Julian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Although it is not impossible for an imperfect person to write a perfect work, few people, perfect or imperfect, will do so and therefore it is not hard to be a critic of someone’s work. Not hard at all.
Thus I found myself writing one critical review after the other.
Granted, mostly about movies and games, which I spent much more time with and upon then with reading. This felt like a kind of downwards spiral of negativity. There is too much wrong if everything has to be right. And nothing but perfection can stop criticism. Perhaps not even that.
I wanted to stop sliding movement into the darkness and so I decided to write a positive review. Something to lighten the mood so to speak.
I selected a book from memory which I really liked and thus I selected Julian by Gore Vidal.
I am not a good reader by any means. I am too impatient to appreciate the elaborate well written paragraphs that give other people such literary thrills. I tried a few other books written by Gore Vidal, Lincoln for instance, but it did not grip me and draw me in the same way Julian did. But I liked his enjoyable and human critical article about Ayn Rand and her objectivism.
So why did I like Julian?
Perhaps it was because Julian reminded me of a friend and thus he became a person whom I got empathy with because I knew him in a way. Julian strikes me mostly as the kind of person that gives his whole life to this one passion: philosophy.
That friend I have is like that, only his love is music. To be more specific: modern classical music.
Philosophy is what Julian adores most and it is this burning passion that basically drives him throughout the book. This might sound boring, but it is not given the fact that Julian is also a close relative to the sole autocratic ruler of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantius II, a man controlling an fast tottering empire beset by serious social and financial problems and threats from both within and without. In fact Julian is the nephew of both those emperors and he is even closer to the throne than this might suggest, because Constantius II has massacred most of his family after he gained the throne and has no sons and daughters. This makes Julian both a danger and a salvation. A danger for he could be used to dethrone the emperor and a salvation because an emperor without a successor in increasingly in danger when he grows older.
It is not boring either because precisely at that point in time Christianity gained the favor of the emperors, first the tacit support of Constantine I (the Great) and then the more committed one of his successor Constantius.
Julian finds himself dragged into the middle of all of this, while he rather wants to spend his days as a philosopher in Athens, a city that has at that point in time lost much of it’s former splendor.
Julian comes to his love via the church. A great irony in hindsight. First he is being taught the tenets of the Christian faith by priests and bishops, but then they also introduce him to those other more worldly teachings of philosophers.
Now Julians finds himself in turmoil, for the teachings of the one do not fit well with the other. Julian is losing his religion and replacing it with an another. In fact with many others. He is returning to polytheism.
And while he is struggling with this, fate intervenes. Or rather, the emperor. Constantius II – kinslayer – lacking sons and anyone else to trust, turns towards his few remaining relatives for aid. First Julian’s brother Gallus, who is instated as a prince of the realms. But Gallus soon reveals himself to be a homicidal maniac and has to be disposed by the emperor in a sinister plot that makes you wonder about the power of an emperor that needs to use backstabbing methods to dispose of an unruly subordinate. For a moment Julian’s life hangs in the balance as he stands a great change to be one of the hapless victims of his brothers demise, but he survives his brothers death by the timely (and gentle)intervention of the Empress.
And then, secondly, in almost ironical turn of fate, Julian himself is appointed prince.
He is then sent off to head an army that has to deal with the marauding barbarians that took the opportunity of the empire’s momentary weakness to cross the Rhine and pillage Gaul. In an astonishing campaign Julian amazes friend and foe alike by restoring order and routing the invaders against all odds. He restores peace swiftly. He is competent..too much so.
And now Julian too becomes a threat..for his success is too great and threatens the emperor. At least that is what the enemies of Julian at court say.
I leave the rest for you to read but I want to mention Julian’s development in his religious ideas, because that is what he is most famous for. For Julian is the Julian the Apostate.
Julian, as emperor, eventually turns against Christianity and in doing so he treads the path of the despot. At first he thinks that not supporting Christianity is enough to make people turn away from Christianity and return to the old ways. But he soon comes to the insight that merely not supporting Christianity is not enough. So he starts to actively and openly support the old religions. But eventually he realizes that even that is not enough and..
But we will never quite know how far he would have gone, yet when you read about Antioch you know where he was going.
What fate lies in store for Julian can be found in the book. It is greatly written..Gore Vidal gives us vivid idea of this Julian and his world. Gore is a great juggler. He gives us just enough but never too much. He draws a picture and is precise where he needs to be and broad and general when that is all that is required. He does so by having the story told by two old philosophers who write letters to each other. This allows Vidal to skip steps and have them explain things so we can understand what is going on.
However I feel there should be a bit of a caution attached to his book. In hindsight I find the depiction of Julian is somewhat detached. You never get quite feel of this man. We have no idea about his sexuality for instance. We know he is married, but it is all described in a detached way. Some people seem to take it that he was gay, but from the book this is hard to tell. In fact it might be much more believable that he was just absorbed by his passion for philosophy and his desire to turn back the clock religiously speaking. I know people who seem to have completely substituted their sexual desires in that way. I once thought my friend, mentioned above, was like that, but even he has a partner, a intelligent girlfriend who somehow matches him. Take heart in that, if you feel like you are an outsider.
Women play almost no part in this book except for when it seems absolutely necessary, like when Empress Eusebia intervenes on Julian’s behalf with Constantius.
This is man’s world mostly, not of a ladies man mind you, but one of the mind where men discuss and talk and are friends with men and his world is chiefly occupied with religion. friendships and relationship with other men(but not in any sexual way) and politics. You will find no romantic developments.
Perhaps in that way it is not perfect book. But for me it is perfect enough.
(I edited it a day later, because I was writing this and it was already 2 am, but i saw the flaws.. it still has many flaws.. I wished I could write like Gore Vidal can.. oh well).
Note: amazingly Gore Vidal never ever mentions the name of Ammianus Marcellinus.. which is really strange as not doubt Ammianus was the one who must have supplied him with all the relevant information. Ammianus was a close friend to Julian, an officer and a historian of the roman empire who is the prime source of the live of Julian. Yet I cannot recall him to appear in the book or being mentioned even in an aside. But mabye I remember it wrong.
Leave a Reply