Thursday, June 15, 2017

Julian by Gore Vidal (1962)

I was sure I had read Julian before - maybe in college?  - but this so-called reread felt like a first time.  Nothing struck me as familiar; I didn't read a single passage that stuck out.  Only the bare bones of the story was familiar.

Gore Vidal's prose is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate.  Not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift. I kept wondering "why Julian the Apostate?"  He's not exactly a character from history that rolls of the tongue in a game of charades.  I suppose in Julian's time, there existed this razor thin line between the western world becoming completely Christian on one side, and Julian succeeding in bringing back the old gods on the other.  Perhaps something about the late 1950s struck the same chord in Gore Vidal.  Julian ends up being a fascinating character all the same, and the structure of the book - two unpublished memoirs of the emperor, with notes and asides by two philosophers (it makes more sense when you read it).  Did Gore Vidal do this kind of thing first?  The Autobiography of Henry VIII with notes by his Fool Will Somers by Margaret George is another example of this type of historical fiction that I have read and enjoyed in the past.

I like his fiction about the United States - Lincoln, Empire - better than Julian.  I always mean to read more Gore Vidal and yet never do.  So many books, so little time. 

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exceptionally good historical fiction; Gore Vidal's fiction is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate (not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift). Julian is a fascinating character and Vidal certainly writes him into reality; this isn't paper doll historical fiction. It's also a fascinating setting and time period: the transfer of power from pagans to Christians was relatively fast paced; in less than a hundred years, the Roman Empire and its dominions completely switched religions and thence power structure. There was this brief time of Julian's reign that Christians sat on the thin edge of the wedge, but his untimely death changed that (literally) over night. Setting and character are important, but in this particular novel, it's Vidal's often witty and thick prose that truly and literarily delights.


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