martes, 22 de junio de 2010

Julian by Gore Vidal

When you are born into greatness, you may be forgiven for exhibiting a sense of destiny or an assumption of purpose. When you also find yourself marginalised, you may also be praised for a decision to pursue philosophy and learning alongside religious purity. When the celebrity that is your birthright also suggests that others might prefer you dead, you might be excused for wanting to keep your head down. But then you were born into greatness and had no choice in the matter. Your head is permanently above the parapet.

Gore Vidal’s masterpiece of historical fiction works on every level. The Roman emperor Julian is his subject. The novel charts Julian’s origins and early years in the eastern part of the late Roman Empire. He thinks of himself as Greek, never really masters Latin and never willingly expresses himself in it. Neither is he one of those new-fangled Galilean types who espouse a new religion with three gods. No, Julian is a traditionalist, though not because of a propensity for conservatism, but more because the tried and tested has worked for centuries, continues to do so and, crucially, reveals itself to him. Like his own pedigree, the old religion has an identity and record all its own and, alongside that, proven power. He takes this stand despite the habit of conversion, manifest in Constantine’s adoption of the new faith, running in the family.

Julian’s form - in the sense of literary form – works with remarkable success and consistency. It is presented as his own journal, jottings toward an intended autobiography. But these notes have been pored over by two readers, Libanius and Priscus, both of whom the emperor has known since childhood. Since they are both also teachers, philosophers and advisers, their marginal comments are themselves interesting, enlightening and definitely not to be trusted.

The book, thus, is a linear progression through a life, something akin to an autobiography in note form. It describes Julian’s early formation and education in detail and his almost Masonic adoption into the old religion. It captures beautifully how pragmatism must rule, despite the necessity of being faithful to ideology. It relates with great skill how greatness can be thrust upon even a willing recipient, be accepted, and yet be no more than a manifestation of cynical pragmatism.

So when Julian is summoned to the status of Caesar, we see immediately that power prefers him on the inside projecting minimally outwards, rather than outside and potentially polluting. His changed status warrants a posting to Gaul to clear up the mess left by others less competent, a hospital pass if ever there was one.

But Julian astounds all. He succeeds. He has the Midas touch. Everything goes his way and his pragmatism marries itself to opportunism to generate a populist mongrel that fights better, schemes more ruthlessly and thus wins. What it never does, however, is forget its origins. Throughout it remains frugal, thrifty and to the point, the greatness thrust upon it is reinvested towards achieving a greater, but ever-receding glory.

Gore Vidal’s Julian thus raises its subject to Augustan status and follows the new leader to the east where he engages Persia and dreams of conquering India. Is this Alexander reborn? What the book does not do – thankfully – is offer detailed descriptions of military matters, since Julian himself has already written on these things elsewhere. This neat ploy keeps the focus of the book on the man, not his exploits. Late sections are in note form only, since the emperor was engaged with his day job of attempted world domination.

As historical fiction, Julian has it all. It recreates a feeling of the places. It relives decisions and options in a thoroughly convincing way. It fleshes out events with credible, fallible people, despite their occasional god status. Above all, it takes you there.

View the book on amazon

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