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Thursday, 29 January 2015

WRITERS ON WRITING #60: Ford Madox Ford

When the party broke up, I stood for a long time with the Prince under the portico of the restaurant whilst the rain poured down.  He asked me what I was doing and I told him that I was just publishing a fairy-tale.  He said that that was an admirable sort of thing to do.  Then he said that he hoped the fairy-tale was not about Princes and Princesses - or at least that I would write one that would be about ordinary people.  I have been trying to do so ever since.  Indeed I tried to do so at once with the singular result that although my first invention had a great - indeed a prodigious - sale I could not even find a publisher for the second.  My subsequent difficulties have been technical.  I always want to write about ordinary people.  But it seems to be almost impossible to decide who are ordinary people - and then to meet them.  All men's lives and characteristics are so singular.

Return to Yesterday (1931)

Click HERE to visit the UK website of THE FORD MADOX FORD SOCIETY.  You can also click HERE to view clips from the soon-to-be released documentary It Was The Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, directed by PAUL LEWIS for Subterracon Films.

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

JAZZ ICONS #12: Helen Merrill


I fall deeply into the music. I hear a lot of information when I sing.  Back then and today, I'm able to go into a hypnotic state when performing.   Even to this day it takes me about 15 minutes to come out of whatever it is that permits me to go up there.  It’s kind of a self-hypnosis that I think a lot of performers probably have.  I don’t do it knowingly, you know.  It just happens.  I start out nervous but then just close my eyes, start singing and that fearful part of me disappears. But I’m still terrified before I go out on stage.  On the positive side, that feeling, as painful as it is, keeps your adrenaline in the right place and keeps your passion alive.

Interview by MARC MYERS 
published on his website JazzWax
2 February 2009

The question 'What makes a singer a jazz singer?' can be a difficult one to answer.  Many people - artists and fans alike - assume that a jazz singer is somebody who performs selections from 'The Great American Songbook' (that is, classic songs written by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin et al) with full orchestral accompaniment, usually in arrangements that are both pleasing to the ear and satisfyingly 'safe' in the artistic and all-important commercial sense.  But to categorize such performers as 'jazz singers' is misleading.  You may adore Rod Stewart's version of These Foolish Things or swoon over Carly Simon's rendition of All The Things You Are but to call these artists 'jazz singers' makes about as much sense as it does to label jazz performers like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday 'rockstars.'  The question is not simply one of repertoire, backing and arrangement.  To mistake what is often no more than a blatantly commercial attempt to milk the 'So-and-So Sings Standards' cash cow for a jazz performer's uniquely personal interpretation of the same 'standard' material is to do the performer and the music itself a very grave disservice.  

Jazz singing, like jazz itself, is about digging deep into yourself and making the lyrics express more than their literal surface meaning, the idea being that the interpretation of the material should be as individual as the artist performing it is capable of making it.  The greatest jazz singers - Vaughan and Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong in his heyday during the 1920s and early 1930s - were capable of making any song they performed unmistakably their own, bringing something to the lyrics and melody that made them as profound as they were moving, as inimitable as they've proven to be both popular and enduring.

Helen Merrill is a textbook example of what separates a pop singer from a jazz singer.  Her voice is as hauntingly expressive as any of the arrangements created to accompany it, her deeply personal, never predictable interpretation of each lyric a kind of masterclass-in-action in how to wring the maximum amount of emotion from language that, for all its beauty, is often mired in the worst type of sentimental cliché.  She transcends the limitations of the material and, by transcending it, transforms it into something far more expressive, emotionally and artistically, than the sum of its parts might at first seem to indicate is possible.  She has the ability to make the listener believe that she's singing to them and only to them - a gift, as any vocalist will confirm, that only the most talented of them can be genuinely said to possess.  Merrill's style is so intimate, her delivery and intonation so quintessentially feminine and alluring, that listening to her can sometimes make the listener feel like the aural equivalent of a spy or a Peeping Tom.

You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To (1961)
 & unknown musicians
Live in concert at 'Le Festival de Jazz d'Antibes'
Juan-les-Pins, France 
 July 1961

The singer was born Jelena Ana Milcetic in the Chelsea section of Manhattan on 21 July 1930 and grew up in the New York City borough of The Bronx, the second of four daughters of a Croatian immigrant and his wife.  She was raised largely by her elder sister, who assumed the role of primary caregiver when her mother fell ill and entered hospital, where she remained for several months prior to her death.  It was Merrill's mother, who enjoyed singing Croatian folk songs and often did so round the house before becoming sick, who inspired her love of music and her own desire to perform.  As a girl she would climb inside closets to practice so as not to irritate her father and sisters while attempting to imitate the jazz performers she heard on the radio each day.  'I’d hear Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others,' she told music journalist Marc Myers in a 2009 interview.  'I wasn’t allowed to change the dial, so I learned all the songs that way.  My real interest was in the musicians, the soloists.  Billie, of course, was really a musician with that voice of hers.  I also loved Lester Young and Ben Webster - I couldn’t believe his dynamic range.  I’d pick up all these things in a natural way.  I was always very sensitive and could hear things in music that others couldn't.'  Although she never learned to read music and never received any formal vocal training, Merrill had a fantastic ear and an irrepressible willingness to learn from the many professional jazz musicians whose paths she was soon fortunate enough to cross.

