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Creation by Gore Vidal


by Gore Vidal

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Gore Vidal

Creation: A Novel

Vintage, Paperback [2002].

8vo. [xiv]+574 pp. Foreword by Anthony Burgess [ix]. Author's Note 1981 [x]. Author's Note 2002 [xi]. Maps [xii-xiii].

First published, 1981 [mutilated].
First Vintage International edition, September 2002 [restored].
4th printing per number line, undated.


Author's Note 1981
Author's Note 2002

Book One: Herodotus Gives a Reading at the Odeon in Athens
Book Two: In the Days of Darius the Great King
Book Three: The Greek Wars Begin
Book Four: The Burning of Sardis
Book Five: India
Book Six: The Passing of the Awesome Royal Glory
Book Seven: Cathay
Book Eight: Why the Ganges River Turned Red with Blood
Book Nine: The Golden Age of Xerxes The Great King
Book Ten: The Peace of Pericles


The historical novel is a strange animal. I am little surprised at its perennial vogue. It provides ready-made plots and characters that make most invented ones look dull; and it’s always nice to know that the fiction you’re reading is at least based on real events. I am still less surprised at the high mortality rate among historical novels. Very few of them have survived the harsh test of time. The ones I like best are those that recreate painstakingly the spirit if not the exact events of a certain historical period and aim their characters higher than mere plausibility. Gore Vidal’s Julian (1964) and Creation (1981) are at the top of my list because they choose unusual points of view and launch massive attacks on established holy cows. In the case of Creation, the point of view is harshly anti-Greek and pro-Persian.

Set in the 5th century BC, surely one of the most fascinating centuries in the history of our so-called civilisation, Creation is told in the first person singular by Cyrus Spitama, the Persian ambassador in Athens. He is old and blind, but his mind and tongue are just as sharp as ever, and he seems to have total recall of times long past. He dictates the whole story to his nephew, the atomic Democritus, and freely indulges in scathing criticism of the greatest Greek inventions:

Democritus is studying philosophy here at Athens. This means that he delights in quarrels.

So much for philosophy.

No mob can govern a city, much less an empire.

So much for democracy.

But when it comes to fate, as the Athenians like to remind us in those tragedies that they are forever mounting so expensively at the theater, one cannot win. At the height of a bald man's fame, an eagle is bound to drop a turtle on his head.

So much for drama.

These are minor instances of the anti-Greek propaganda that permeates the whole novel. It is mightily refreshing to entertain the notion that the Greeks, the fathers of modern Europe, were little more than a bunch of squabbling city-states full of “corrupt or demented demagogues” who bathed seldom in summer and not at all in winter and whose “diet appears to consist entirely of onions and preserved fish – preserved from the time of Homer.” Even some of the fabled Greek achievements in architecture, the Odeon of Athens for example, are deemed to be no more than a faulty copy of the Persian originals. “They affect to despise us; then they imitate us” is Cyrus Spitama’s tart summary. He is devastating about everything from housing conditions in Athens to the character of the Greeks in general, all delivered with ambassadorial loftiness:

I have made it a policy never to show distress when insulted by barbarians. Fortunately, I am spared their worst insults. These they save for one another. It is a lucky thing for the rest of the world that Greeks dislike one another far more than they do us outlanders.

Democritus thinks that Athens is marvelous. But you have not seen the civilized world. I hope that one day you will travel, and transcend your Greekness.

The pro-Persian propaganda is almost as ardent. Cyrus Spitama retains his biting humour and though he doesn’t spare some failings in the Persians court (e.g. the inordinate power of the harem and the eunuchs), on the whole he is rather kinder to his compatriots. The Persians are not the conventional villainous barbarians who worship morons perched up as divine kings. They are, on the whole, smarter and nobler, more civilised and more refined, than their Western rivals. No Persian is ever known to defect to the Greeks. On the other hand, Greeks who defect to the Persians are legion – and usually some of the ablest men, for example the tyrants from pre-democratic times. “To ride, to draw the bow, to tell the truth” is the proverbial ideal of Persian education. “Democritus reminds me that Greek education is much the same – except for telling the truth.”

One has to be careful, of course. Like every great satirist, Vidal is prone to overdo it. There is no valid historical reason to believe, for example, that the battles of Marathon and Salamis were Greek defeats in disguise, or Persian victories but for bad luck if you like. I don’t think many art historians would agree that Greek architecture is quite so derivative, either. Nevertheless, Vidal’s unorthodox look at history is invigorating, thought-provoking and, on the whole, convincing. Creation may be a propaganda novel, for Vidal does seem to have an axe to grind, but it is certainly not speculative fiction of the “alternative history” type.

