The gory details

The self-described biographer of the United States, Gore Vidal publishes his memoirs.

By BEN NAPARSTEK
November 16, 2006 13:36
The gory details

gore vidal 298.88. (photo credit: )

 
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Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir By Gore Vidal Doubleday 288 pages Last year, on the cusp of his 80th birthday, Gore Vidal sold the opulent cliffside villa in Italy where he had lived for three decades. He had lost the ability to walk and, needing easier access to hospitals, he relocated to his second home in the Hollywood Hills. In 2003, Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years, died of cancer. For most writers, these events would usher in long spells of nostalgia, melancholy and introspection, but Vidal has never been one for sentiment. Death haunts his new memoir, Point to Point Navigation, but his proximity to what he euphemistically terms "the great abyss" hasn't lessened his emotional disengagement. He writes approvingly of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking- her account of the year in which her husband died and her daughter descended into a fatal coma. But when asked whether he identifies with Didion's experience of loss, Vidal responds waspishly: "No." Does he miss his beloved Italian palazzo? "No." He skates over a question about how he coped with Howard's death, retreating into the abstraction: "Death is generally a long time coming. You have many rehearsals." Perhaps only someone with this unflappable detachment could have had the discipline to produce an oeuvre of such eye-stretching quantity and diversity as Vidal's. Since publishing his first novel, Williwaw, at 21, he has written about 30 novels and 20 non-fiction books, in addition to innumerable plays, television screenplays and film scripts (most famously Ben-Hur, Caligula and Suddenly, Last Summer). He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960 and for the Senate in 1982, while maintaining a glittering social life, incorporating many leading post-war cultural icons. Whereas his 1995 memoir Palimpsest charted his life up to the age of 39, Point to Point Navigation concentrates on the next 40 years: "I brought it to conclusion, as life tends to do with us." It is less a linear autobiography than a scrapbook of Vidal's recollections of the likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Jacqueline Kennedy, Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Nureyev, Eleanor Roosevelt and Elia Kazan. As he writes: "It seems that practically everyone that I have ever met is now the subject of at least one biography." Performers generally receive warmer treatment in Vidal's memoirs than his writer colleagues. "Writers just talk about themselves. Their selves are not terribly interesting and they've already written about themselves. Actors, although they're supposed to be vain and self-centered, remember to entertain. Also, they're much better read than writers. Most American writers have read very, very little. Frankly, every good actor knows Shakespeare." In Palimpsest, Vidal wrote that every American president and presidential contender in the foregoing decade had read his 1984 novel, Lincoln. He describes himself as the "current biographer" of the United States, referring to his seven-volume Narratives of Empire series - 1876, Lincoln, The Golden Age, Washington, DC, Empire, Hollywood and Burr- which trace US history from the Revolution to the recent past. VIDAL IS well placed to understand his country's history, having grown up in the heart of American aviation and politics. His father, Gene, was an aviation pioneer, and at age 10 Vidal featured in a newsreel flying solo, as part of Gene's campaign to demonstrate the simplicity of flying. Vidal's mother, Nina, married a man who became Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather, and Vidal is a distant cousin of Al Gore. His blind maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a Democrat senator from Oklahoma, to whom Vidal read on a regular basis as a child and teenager. "I was marinated in the Constitution. I can still hear his voice saying: 'The secret to the United States is not only its Constitution but just one phrase in it: due process of law.' Now we have an administration which has thrown out due processes of law. The president can arrest anybody he wants to if they're suspected terrorists. He can put them on trial without a lawyer or confidentiality. These are the powers of a dictator, and our media is silent because they're afraid." Vidal, who decided to become a writer while still a child, had read most of Shakespeare by 16. After three years serving in the navy in World War II - in the punishing cold of the Aleutians - he announced to his skeptical compadres that he would support himself as a writer rather than go to college. "After the army, I thought that was enough of being institutionalized." In his memoirs, Vidal