“…and loathsome canker lies in sweetest bud.”

imageClouds and Eclipses is the collection of Gore Vidal’s eight short stories, published in completion in 2006. Originally published as a collection of seven in A Thirsty Evil in 1956, those were joined by the eponymous story “Clouds and Eclipses”, a fictionalised episode from Tennessee Williams’ childhood involving teenage suicide, blackmail, and sexual misconduct. The story was left unpublished in 1956 at Williams’ (quite understandable) request, and forgotten entirely until 2005 when it was found among Vidal’s archived papers.

The eight stories are sparely written, with much of the action happening off-page – considered unsatisfying in some reviews I’ve read, but I prefer authors who don’t see a need to spoon-feed every detail to their reader. The potential for an “ooooh” or an “a-ha!” moment, no matter how small, makes for much more rewarding reading. Short stories aren’t my favourite genre, and while I don’t think they’re Vidal’s strongest suit, his customary clarity of observation, expert turn of phrase, and biting wit carry the stories over their lower points.

I was surprised by how frankly the stories addressed homosexuality – not that I’m particularly puritan, but I was expecting winks and nudges, a sly glance toward the camera, rather than the direct dealing Vidal gives us.  Not to say that they’re particularly joyful treatments (it was the 1950s, after all), but interesting to see such plain explorations of gay themes from that era.

The highlight of the collection by an absolutely mile is “The Zenner Trophy” – the most realistic and personally accessible of all the stories in the collection. Mr Beckman, a teacher dealing with his own heavily repressed homosexuality, is charged with expelling the star athlete of an elite boys highschool over some severe, unnamed breach of conduct – later revealed to be a relationship with another student. The boy in question, Flynn, has a refreshing self-assurance and lack of shame – “‘I still don’t see why what I want to do should ever be anybody’s business except my own… after all it doesn’t affect anybody else, does it?'” – a confidence which leads to uncomfortable realisations for the repressed Mr Beckman – “…he hated Flynn for reminding him of the long and tedious journey ahead, down an endless, chalk-smelling corridor where each forward step took him ever farther away from this briefly glimpsed design within a lilac day.” (p.73)

Gore Vidal’s biographer Jay Parini described Vidal’s books as “all acts of solo talking… whether it’s the voice of Burr or the voice of Lincoln, that’s just Gore talking. It’s Gore’s tone… So Gore has the one voice, but he puts different clothes or costumes on the character, but it’s just core… he’s not a real novelist like E.M. Forster, [who could] really tell a story and create dramatic tension and follow a theme.” (The ‘Degenerate’ Genius of Gore Vidal). I agree that there was a certain dramatic something lacking at times, and I’m interested to see how this plays out in his longer novels, but with a voice as interesting as Vidal’s, his constant presence might be sin worth overlooking.

While all of the stories might not be roaring, overwhelming successes, there’s enough lovely moments in each to make it a book well worth reading.

His own voice this summer had assumed the resonance of manhood, to the mild alarm of his uncle and aunt who had taken to studying him nervously, tentatively, as though afraid perhaps that, through some freak mutation, a barbarian had appeared among them, sprung from the discarded child’s body of their nephew to disrupt their gentle Christian circle with pagan deeds and sudden violence. (Clouds and Eclipses, p. 151)

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