The venue for these meetings was the 845 Club in The Bronx whose owner, Johnny Johnson, she talked into giving her a job as an 'afternoon fill-in act' when she was barely into her teens.  The club was a popular daytime hangout for many of the city's top jazz musicians and it was here that the budding vocalist would meet and be befriended by era-defining artists such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and legendary be-bop pianist Bud Powell.  She was also heard at the club by Earl 'Fatha' Hines, the bandleader who first rose to prominence as Louis Armstrong's pianist back in the 1920s.  Hines soon hired Merrill as the second singer for his band, a decision no doubt influenced by the fact that she'd briefly worked with the Reggie Childs Orchestra in 1946 and that her new husband - the saxophonist Aaron Sachs whom she had married in 1948 - was then a member of his reed section. 
The two years Merrill spent with the Earl Hines Sextet would prove to be fortuitous ones for her career, allowing her to record for the first time (a 1952 track titled A Cigarette For Company) and introducing her to many of the musicians - including trombonist Bennie Green and a struggling young trumpeter-turned-arranger named Quincy Jones - who would become instrumental to the launching of her solo career.  (Before this could happen, however, she gave birth to a son named Alan on 19 February 1951 - a son she would go on to raise largely alone following her separation and 1956 divorce from Aaron Sachs.  Alan Sachs would grow up to become a successful singer in his own right under the name 'Alan Merrill.'  In addition to becoming the first non-Japanese popstar in Japan, he also co-wrote the rock anthem I Love Rock and Roll for his band Arrows - a song that would later be covered by, among others, Joan Jett and Miley Cyrus and go on to earn him a fortune in royalties.)  1953 saw Merrill record her first solo single with guitarist Jimmy Raney and bassist Red Mitchell for the tiny Roost label - a date that earned her a contract with the nationally distributed Mercury label and its new jazz subsidiary EmArcy Records for whom her friend Quincy Jones had recently begun to work as a staff arranger and conductor.    

It was Jones who would both arrange and conduct Merrill's debut 1955 LP for EmArcy, the self-titled vocal jazz classic Helen Merrill which also featured the flawless playing of a relatively unknown trumpeter by the name of Clifford Brown.  The album would make Merrill and Brown two of the most talked-about figures in modern jazz and remains the singer's best known and biggest selling album, having earned her and itself cult status in Japan in the six decades since its release.  Yet the circumstances of its recording were anything but extraordinary.  As the singer herself explained:  'We were both a little frightened by it all...I think he [Clifford Brown] felt the same shyness that I did.  So he was very protective of me, musically...We didn’t talk much at those sessions.  We just smiled at each other a lot.  What we had to say to each other was unspoken.  It came through the music, and you can still hear that unspoken conversation on there today.'  Like everyone who knew and worked with Brown, Merrill was devastated by the young trumpeter's 1956 death in a car accident.  'When talent like that disappears in a flash,' she later remarked, 'you can't believe it.  You deny it.'  She was in the studio, about to begin recording her second EmArcy LP with arranger Gil Evans and producer Bob Shad, when the news reached them that Brown had been killed.

Yesterdays (1954)
DANNY BANKS [flute]; JIMMY JONES [piano];
OSIE JOHNSON [drums]; QUINCY JONES [arranger] 
Recorded in New York City
24 December 1954
 From the 1955 EmArcy LP Helen Merrill

That recording session was cancelled but the album, featuring Evans' complex orchestral arrangements and released later that year as Dream of You, would see Merrill gain many new fans who had been attracted by the carefully fabricated 'torch singer' image EmArcy had created for her.  The same formula was used for her third LP, Merrill at Midnight, this time featuring the arrangements of film score composer Hal Mooney.  Like its predecessor, this LP also failed to transform her into the crossover 'pop' artist that EmArcy and its parent label Mercury had envisioned her becoming.  After recording a final album for Mercury - released in 1958 as The Nearness of You and featuring some stellar piano work from Bill Evans - and two 1959 LPs American Country Songs and You've Got a Date With The Blues for the Atlantic and Verve labels - albums which likewise failed to transform her into a crossover artist - she left the USA for London, performing on BBC Radio with pianist Dudley Moore (the same Dudley Moore who worked with fellow comedian Peter Cook and starred in the 1979 film 10 with Bo Derek) before traveling on to Belgium to sing at a festival there.  It was in Belgium that she met pianist Romano Mussolini, the jazz musician son of the former Italian dictator, and received an invitation to perform with his quartet in Rome.    

