Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Two More Noted Writers Have Died — Gore Vidal and Maeve Binchy

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Sometimes, writing this blog is more an exercise in discussing other writers who’ve gone before me — especially in a week like this, where not one, but two noted writers have passed away.

First, the popular Irish writer Maeve Binchy, perhaps best known for her novel CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, died on Monday, July 30, 2012.  She was 72.  As this obituary from the Los Angeles Times states, Binchy didn’t sell her first novel until she was 42; that novel, LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE, did very well, to the point that Binchy compared that success to winning the lottery.

Over the past thirty years, Binchy sold over 40 million novels, most being marketed as romance.  Three of her stories, the novels CIRCLE OF FRIENDS and TARA ROAD, and a short story, “How About You,” were made into films.  Binchy’s obituary in the Times includes the following book reviewer’s comment from 1999:

“A hallmark of a Binchy book is a cast of characters Dickens would relish,” Mary McNamara wrote in The Times in 1999, “all pairing and sundering, congregating and dispersing in an operatic minuet. Plots and subplots surface and submerge” in a story that invariably ends in “acceptance and growth.”

Yet Binchy herself, while she viewed her success as gratifying, felt her work was best-suited to beachgoers and vacationers.  And she said, more than once, that she felt lucky to have been born in an age when the mass-market paperback was so popular.

The main reason I point this out is because Binchy was the sort of down-to-Earth writer that most of us would love to have had a conversation with.  While she was witty, her wit wasn’t the type that hurt anyone; Binchy instead invited everyone to share in the joke along with her.  Her work celebrated humanity precisely because of our often messy and sometimes fractious relationships with other human beings.

Contrast that with the other writer who died this week, Gore Vidal.  Vidal died on July 31, 2012 at the age of 86, and was as well-known for being a raconteur as he was for his writing.  Yet Vidal’s writing also showcased humanity, mostly by using historical events (such as in celebrated historical novel, JULIAN) and huge canvases to convey the human condition in every possible respect.

Vidal was one of the most respected voices in American literature.  Highly quotable and often profane, Vidal was a successful writer in any medium he tried — feature films (he helped to write “Ben-Hur”), plays (“The Best Man”), popular novels (MYRA BRECKENRIDGE), and historical novels (JULIAN, LINCOLN, and BURR), just to name a few.

Vidal’s obituary in the Washington Post describes more about Vidal’s remarkable life, including the fact that he served in World War II and was well-known for his rapier wit on talk shows.  Here’s a bit from his obituary:

In print or on television — he was a frequent talk-show guest — the worldly Mr. Vidal provoked controversy with his laissez-faire attitude toward every sort of sexuality, his well-reasoned disgust with what he called American imperialism and his sophisticated cynicism about love, religion, patriotism and other sacred cows.

He took an acerbic view of American leadership. “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books,” he once quipped, “and there is some evidence they cannot read them either.”

Vidal was the type of man who enjoyed being controversial.  Yet Vidal, the writer, tended to stay within himself; he wrote novels, such as the historically-inspired JULIAN**, with a trained eye toward mores, customs, and language.  These three things, all of which goes to show how well Vidal knew his craft, were paramount; only after they had been satisfied would Vidal add in various cynical cracks regarding historical figures.  And even then, Vidal would do so in order to show that cynicism is not new to the modern era; it’s been with us since the dawn of time.

Two excellent writers have passed from this Earth, but their literary output remains.  If you haven’t read anything by either one of them, go straight to your library and request Binchy’s CIRCLE OF FRIENDS or TARA ROAD; read Vidal’s hilarious satire MYRA BRECKENRIDGE or his excellent historicals, most particularly LINCOLN, BURR, and JULIAN.  But do read these authors, and let their work inspire you, move you, or (especially in the case of Vidal’s non-fiction) annoy you.

In that way, their work will remain: immutable, timeless, and real.

———

** I’ve read JULIAN, and I tend to see it as Biblically-inspired because of certain ways Emperor Julian looks at the early Christian church.  The Emperor definitely doesn’t appreciate the rise of Christianity, but at first he believes he can use it — at least, before the church uses him.

What you need to read in the Bible to give you a sense of this time are the letters of St. Paul — his Epistles — to the Corinthians and others.  Paul was a politician, something that most Biblical readers tend to forget; he was building a church, and in so doing, he had to tread carefully.

Of course, Emperor Julian lived three hundred years later than St. Paul.  But Emperor Julian was quite a bit closer to that time than, say, to ours, and Vidal’s writing reflects this.

That’s why I view JULIAN as a type of passion-play; Julian himself is doomed, as the Christian Church was too advanced for him to fight. 

There are many Biblical allusions that can be made here; I’m sure there are also allusions that can be made to the Koran, to the Bhagavad-Gita, and to other noteworthy holy books, as the story of a great, albeit flawed, man up against forces beyond himself is one that definitely has withstood the test of time.   Vidal did this deliberately as a conscious author’s decision, and it works, both as a method for telling the story and as a way to demonstrate this particular story’s universality.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

August 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm

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