greatest scoundrel since Benedict Arnold. This perspective is so funny and enlightening that just that alone is enough to recommend the book. (Vidal describes George Washington as having the "hips and bosom" of a woman, portraying his poor soldiering and yet brilliant engineering of his public image; Jefferson is a shifty though shrewd hypocrit and manipulator of genius; and Hamilton is a monarchist and proto-Napoleon.)
But this novel is even better than that kind of satire: I studied its structure and characters in far greater detail this time around, and came to believe that the historical details obscure a truly masterful performance by a modern writer. The narrative moves on two levels, including the present when a young writer begins to take down Burr's memoires and of course the past career of the charming and much vilified man. In many ways, the characters are more multi-dimentional than in many of his other novels. And this novel is also the start of a kind of longitudinal Balzacian literary experiment in which the reader sees characters and their descendants re-appear to make their mark over 150 years. After all these years of being a fan, I realise that I have perhaps under-estimated Vidal as a writer! I am now prepared to go back to the others in the series for a second read. It is so rare to meet a contemporary American novelist whose work ages so well.
on 17 July 2010
The passage of time edits history. The roughness and corners of detail wear away under the constant erosion of recall and interpretation. Eventually, unless events or people are sufficiently insignificant so they can be merely forgotten, the process rounds off what remains to form mere icons, summaries that become anodyne cartoons of once complex events and motives.
I can recall the celebrations that surrounded the bi-centennial of the American Revolution. At the time, I thought I knew something about the history. Names such as Washington, Jefferson and Adams became commonplace for a while. A couple of years before, Gore Vidal had published his novel Burr, which I had not read. Having just finished it, nearly forty years after it appeared, I now know much more. In the novel Gore Vidal presents a history of the War Of Independence and its aftermath through the eyes of a contemporary, Aaron Burr, who was Vice President to Thomas Jefferson.
Burr's form is a brilliant invention. The treatment enhances the content, allowing Gore Vidal to lay several perspectives before the reader. Aaron Burr lived to a ripe old age. We meet him first in the 1830s approaching his final years. He is still very much an active participant in life, however. He still has an eye for the ladies, two very big eyes for money or opportunity, and a very much alive and kicking penchant for political dabbling. His proclivities have left a world-wide trail of successes and failures, personal, political and familial.
A gentleman called Schuyler, who considers himself Dutch first, American second, is commissioned to write the old man's memoirs, after a fashion. He researches, contacts and interviews. There is a motive. The writer's commission is barbed. What Burr might reveal can be used to lever contemporary political advantage. Schuyler's task is to prise out the useful from the detail the old man might reveal. And it is from this quest that the book's eventual surprise materialises. It is, however, quite a long wait.
Schuyler meets Burr several times and, on each occasion, the old man develops a section of his memoir. The writer records the words and, here and there, interprets. Burr has lived a long and eventful life. His rise to fame was accelerated by participation in the War Of Independence. He became a battlefield commander and earned a reputation for success, not difficult when apparently everyone else involved, in Burr's estimation at least, lacked commitment, competence or both. This included George Washington, who is revealed as a selfish, bungling incompetent.
Burr was also, both by choice and inevitable proximity, a confidante and colleague of Thomas Jefferson, who saw Burr as a competitor. Jefferson's ideals are portrayed as naiveté and his judgment as eccentric. And Burr was always a threat to Jefferson's personal interest and ambition, and thus had to be controlled, manipulated, excluded, undermined. As ever, for the good of the country, of course...
But Burr was a survivor. A tempestuous private life riddled with success, failure, allegation and counter-claim, alongside a roller-coaster political career took the central character close to both power and ruin, ecstasy and despair. It also took him close to death several times.
Burr's enduring claim to fame is the duel he fought against a rival, Alexander Hamilton. Their long-standing rivalry is chartered through the book. Hamilton's death in the duel surfaces many times in Burr's narrative before the event itself is presented and, of course, there is more than meets the eye.
Gore Vidal states that he chooses to write historical fiction rather than history to reveal the frailties and shortcomings of icons such as Washington and Jefferson. He cites fiction's ability to ascribe opinion, its opportunity to create illustrative drama via dialogue in meetings that only might have happened. And at this level, Burr is a remarkable success. Events and people that have become statuesque icons are questioned, reassessed and often revealed as quite different from what we have learned to assume. Burr is also a book of forensic detail and, when that detail is reaffixed to the historical figures we thought we already knew, it is surprising to see them anew, revealed as merely human. It is not a book for the uncommitted reader who might be only partially interested in its subject. This, eventually, is its strength.