The Italian capital would remain Merrill's home for the next four years - an arrangement that got her out of her contract with Atlantic Records, allowed her to distance herself from the ongoing pain caused by a recently ended love affair, and saw her place her son in a Swiss boarding school.  Rome was also a popular destination for many visiting American jazz musicians during the early 1960s, many of whom - including trumpeter Chet Baker and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz - she would perform with in addition to performing and recording with many of Italy's finest jazz musicians.  In addition to recording a bilingual album, Parole e Musica [Words and Music], for RCA Italia and performing live on national television, she also found time to contribute a few songs to the soundtrack of the film Smog directed by Franco RossiDespite all this activity, she found life in Europe lonely and, following a second tour of Japan which she quickly abandoned for personal reasons, returned once again to New York.  Back in the city she knew so well and loved so much, Merrill immediately returned to the studio to record a new LP of folk-based material, featuring several of her old musical collaborators including guitarist Jimmy Raney and drummer Osie Johnson, released in 1965 as The Artistry of Helen Merrill.  

My Only Man (1962)
From the Italian film Smog 
Recorded in Rome, 1962   

1965 also saw Merrill record what was arguably her finest LP since the release of her debut album a decade earlier.  The Feeling Is Mutual, arranged by pianist Dick Katz, brought to the fore all those qualities - seductive intonation, a gentle if pervasive sense of melancholy, flawless renderings of what were by now very familiar lyrics to most jazz lovers - which had originally made her stand out as a vocalist's vocalist and a quiet if commanding force to be reckoned with.  A follow-up LP titled A Shade of Difference - for which Katz once again handled the piano and arranging chores - was released in 1968 and earned similar accolades from the critics for its combination of interesting and challenging material meticulously performed by a singer whose voice had somehow become even more subtle and expressive with the passing of the years.  

By then Merrill was living in Tokyo, which had become her new home following her 1966 marriage to Donald J Brydon, an Asian-based executive employed by the US newspaper syndicate United Press International.  Tokyo would remain the couple's home until the mid-1970s, allowing Merrill to capitalize on what had become her cult status there with regular concert and television appearances and her own weekly program on Japanese radio.  She also continued to record, accompanied by many well-known Japanese musicians such as Masahiko Satoh and by visiting US artists like the great Teddy Wilson.  Their 1970 release Helen Sings, Teddy Swings was, in her words, 'the easiest date in the world for me,' with the (non-playing) presence of another piano legend, Thelonious Monk, adding considerably to the pleasure of the occasion for everybody.

Lonely Woman (1968)
HELEN MERRILL [vocal]; DICK KATZ [piano, arranger]
THAD JONES [flugelhorn]; HUBERT LAWS [flute]
JIM HALL [guitar]; RON CARTER [bass]
from the 1968 Milestone LP A Shade of Difference


By 1976 Merrill was back in the US, living first with her husband in Chicago and then, following their 1979 separation, back in her 'spiritual home' New York City.  The 1980s saw her branch out into production, producing albums for pianists Tommy Flanagan and Al Haig to which she also contributed several 'guest' vocal tracks.  'I left the composer and song choices to the musicians,' she explained.  'I sat in the booth and determined the takes and the track order.  It’s my taste on there.  But I didn't have to do much with those guys, they were so brilliant.'  1980 also saw the release of her new solo LP Casa Forte, a Latin-tinged offering arranged and produced by Torrie Zito - a pianist who, twelve years later, would become the singer's third husband.  

The latter years of what would prove to be a particularly tough decade for jazz saw Merrill attain 'living legend' status among her peers and audiences alike, prompting her to record with other 'legends' like Stan Getz and an ailing Gil Evans, with whom she revisited the arrangements of their 1956 collaboration Dream of You for an award-winning 1987 LP titled, naturally enough, Collaboration.  She also took the unprecedented and wholly unexpected step of recording four 'songbook' albums featuring the work of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter - a move that may have been inspired by the sudden resurgence of interest in standards spearheaded by Linda Ronstadt and other pop performers who had begun to revitalize their stalled careers by mining this treasure trove of familiar, highly melodic material for albums tailored to a new generation of listeners who were neither aware of nor particularly interested in exploring more challenging jazz-based interpretations of it. 

Standards were, of course, far from being new or uncharted territory for Merrill.  This was the music she'd been performing all her life and was still performing - in live settings if not as frequently in the studio - as recently as 2013, with her final LP Lilac Wine appearing in 2004.   The one thing that's remained consistent throughout Merrill's career has been her unwillingness to compromise her artistic integrity - something, she freely admits, that probably cost her the chance to become the kind of universally admired diva that Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and her former label mate Sarah Vaughan have all become since their respective deaths.  A life spent in the shadows may have been something she was prepared for all along, if the following remarks, made during an interview she gave to DownBeat columnist Don Gold in 1957, are anything to go by:

I'm not dissatisfied with the degree of success I've found...I guess I don't have a burning need to be everybody's favorite singer.  I try to do what I can to the best of my ability and in the best taste I can.  I'm fortunate I was able to do what I want to do and make a good living at it.

I would disagree with this statement on one point only.  It's we, the fans of Helen Merrill, who have been the fortunate ones.  She's given us everything we could possibly demand from a jazz singer for more than half a century and remains, for my money, one of the world's most genuinely affecting vocalists. 