Cyrus Spitama is, of course, an entirely fictional character. He is much too good to be true. He is a grandson of Zoroaster, no less, half-Greek and half-Persian, brought up in the Persian court, and has travelled to Greece, India and Cathay. He has met Pericles, Socrates, Darius, Xerxes, Confucius and Buddha, among countless others. In short, he has been anywhere worth going, he has met anybody worth meeting. To him – and Vidal – falls the awesome responsibility of bringing to life this galaxy of real historical figures. “I shall spare no one”, Cyrus Spitama threatens in the beginning. And he doesn’t.

It is really refreshing to have some of the most mythical rulers and wise men in history treated with casual irreverence. Xerxes, the Great King and our narrator’s best friend, is a naughty boy who grows into a man of rare charm and magnanimity. The young Socrates appears briefly in the guise of a nagging “splitter of hairs”. The great Pericles? “Since everyone agrees that he is a great man, he is bound to end badly.” Certainly, his glib talking is no match for the worldly wisdom of one who “has seen more of this world than he ever intended – much less wanted – to see”. Confucius and Buddha are treated with respect and even admiration, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to their disciples. Nor is this an entirely male world. There are several wonderfully depicted female characters, notably Lais, the narrator’s Greek mother, a very clever woman and something of a witch; Elpinice, an Athenian socialite and daughter of late great Cimon (one of the very few Greeks Cyrus Spitama thinks highly of); and especially Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, wife of Darius I, mother of Xerxes, and a formidable ruler behind the scenes.

This is a rather schizophrenic book. It flows in two different streams, political intrigue and philosophical speculation, that hardly ever cross. I don’t really know how Vidal achieves that, but the novel never feels disjointed. The worst that can be said about it is that it does drag occasionally, especially the religious parts, but it’s nothing terrible. In between, there is a great deal of local colour and period detail that make the complete picture supremely real and believable. Indeed, if this book has any defect at all, it is its obsessive-compulsive readability. Be careful: once you start reading, it’s very hard to stop. I warn you in all seriousness.

The political intrigue covers a wide range of topics from the amazing duplicity of the Greeks, more than a few of whom changed sides, to the complex machinations of the Persian court (“a supremely dangerous place: one misstep – and death, or worse”) to the blood-drenched kingdoms of India. Vidal’s ability to unravel these tricky matters is nothing short of miraculous. If you want a glorious example of this, have a look at the complex and violent usurpation of the Persian throne by Darius (Part Three, Chapter 3). So far as I can tell, it accords very well with the facts – so far as we know them. The recollections Cyrus Spitama dictates to Democritus actually start as what is supposed to be a true account of the “Persian wars”, as the Greeks call them, or the “Greek wars”, as the Persians call them, and they, needless to say, are no longer the simplistic clash between democracy and despotism paraded by superficial textbooks. The crucial role of the Ionian Revolt has seldom been explained with such lucidity and thoroughness. And let’s face it: Vidal is so much more fun than Herodotus, and probably even more accurate than him.

The philosophical speculation treats of deep questions like the origin and meaning of the world. It is fascinating, and at the same time depressing, to observe how the finest minds twenty-five centuries ago reflected on these matters of eternal speculation. Ever since it developed something like consciousness, our species has been haunted by its own insecurity and insignificance, and has tried to fill the void with all sorts of fantasies. Cyrus Spitama’s blend of healthy scepticism and delicious cynicism is quite evident even here (“Hereditary priests usually tend to atheism. They know too much.”), but on the whole he is much more in the earnest than on social or political questions. Ironically, the Greeks are presented as atheists and come off rather better, from a modern point of view, than the superstitious Persians and their corrupt priesthood. As for the reflections of Anaxagoras, Socrates, Confucius and Buddha on “creation”, the most remarkable thing about them is their extreme inanity. The Persian “creation of fire” version by priests drugged with “haoma” (not unlike Huxley’s “soma”) is no great improvement.

Creation is not a book from which a complacent and optimistic view of human nature can be derived. If the nasty worlds of Greek and Persian (not to mention Indian!) thirst for wealth and power confirm the essential depravity of the human race, its religious delusions confirm its deeply seated desire to impose order and attach significance where there are none. All the same, this is a great tribute to Gore Vidal’s considerable powers as a historical novelist. Bold, frank, vigorous and fantastically readable, the grand and sweeping narrative roams throughout the whole known world of the 5th century BC and is handled with impeccable craftsmanship. Cyrus Spitama is one of the greatest first-person narrators if not one of the greatest characters in fiction – ever. Even his frequent digressions, ostensibly a side effect of his age, are perfectly timed and full of information that later turns out to be quite relevant indeed. In short, an indispensable read for anyone interested in ancient history. Who isn’t?

