The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

Our book group read this as a sort of homage to the author, who died earlier this year.

I first read this book in my late teens and was deeply moved by it. Now, more than forty years on, I find it dated, almost from another country, though I can understand why it first impressed me. It is interesting as a slice of gay culture but the style is bland, dull, linear and plodding. Lots of strands are undeveloped. It was written when the author was young but Truman Capote wrote much better stuff at the same time and age.

It is only recently that I discovered the allusion in the title: travelling from small town to large city but looking back (like Lot’s wife in the Bible myth) and holding on to some romantic past and, thereby, being unable to move in. It could be argued, therefore, that the reason for the bland style and two-dimensional characters is that it echoes the numbness of bereavement.

Some of the observations are apt for the time and for a couple of decades afterwards: gay men looking down on lesbians as pathetic; being disgusted (because of internalised homophobia) of the effeminate, characterised by Rolly, the anti-communist old queen who becomes a Roman Catholic because of the tat but later fancies a swami and contemplates becoming a Hindu; the fag hag who is oblivious to Wold War Two and thought that the Russians were pro-Hitler.

Unable to detach themselves from the prevailing mores of the society around them, characters feel that it is unnatural to be in love with a man and that it is easier to have sex with a man than to find a friend. Yet there is an increasing yearning for freedom from the law that has no business meddling into people’s private affairs and loves.

The observation of the bar life of the time is accurate: describing a bar crawl as being like the Stations of the Cross; noticing how, towards closing time, the music slows, which makes cruising more demure, less fevered

Among its dated phrases and the description of sexual intercourse as ‘the intricacy of becoming one’ and ‘the world of men and women and its ancient and necessary duet.’ Also the defence of those unmarried as, ‘It is cheaper to buy milk than buy a cow.’ Today, it is more likely to be ‘Why buy a book when you can join a library?’

There is some odd, though probably accurate stereotyping as one oppressed minority observes about another, that Jews can’t write novels because they are not creative, ‘something to do with Talmud training.’

The rape scene is totally unbelievable.

This is gay rather than a novel – no subplots.


“We affect one another quite enough merely by existing. Whenever the stars cross, or is it comets? fragments pass briefly from one orbit to another. On rare occasions there is total collision, but most often the two simply continue without incident, neither losing more than a particle to the other, in passing.”

“Ideally, of course, a relationship is best, but then how many people are capable of deep feeling? Practically none.”

“Of course his dust would be absorbed in other living things and to that degree at least he would exist again, though it was plain enough that the specific combination which was he would never exist again.”

“Americans tend to play different roles, hoping that somehow they’ll stumble on the right one.”

“Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before.”

“As the late afternoon sun shone in Shaw’s face and a soft flower-scented wind cooled him, his unhappiness turned to a detachment that was not at all unpleasant. He was utterly alone in the world. This knowledge thrilled him.”

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