Click HERE to visit the website of HELEN MERRILL.  To read the full five part interview by jazz journalist MARC MYERS published on his website JazzWax, please click HERE.  To read an earlier interview by JOAO MOREIRA DOS SANTOS, published online on the All About Jazz website in November 2006, please click HERE.  

You can also listen to more great music by HELEN MERRILL on YouTube by clicking HERE.  

Special thanks to everyone who took the time to upload this music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

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Thursday, 15 January 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #24: Nazim Hikmet



Bursa Prison

My one and only!
Your last letter says:

'My head is throbbing,
my heart is stunned!'
You say:

'If they hang you,
if I lose you,
I'll die!'
You'll live, my dear -
my memory will vanish like black smoke in the wind.
Of course you'll live, red-haired lady of my heart:
in the twentieth century
grief lasts
at most a year.

Death -
a body swinging from a rope.
My heart
can't accept such a death.
you can bet
if some poor gypsy's hairy black
spidery hand
slips a noose
around my neck,
they'll look in vain for fear
in Nazim's
blue eyes!

In the twilight of my last morning
will see my friends and you,
and I'll go
to my grave
regretting nothing but an unfinished song...

My wife!
eyes sweeter than honey - my bee!
Why did I write you
they want to hang me?
The trial has hardly begun,
and they don't just pluck a man's head
like a turnip.

Look, forget all this.
If you have any money,
buy me some flannel underwear:
my sciatica is acting up again.
And don't forget,
a prisoner's wife
must always think good thoughts.


Translated by RANDY BLASING and MUTLU KONUK (1993)

The Poet:  Nazim Hikmet Ran, known throughout his career simply as 'Nazim Hikmet,' was born on 15 January 1902 in what was then the Ottoman province of Salonica (and is now the Greek province of Thessaloniki).  He was educated mostly in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) before entering the Ottoman Naval School in 1918, from which he graduated as an officer.  His naval career was brief, however, with ill health seeing him declared unfit for active duty in 1919 and permanently exempted from undertaking any further military service one year later.  

Hikmet's poor health did not prevent him from walking to Ankara, home of the Turkish liberation movement, with his friend and fellow poet Vâlâ Nûreddin.  Here they met Mustafa Kemal Pasha, better known Atatürk ('the father of the Turks'), who was then engaged in fighting the Turkish War of Independence against France, Greece and Armenia - countries which, between them, had partitioned Turkey following the Allied victory in World War One and the subsequent collapse of what had formerly been the large but crumbling Ottoman Empire.  The independence movement was impressed enough with the work of these young volunteers to send them to Bolu, capital of the Western Turkish province of the same name, to help inspire and educate the local population about the necessity and righteousness of its cause.  Their stay in Bolu proved to be a short one, with the local authorities soon growing suspicious of the Communist sympathies which saw Hikmet and Nûreddin travel to Russia in September 1921 to observe the new Soviet 'worker's state' for themselves.  By July 1922 they were in Moscow, where Hikmet would enter university to study Economics and Sociology and fall heavily under the influence of contemporary Soviet poets including the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The young poet returned to Turkey in 1924, where his pro-Communist activities quickly brought him into conflict with the repressive one-party government of the newly-established Republic of Turkey.  He was arrested and incarcerated by the government and spent much of the next thirty years in prison.  In April 1950 he began a hunger strike which saw his case become a cause célèbre for both Turkish and international intellectuals, all of whom demanded his immediate and unconditional release.  Hikmet's elderly mother soon joined his hunger strike, as did many of Turkey's leading poets, artists and writers, their protest only ending with the election of the country's first Democrat Party government in November 1950 and the granting of a long-awaited general amnesty to all political prisoners.  

After winning the 1951 International Peace Prize, Hikmet fled to Romania and from there to the USSR, where he remained for the rest of his life, dying in Moscow of heart failure on 3 June 1963.  Despite having had his Turkish citizenship revoked in 1959 and being constantly attacked and harassed by its various governments after his long-delayed release from prison, he remains one of the most popular and beloved writers in all of Turkish literature, nearly as famous for his plays, film scripts and only published novel as he still is for his poetry.

Click HERE to read more poems (in English) by NAZIM HIKMET at the website.