Note on the edition

The introduction by Anthony Burgess, reprinted from 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (1984), is perfectly indifferent, but the author’s notes are important. The one from 1981 clarifies the mixed usage of names (e.g. modern ones like Mediterranean or Confucius and ancient ones like Cathay, Bactria and Persia) and sets the exact date of the narrative to 20 December 445 BC. The note from 2002 is more interesting. Here Vidal states that all editions of Creation between the first in 1981 and this one in 2002 were mutilated by an “overly busy editor who mistakenly thought that he understood the public taste.” This worthy decided, amazingly, that the scenes of our narrator’s upbringing at the Persian court were irrelevant and worth cutting. Editors have their inscrutable ways. For this edition the omissions were restored. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | May 19, 2016 |
A grand historical novel in which we meet Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Li Tzu (among others). A novel of ideas and their intermixing. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Interesting book, life of the fictional Cyrus Spitama, grandson of Zoroaster, the religious teacher, as told to his grandson. Set in Persia right before, during and after the Greco-Persian War. Cyrus gives a completely different version of that war than we're used to, describes his boyhood years growing up with Xerxes, who later becomes Great King. Then Cyrus is appointed ambassador to several countries, most notably India and Cathay. Darius, at that time king, wants to invade. Much of the book recounts Cyrus' travels, customs of people he meets and always the religious Cyrus is searching for alternate theories of Creation and the problem of evil. We get a quick overview of Eastern religions, of course, through Cyrus' eyes, always comparing with Zoroastrianism. Cyrus meets such figures as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, famous Greeks of that period. Cyrus finally dies, but his grandson, after many years of travel and living in many countries, finally figures out what he feels must be the answer to Cyrus' questions. The book was quite witty, sometimes even 'snarky'. The politics bored me. ( )
  janerawoof | Jun 19, 2014 |
This is a thick book, and it is largely about religion. Many will not read past this point, either of the review or the novel. But this is an area were many escapist readers feel uncomfortable. And religious fundamentalists have trouble dealing with the shared tenets of the major faiths. But Mr. Vidal is not a fundamentalist, but a humanist and his take on the divided world with shared truths is quite a nice way to spend a week of reading time. It's worth the effort, even though the body count is low. ( )
1 vote DinadansFriend | Mar 5, 2014 |
This is one of the most amazing pieces of work I have ever read; Vidal was a master at his craft, no doubt about it. The detailed history is written in a most engaging manner, not dull and dry but full of palace intrigue and fighting wars and interviews with characters (historical people) from all sorts of walks of life. I learned a ton, things that would otherwise most assuredly never be retained in my mind, and enjoyed every moment of it. Not to be missed. ( )
1 vote .Monkey. | Dec 1, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gore Vidalprimary authorall editionscalculated
Burgess, AnthonyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Matthieussent, BriceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Panske, GünterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peralta, CarlosTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tummolini, StefanoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I am blind. But I am not deaf. Because of the incompleteness
of my misfortune, I was obliged yesterday to listen for nearly six
hours to a self-styled historian whose account of what the Athenians like
to call "the Persian Wars" was nonsense of a sort that were I less old and
more privileged, I would have risen in my seat at the Odeon and scandalized
all Athens by answering him.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375727051, Paperback)

In 445 B.C., Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster, is the Persian ambassador to the city of Athens. He has a rather caustic appreciation of his situation: "I am blind. But I am not deaf. Because of the incompleteness of my misfortune, I was obliged yesterday to listen for nearly six hours to a self-styled historian whose account of what the Athenians like to call 'the Persian Wars' was nonsense of a sort that were I less old and more privileged, I would have risen to my seat at the Odeon and scandalized all Athens by answering him." Having thus dismissed Herodotus, Cyrus then dictates his life story to his nephew, Democritus, with similar disdain for the Greeks--whom we in the modern world have come to view as the progenitors of civilization, but whom Cyrus considers to be bad-smelling rabble.

Of course, Cyrus Spitama speaks with a very modern, ironic voice supplied to him by Gore Vidal--and the political intrigues in which Cyrus finds himself immersed are likewise familiar territory for fans of Vidal's historical fiction. But the narrator's delightfully wicked observations are the icing on a narrative of truly epic scope--out of his desire to understand the origins of the world, Cyrus undertakes journeys to India, where he encounters disciples of the Buddha, and China, where he engages Confucius in philosophical conversation while the great sage fishes by the riverside. Creation offers insights into classical history laced with scintillating wit and narrative brio.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:19 -0400)

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Cyrus, a fifth century Persian, relates the story of his travels and encounters as an ambassador.

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