By: MICHAEL EHRHARDT
CLOUDS AND ECLIPSES:
THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES
Carroll & Graf
$13.95; 160 pages
Arguably, a well-crafted short story can leave a careful reader with the similar lingering and transformative impression of a long-winded novel. Certainly, James, Mann, and Kafka can fascinate in brief spurts as well as in voluminous form. This can also be proven in the literary distillations found in Gore Vidal's "Clouds and Eclipses," which is a re-issued collection of stories previously published in 1956 as "A Thirsty Evil."
What makes the new Carroll & Graf edition unique is the inclusion of a previously unpublished eighth story, recently discovered among the archived private papers at Harvard University, which gives the collection its new title.
The tale was written in 1953, while Vidal was working on his eerie 1954 death cult novel, "Messiah," and is based on a boyhood event that Tennessee Williams had related involving his beleaguered maternal grandfather, an Episcopal clergyman in Mississippi, the Reverend Dakin.
Although the author changed certain details of the event and Dakin was quite elderly and nearly blind when Vidal wrote it, he promised Williams not to include this story in the original collection in order to spare the delicate feelings of the playwright's mother, Edwina, who became famous as the character of Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie."
In the interest of not giving too much away, suffice it to say that Vidal had already performed a literary sex change in order not to cleave too closely to the Dakin incident. However, Vidal treats the Dakin-inspired character with honest compassion; in fact, the title of the story is taken from Shakespeare's 35th Sonnet, which reads, "No more be grieved at that which thou hast done, /Roses have thorns, and silver foundations mud; /Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, /And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud."
Vidal's experimentation with short fiction was part of what he calls his "first phase as a prose writer," and the works savor of the trenchant style that would serve him well in future fiction and historical novels. "Three Stratagems," for instance, is the wickedly ironic tale worthy of Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley"), about several sojourners on the make at a Key West fleshpot; Vidal presents his protagonists, Michael, a cynical young hustler, and George Royal, an elderly potential sugar daddy in the framework of a Rashomon-style narrative. Michael begins it by heartlessly describing his feelings about the older men he stalks as prey-"Watching these men, talking to them, I find it hard to believe that in other days they have made fortunes, made families and often as not done noble deeds, for with us they have neither shame nor virtue. Naturally, it has occurred to me that they might be wise and still not care and then again there's the possibility that they enjoy their own degradation; if that's true, I pity them, and the game's more sinister than one might at first suppose." Meanwhile, Mr. Royal weighs life's limited possibilities (like Williams' aging Mrs. Stone) with the pragmatism resulting from increasing desperation-"He Michael) has no money, which is always fortunate for me", Mr. Royal reasons,"(I)t's no worse to be loved for one's money than to be loved for something as spurious and impermanent as beauty. One must be practical and the thing to bear in mind, I've found, is not why one receives certain attentions but the attentions themselves." The story ends with a clever (and literal) coup, when one character's fatal flaw which is hinted at earlier on, results in the role reversals of the treacherous "beloved angel" and the "deluded monster."
First published in a 1950 New Directions anthology, "Three Stratagems" was admired by Tennessee Williams, who compared its sinister style and content to that of Paul Bowles. "Vidal is not likeable, at least not in any familiar way," he observed, "But he and Bowles are two of the most honest savages I have met."
Vidal's stories are most memorable for their paradoxical dualities.
"The Robin" is a deceptively featherweight tale about the end of childhood paganism that deftly conceals a final, sobering blow; the heartlessness of children is just a pose. "The Zenner Trophy" depicts the mixed feelings of Mr. Beckman, the defeated faculty advisor of an elite boys school when he is ordered to expel its popular star athlete, Flynn, for having a sexual affair with a fellow student, in order to prevent a full-blown scandal. The school's Principal, "aloof, majestic, concerned with only the most abstract theories of education, as well as the unrelenting, Grail-like quest for endowments," is reluctant to get involved in the mess and the functionary's task is further complicated by the fact that the popular Flynn has already been awarded the school's highest honor, the eponymous "Zenner Trophy" for clean and exceptional sportsmanship! As a graduate of such an austere, highbrow schools as Exeter, Vidal knows whereof he speaks.
Other stories in the collection are outright satiric, as in "Pages from an Abandoned Journal," which follows the disjointed journal entries of a conflicted Ohioan over a decade, as he gradually morphs from an earnest, straight-arrow scholar studying for a doctorate in History while in Paris, ("Personally, I don't mind what other people do. As a matter of fact, I think all this is very interesting and I sometimes wonder what the gang back in Toledo would think if they could've seen me in a Left-Bank Paris apartment with a male prostitute who takes drugs. I thought of those college boys who sent T.S. Eliot the record, 'You've Come a Long Way From St. Louis'...") into a fully-formed name-dropping hedonist; ("...The Count asked me to have dinner with him tomorrow at the Colony [!] and I said I'd be delighted. Then Mrs. Blaine-Smith told the most devastating story about the Duchess of Windsor in Palm Beach.... Find out the Count's name before dinner tomorrow.") The story has at least one well recorded reference to Vidal's own life, and his oft-memorialized youthful affair with his beloved Jimmy Trimble, killed in the battle for Iwo Jima at eighteen, when the protagonist relates-"I told Elliott all about Jimmy, told him things I myself had nearly forgotten, had wanted to forget. I told him how it had started at twelve and gone on, without plan or thought or even acknowledgment until, at seventeen, I went to the army and he to the Marines and a quick death."
When he's not playing devil's advocate, Vidal can be downright zany, as the Dickensian comedy of "Erlinda and Mr. Coffin" attests. Also inspired by the motley denizens of Key West, it tells of a feisty widow who rents a room to an unconventional couple-a middle-aged Englishman and his Hispanic "ward", little Miss Lopez, the preternaturally mature child of a Cuban prize-fighter and a deceased mother-with an un-tapped passion for the stage and cataclysmic revenge. In this small confection, the reader will detect the embryonic mayhem that would eventually coalesce into the self-proclaimed demi-goddess virago, Myra Breckenridge.