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POET OF THE MONTH #11: Fatma Ben Mahmoud
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Thursday, 8 January 2015

WRITERS ON WRITING #59: Kristina Haynes

...I think, as writers, we’re never really satisfied.  I think we’re all perfectionists and even the work we decide to finally publish and let the world see isn’t ever as good as we think it can be.  I think we are always criticizing ourselves and pushing ourselves to be better, to produce more writing, to edit it down, to fatten it up, to just keep going over our poems and prose and to constantly write everything we see and say down so that we can look back however many pages and go 'Yes yes let me write about this, let me write about the exact color of the sidewalk after it rains'—it’s exhausting.  Because we document everything.  Or try to.  As accurately and as detailed as possible.  But as for knowing if our words are ever worth anything…
  Yes, I think it’s possible to know.  Our writing is definitely worth something.  I mean, personally, I get plenty of asks from the sweetest people telling me how this poem helped them or how that poem opened their eyes to an issue they didn’t realize they were dealing with, etc.  I think that once you can get past yourself, when your words are so tangible that other people can just reach right out and grab hold of them and try them out and let them sit or run or catch, then we’re doing our job.  But I think that there is always going to be a level of self-doubt, no matter how many books we publish or how well known our work becomes.  I mean, some of us are clearly destined to be #1 on The New York Times bestseller list and I can guarantee you that while they may be confident that their work is good, they probably don’t see it as good enough.  And may never see it as good enough.  
  But yeah, I think that your writing is worth something.  Because you’re proactive about it.  You care.  You want it to be worth something.  I think writing is always worth it.  It’s a brave thing, to sit down at a desk or on the floor or a coffee shop or library or wherever and want to write about how you feel.  To describe a moment, or a series of moments.  To put your heart into it.  To want others to feel what you’re saying.  To want others to understand.  
  Yes, your writing is worth something.  It’s everything.  It’s everything you put into it.  At the end of the day, if at least one person comes to me and tells me that X poem helped them, my writing is worth something.  And sometimes, sometimes that person that I helped, sometimes it’s me.  So yes.  It’s worth it.  If not for anyone else, then for yourself.

Blog post  [26 November 2013]


Click HERE to visit The Shipfitter's Wife, the Tumblr blog of poet, writer and actress KRISTINA HAYNES.

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Thursday, 1 January 2015

GORE VIDAL Julian (1964)

Abacus/Little, Brown & Company UK, 2001

Julian was Christian in everything except his tolerance of others.  He was what the Christians would call a saint.  Yet he swung fiercely away from the one religion which suited him perfectly, preferring its eclectic origins, which he then tried to systematize into a new combination quite as ridiculous as the synthesis he had rejected.  It is a strange business and there is no satisfactory explanation for Julian's behavior...Granted, no educated man can accept the idea of a Jewish rebel as god.  But having rejected that myth, how can one then believe that the Persian hero-god Mithras was born of light striking rock, on December 25th, with shepherds watching his birth?  (I am told that the Christians have just added those shepherds to the birth of Jesus.)  Or that Mithras lived in a fig tree which fed and clothed him, that he fought with the sun's first creation, the bull, that he was dragged by it (thus symbolizing man's suffering) until the bull escaped; finally, at the command of the sun god, Mithras stabs the bull with a knife and from the beast's body came flowers, herbs, wheat; from the blood, wine; from the seed, the first man and woman.  Then Mithras is called up to heaven, after celebrating a sacramental last supper.  Time's end will be a day of judgment when all will rise from their graves and evil will be destroyed while the good will live forever in the light of the sun.

The Book:  Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus was the sixty-third Emperor of Rome, known as 'Julian the Apostate' because he unsuccessfully attempted to break the stranglehold Christianity had come to exert over the Empire he'd inherited - somewhat reluctantly, according to most historians - from his cousin and staunchly Christian predecessor Constantius II in 361CE.  (Constantius II was himself the third son of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome who was later canonized by the Catholic Church for the part he played in eradicating paganism and encouraging his subjects to convert to the 'one true faith.')  By personally embracing and officially encouraging a return to the Hellenistic polytheism of his Augustan forbears, Julian sought to strengthen and reinvigorate an Empire which he feared was in danger of being destroyed from within by religious dissent and from without by the barbarian hordes which, for years, had been harassing it along its borders in Central Europe and the Middle East.  Born in either 331CE or 332CE in the Empire's eastern capital Constantinople (today known as Istanbul), Julian died from a wound received in battle on 26 June 363CE while leading a campaign against the Persians in Mesopotamia, ending a reign which, though brief in duration, had been notable for its many wise and efficiently-implemented reforms and its emphasis on the study and appreciation of philosophy, rhetoric and other predominantly 'Greek' forms of culture and religious observance.

Julian is Gore Vidal's imaginative recreation of the Emperor's short but surprisingly well-documented life, a masterly historical novel notable for its wit, humor, intelligence and unapologetic debunking of the Christian ethos and the arrogant (not to mention unprovable) assumption that the Christian deity was the 'one true God' and that any other belief system must, by implication, be automatically heretical and therefore 'wrong.'

The story, which is mostly told by Julian himself in memoir form with acerbic and occasionally comedic interpolations from his teachers and literary executors, the Greek philosophers Libanius and Priscus, begins with his birth and childhood in the Roman province of Bithynia (modern day Turkey).  He's raised here as a Christian under the watchful eye of Eusebius, Bishop of Nicodemia and his private tutor, the strict and clever eunuch Mardonius.  When Eusebius dies, Constantius II has Julian and his elder half-brother Gallus taken to Macellum, the Imperial estate in distant Cappadocia, where they spend the next six years living under the supervision of George, that province's trusted Christian bishop.  

