Friday, December 13, 2013

Why I'm glad I struggled through Vidal's "Creation"

Back in May, my book group chose Gore Vidal's long and not particularly dynamic novel Creation to discuss. Most of the members decided to bail on it fairly early on, and I didn't really blame them. My review of the book is here. But because I was interested in the period it described and because I suddenly had more time on my hands than I usually do, I soldiered on. It turns out that this was fortuitous.

This Thanksgiving I was visiting family down in L.A. and my sister got us all tickets to go to the Getty Villa, a medium sized museum right there on the Pacific Coast Highway, which specializes in antiquities. The night before, we ran into a friend of hers who is a docent there, and she told us to make sure and see the special touring exhibit of the Cyrus Cylinder. Normally  housed in the British Museum, it has been brought to America for the first time.

Although there are various and conflicting claims about what the cylinder's significance was, several different cultures of the time mention Cyrus in their documents and all laud him for his tolerance, as the following short video demonstrates.


We had a great time at the Getty Villa, which apart from the parking is free, and you can always hike in from the road. It was an odd experience for me to see the Cyrus Cylinder. Luckily I had been warned by the above mentioned docent friend that it is small, as it would be, since it was buried in the foundation of a building and not really meant for public display at all. I am not really sure why the Persians took the time to carve it so minutely, but maybe they realized that it would work like a kind of time capsule. Anyway, it was exhibited in a glass cube, so that people could get up close to it from four angles.

I happened to come to it at the same time that an Iranian family, modern day descendants of the culture responsible for this cylinder, and was struck by the fact that even the young children among them seemed enchanted by it. I don't imagine most school-aged kids having quite that same interest. The whole family were taking pictures of each other with it, though I gather they weren't supposed to, but no one was watching. And gradually I realized that it was really an opportune moment to see this cylinder related to tolerance at the very moment in our own history when some kind of progress in diplomacy seemed possible with Iran for the first time in many years.

Then I wandered around a room which dealt with the Achaemenid Empire and was able to connect my reading of Vidal's Creation with Cyrus--the novel is set in the time of Cyrus's descendants about two hundred years later, at the point of the Empire's greatest expansion.

Although the novel is a bit of a slog, I felt very happy to have persisted, because it gave me a relationship with a period (and an empire for that matter) that for many of us in the West is truly a lost epoch. I will admit though, that even the Cyrus Cylinder has not induced me to go find the later restored version of the novel, which contains four more chapters...

I probably should add that the Cyrus Cylinder has traveled on, I think back to its home in the British Museum.


  1. Interesting post and TED talk, Seana. I read a lot of Vidal novels years ago, but don't remember "Creation".

  2. As a novel it isn't one of his best, but it is quite incredible in the amount of information he packs in. The Persian Empire is only one aspect of it.

  3. Have I got a book for you! I bought it at the museum in California where a portrait of its author hangs. It's Samuel Johnson's dictionary! Have you read it?
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    Detectives Beyond Borders

    1. I have some version of it, but whether it's the whole thing or a selection I don't recall. Unfortunately, it's in storage.

  4. I'd bet it was an abridgment. My book is of good size, and it is just a selection from an original that is thousands of pages long--18 pages on the word take alone, according to the introduction. You should try to get your hands on a copy. It has your name written all over it.