It is in Cappadocia, while painstakingly reading his way through the bishop's extensive library, that Julian is first exposed to philosophy via the works of the Neo-Platonist thinker Plotinus - something that provides him with some much-needed spiritual comfort, given that his life, along with that of the older, more dashing but exceedingly cruel Gallus, is in constant danger from their wary and paranoid cousin the Emperor, who has had every one of their other relatives, including Julian's own parents, executed as a precautionary measure.  The half-brothers remain in exile until 351CE when, with Gallus newly-installed as the Empire's 'Caesar of the East' (a kind of junior Emperor who governed the eastern half of the Empire while Constantius II was busy pacifying and governing its western provinces), Julian is finally given permission to return to Constantinople. 

Franklin Library US, 1981
Philosophy now becomes the dominant passion of Julian's life, so much so that he plans to make the study and practice of it his lifelong occupation.  He first becomes the pupil of the philosopher Aedesius and then of Aedesius' own pupil Maximus, who convinces him to abandon Christianity in favor of returning to the old Roman polytheistic religion, which involves the worship of various gods via animal sacrifice and other such 'heretical' practices.  Julian, who has now grown into a garrulous young man of the priggish undergraduate variety, is living and studying grammar and rhetoric in the city of Nicodemia when news reaches him that Gallus, whose elevation to the role of Caesar has transformed him into a corrupt and unjust monster, has been assassinated at the request of Constantius II.  Fearful that Julian might try to avenge his parents' deaths by staging a coup against him, the Emperor has him summoned to the Imperial court at Milan where he's kept prisoner for a year, only to be released in 354CE at the urging of the Empress Eusebia who arranges for him to travel to Athens where he hopes to resume his interrupted philosophical studies.  His stay in the Greek capital proves to be a short one, however, lasting only until October 355CE.  One year later he's summoned back to Milan, where he's crowned 'Caesar of the West' and married off to Helena, Constantius II's unattractive twenty-nine year old sister.  Immediately after the wedding he's packed off to Paris, where he's saddled with the unenviable task of subduing the rebellious German tribes making trouble for the Empire along the Rhine despite having received no training as a soldier or a military tactician. 

The time Julian spends in Gaul (modern day France) proves to be the making of him.  He successfully outfights the Germans, winning a famous victory over the Alammani tribe and another over the Franks of the Lower Rhine soon afterwards.  These victories make him popular with his Gaulish troops, whose strong sense of personal loyalty to him is strengthened by his defiance of an order, issued by Constantius II in February 360CE, to send them east to defend the Empire's eastern border against the invading Persians.  (The Gauls aren't opposed to the idea fighting, per se. What they object to is being obliged to travel such vast distances to do it.)  Although Julian tries to comply with the order, he's put in an untenable position by his troops, who burst into his tent during what's intended to be his farewell banquet and proclaim him Emperor, forcing him, at swordpoint, to either accept the title they seek to bestow on him or be executed on the spot.  Under his leadership, the Gaulish legions set out for Constantinople, intending to do battle with Constantius II and the eastern legions which have, for economic reasons of their own, chosen to remain loyal to him.  Before the armies can meet, however, news arrives that Constantius II has died, leaving instructions in his will that Julian is to become his sole successor.

The new Emperor enters Constantinople in triumph on 11 December 361CE and almost immediately sets about the task of restructuring not only life at court but also the public, economic and religious lives of the Empire itself.  Insisting that all religions will be tolerated under his rule, he then uses his Imperial power to exclude Christians from working as teachers and public servants while doing everything possible to restore his beloved paganism to what he feels should be its rightful place as the official state faith.  He lives an ascetic life, rigorously avoiding sex (his wife died in or around 329CE, possibly as a result of poison secretly administered by the then-Empress Eusebia, who feared that any children her sister-in-law might have with Julian would weaken her own position and thus see her lose her Imperial status), wine and the eating of meat, tirelessly devoting himself to the problems of state and his unrealized (and probably sabotaged) plans to rebuild the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, razed to the ground by besieging Roman legions in 70CE.  Never entirely certain of the loyalty of his eastern armies, Julian attempts to permanently secure this  by launching a campaign against the Persians, feeling that a victory over the Persian king Sapor II will also win the unwavering and hopefully lifelong support of his own troops.  The decision to pursue this campaign, however, proves to be a rare and serious miscalculation on his part.  Despite some impressive early victories, the campaign falters when, having won a battle outside its gates, the Roman army fails to press its advantage and capture the Persian capital.  Trapped deep within enemy territory, the Romans are obliged to use a different line of retreat than the one they had originally planned to use, the result of which is Julian's own death, of a not immediately fatal spear wound, in June 363CE.

Edhasa Literaria Spain, date unspecified
The appeal of telling Julian's story in novelistic form lies not so much in its historical accuracy - which is, of course, mightily impressive - but in Vidal's ability to bring the treacherous, religiously divided and very dangerous world of the later Roman Empire to life for the modern reader by focusing on the humanity of his characters and their many foibles, eccentricities and, above all, vanities.  The philosophers Libanius and Priscus dislike each other and rarely agree on anything, as the 'notes' they inscribe on Julian's autobiographical manuscript so frequently and humorously reveal.  Gallus is portrayed as a narcissistic control freak, while Constantius II comes across as a fourth century version of today's overworked and overstressed company director, struggling to keep his unwieldy Empire together while never daring to show his true feelings in case reliable friends suddenly turn into unreliable enemies and try to snatch it away from him.  Julian himself comes across as a bit of a humorless long-winded pedant, as zealous in his quest to re-establish the worship of the old gods as his ideological foes the Christians are to establish the preeminence of what they insist is their 'one true God.'  His efforts to return Rome to Hellenism are both laughable and, in another sense, a sad reminder of the fact that it's impossible for human beings to recapture or even try to replicate the past, no matter how committed they may be to proving how much better things were for everybody 'back in the good old days.'

Julian is also a novel about politics, but politics seen almost exclusively from an ironic, humanistic viewpoint in which the ups and downs of Imperial Rome are subtly and cleverly contrasted with the equally interesting if no less venal world of 1960s Washington.  (Vidal himself ran for office several times and was friendly with John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963 while the book was being written.  It was in Vidal's former bedroom, in the house belonging to his grandfather, that John and Jackie Kennedy spent the first night of their honeymoon.)  The Roman Empire and the democracies of the modern era are notable, Vidal suggests, not so much for their differences as for their many striking and often ludicrous similarities - the seemingly endless array of schisms and petty feuds they inspire, the secret deals and the associated social and political pitfalls they give rise to, the inability of what are supposed to be intelligent, trustworthy and rational men and women to agree on anything, ever, for longer than a few hours at a time.  Julian, prig though he is, is also an idealist and the world - especially the political world - is, as everybody readily acknowledges, no place for idealists.  As Vidal himself explains in his introductory note:  'During the fifty years between the accession of Julian's uncle Constantine the Great and Julian's death at thirty-two, Christianity was established.  For better or worse, we are today very much the result of what they were then.'  A novel like Julian serves as a valuable reminder of how little we and the world our politicians do such a lacklustre job of pretending to run on our behalf have changed in the past two thousand years.

GORE VIDAL, c. 1964
The Author:  The obituary published in the 1 August 2012 edition of The New York Times cuts through to the essence of what made Gore Vidal such a fascinating writer and, in another sense, such a difficult one to define.  He was, his obituarist Charles McGrath wrote, 'an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right.  Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent.'  Versatility, as Vidal himself may have been the first to admit, is not necessarily regarded as an asset in the dog-eat-dog world of American publishing, which tends to prefer its authors to slot into neatly labelled categories and takes a generally dim view of those who refuse to do this.  Vidal did it all - wrote bestselling historical and satirical fiction, television dramas, film scripts, successful Broadway plays, two well-received memoirs and hundreds of social, literary and political essays - and still found time to run for a seat in Congress, appear on dozens of TV talk shows where he spoke honestly and unashamedly about his life as a homosexual, play supporting roles in movies like Gattaca (1997) and soap operas like Mary Hartman (1976) plus conduct a long-running public feud with right-wing columnist and writer William F Buckley.  (The feud, which dragged on for years and saw both men sue and counter-sue each other several times, began because Vidal called Buckley a 'crypto-Nazi' during a live 1968 television debate.)  He was a writer who not only reported and commented on his era, he was one who literally embodied it, becoming and remaining an indispensable part of the American literary scene for over sixty years.

Vidal was born Eugene Louis (or Luther, sources disagree) Gore Vidal in the Cadet Hospital of the West Point Military Academy in upper New York state on 3 October 1925.  His father, a two time Olympic athlete, was the Academy's aeronautics instructor who would later go on to co-found three major US airlines while his mother Nina - a prominent socialite, part-time actress, alcoholic and future Senatorial candidate for the Democratic Party whose son grew up despising her - would marry three more times following their 1935 divorce.  (Her second husband, the stockbroker Hugh D Auchincloss, eventually went on to marry the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, hence the Vidal/Kennedy connection - a connection that Vidal, who understood how appealing the Kennedys were to a nation lacking its own officially sanctioned royal family, apparently never tired of reminding people of.)  Vidal was mostly raised by his mother after his parents' divorce but spent his happiest hours, he later said, at boarding school or in the Washington DC home of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the blind Democrat Senator for Oklahoma.  It was his grandfather, whom he enjoyed reading to as a child, who inspired what would become his lifelong interest in politics and social issues.  

Vidal graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1943 and immediately enlisted in the Reserve Corps of the US Army.  After a brief training period in Virginia, he joined the Army Transportation Corps and was sent to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska where, after rising to the rank of Warrant Officer and serving three years as First Mate on a transport ship, he contracted hypothermia and rheumatoid arthritis and was sent to a VA hospital.  It was on board ship, while making a run between Dutch Harbor and Chernowski Bay, that he wrote the bulk of what became, in 1946, his first published novel Williwaw.  This was followed in 1947 by In A Yellow Wood and two years later by The City and the Pillar, a book considered corrupting and deeply shocking in its day due to its frank portrayal of a young gay man struggling to confront and accept his 'aberrant' sexuality.  The book was dedicated to 'JT,' a pseudonym for Vidal's boyhood lover Jimmie Trimble whom he'd met while attending boarding school in the 1930s.  Vidal always claimed that Trimble, who died in 1945 during the battle to capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, was the only person he ever truly loved.  Boasting in later life that he'd enjoyed the sexual favors of more than a thousand lovers before the age of twenty-five - a list which allegedly included Hollywood actors Tyrone Power and Fred Astaire and fellow writers Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac - he nevertheless maintained a stable relationship with Howard Austen for more than thirty years which ended with Austen's death from cancer in 2003.  

Vidal blamed the controversy caused by the publication of The City and The Pillar for his subsequent lifelong snubbing by the New York literary establishment - a statement challenged by critic Harold Bloom, who suggested that his lack of critical recognition owed more to his decision to work in the 'unfashionable' genre of historical fiction than to his outspokenness about homosexuality and other contentious issues.  Vidal went on to publish ten more novels between 1949 and 1954, half of which were popular, money-earning mysteries written under the pseudonyms 'Edgar Box, 'Katherine Everhard' and 'Cameron Kay.'  An easier and more reliable source of income proved to be the new medium of television, which he began writing for in 1955, following his success here (he could allegedly churn out a completed shooting script in a weekend, making him very popular with producers) with an equally successful stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, serving as uncredited 'script doctor' for films such as Ben Hur (1959) in addition to adapting his own award-winning political play The Best Man (1964) for the screen.  

In 1960, weary of Hollywood and the artistic compromises it demanded of him - and newly installed in a large home in Dutchess County, New York - Vidal stood for election for as the Democratic candidate for Congress under the name of 'Eugene Gore.'  He failed to win the seat but gained more votes than any Democrat candidate - including future President John F Kennedy - had gained for more than half a century in what was considered to be a safe Republican stronghold.  Politics became increasingly dominant as both the subject of his fiction - he published the first part of his 'Narratives of Empire' series Washington, DC in 1967, one of six novels that examined American history through the eyes of one family between the Revolution and the 1950s - and as the subject of the dozens of essays he wrote for publications like Esquire, The Nation and Vanity Fair over the ensuing decades.  His outspokenness on political issues gradually saw him assume the role of 'elder statesman' of the American Left, casting a critical and highly acerbic eye on the nation's leaders, their policies and their unwillingness to challenge or even intelligently question the prevailing status quo'There is only one party in the United States,' he famously wrote in 1977, 'the Property Party...and it has two right wings:  Republican and Democrat.  Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently...and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of handBut, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.'  Despite expressing these and other equally cynical (if perfectly valid) sentiments, he ran for office again in 1982, this time for pre-selection as the Democratic Senatorial candidate for California - an election he lost to the incumbent Senator Jerry Brown, who in turn lost his seat to his Republican opponent, ex-actor Ronald Reagan.  

Vidal relocated to Italy in the early 1960s, buying a hilltop home in the town of Ravello which boasted panoramic views of the Amalfi coast.  It was here that he wrote Julian (1964) and his controversial, genre-breaking 'transgender' novels Myra Breckinridge (1968) and its sequel Myron (1974) along with many of the other works, both historical and satirical, which saw him consolidate his position as a writer of seemingly limitless scope and dazzling originality.  His relationships with his fellow writers were no less prickly than they were with political and ideological opponents like William F Buckley, climaxing in a 1971 pre-broadcast brawl with Norman Mailer on the set of The Dick Cavett Show and several very public run-ins with Truman Capote, against whom he once won a suit for libel after Capote wrongly claimed that he'd been 'kicked out' of the Kennedy White House.  He also championed the work of forgotten American writers like William Dean Howells and his friend, the immensely talented and unjustly ignored novelist and playwright Dawn Powell.

GORE VIDAL, c. 2009
Following the death of Howard Austen in 2003, Vidal returned permanently to Los Angeles to live out the remainder of his life as America's crankiest if most elegant and eloquent man of letters.  He continued to speak out virulently and often on social and political issues, characteristically refusing to get caught up in the euphoria which followed the election of Barack Obama despite his sincere admiration for the new President's intelligence.  'America,' he said in an interview published in The Times three years before his death in July 2012, 'is rotting away at a funereal pace.  We'll have a military dictatorship pretty soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together.' 

Click HERE to visit THE GORE VIDAL PAGES, an online resource site featuring excerpts from the writer's fiction and non-fiction work and many useful links.  Another useful site, THE GORE VIDAL INDEX, can be visited by clicking HERE.  (Be aware that several of its links no longer seem to work.)

You might also enjoy:
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)
JOHN WILLIAMS Stoner (1965)
IRWIN SHAW The Troubled Air (1951)