makes great play of his credentials as an autodidact, and jeers at academic theory. "When I'm on a campus giving a speech I sometimes think: 'My God, what would have happened if I'd stayed in one of these places?'" Vidal's third book, The City and the Pillar (1948), is widely regarded as the first mainstream American gay novel for its autobiographical depiction of the romance between two teenage boys. It generated a firestorm of controversy when it was first published, and The New York Times refused to review his subsequent seven novels. In Vidal's original version, the protagonist, Jim Willard, kills his boyhood love, Bob Ford, after trying unsuccessfully to reignite the affair in adulthood, by which time Bob has become a stereotypical homophobe. In 1968, Vidal changed the climax from murder to rape. "It was too melodramatic the first time around. I thought, 'I will soften the ending. It's quite bad enough that Jim has lost his world. That was quite enough darkness.'" He has often revised his books for subsequent editions, noting that Henry James and Tennessee Williams did the same. "I caught Tennessee once when we were traveling together and I wandered into his room in some hotel in southern Italy. He was sitting with a story of his which had just been published in America and he was rewriting it. I said: 'For God's sake, what are you doing? It's finished. It's published.' He said, 'Well, it's obviously not finished,' and went right on rewriting it." The City and the Pillar is now a canonical text in the academic discipline of "queer studies" - a category that makes Vidal incredulous: "I don't see what there is to study!" Vidal remains an ambivalent figure for the gay liberation movement: Despite his trailblazing depictions of homosexuality, he has always refused to identify as gay. As he famously opined: "There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts." His novels were commercially successful, but he struggled financially, because high-income earners were taxed at 90 percent in the early years of the Cold War. "The country had been militarized without our permission, and suddenly we were forced to pay for it through onerous taxation. This drove me to the Left and Ronald Reagan to the Right." To save himself financially, Vidal began writing for television in 1954, producing 30 television plays over the following decade. By the time Vidal met Howard Austen at 25, he estimates that he had had more than 1,000 sexual encounters. Vidal continued to seek anonymous sex with other men, but he never slept with Howard, believing that sex should be divorced from love. "The two just don't go together. Every married couple I know agrees." Vidal insists that he has never experienced jealousy, and he scoffs at the idea of an unconscious. As he says of Freud: "Any man who misunderstands Oedipus is not going to attract my admiration." Yet for all his efforts to avoid an emotional life, Vidal cannot help but reveal a psyche. As Martin Amis has written: "[Vidal] has removed pain from his own life, or narrowed it down to manageable areas; and it is one thing he cannot convincingly recreate in his own fiction. But his deeply competitive nature is still reassured to know that there is plenty of pain about." Point to Point Navigation drew advance publicity in the US for its excoriating account of Truman Capote, whom Vidal describes as a pathological liar. "No one believed a word he said about anything." Vidal was baffled by the film Capote. "I don't see the point of two hours about Capote, of all people. Who is next? Barbara Cartland?" Asked what of Capote's writing he regards as valuable, Vidal answers: "None of it." VIDAL'S OFFICIAL biographer, Fred Kaplan, accused Vidal of rewriting his past to suit his self-image in Palimpsest. The new memoir contains a number of barbs at Kaplan's expense. "Like most Americans, he's incapable of irony and a joke is lost on him. I began Palimpsest by saying: 'A Tissue of Lies? Could there be a more persuasively apt title for a memoir?' He thinks I was talking about me! When you start with somebody as a slow-witted as that, what on earth are you going to get?" Compared with the frequent brutality of his memoirs, Vidal's literary essays are warm-blooded: "I do my best to draw people's attention to writers I think they might want to read. The idea of writing to dissuade people from reading a book is to me sheer decadence. It's hard enough to get people to read anything at all, much less busy oneself telling them not to read Ernest Hemingway." He has rare kind words for the Clintons, arguing that Bill Clinton was the best American president of the past 50 years. "He was very intelligent, by and large, and intelligent people do not go into public life in America. Clever people sometimes do, but very intelligent ones don't. He was a master of the economy. He knew how to get through to the people on certain serious issues, when it's otherwise very hard to get their attention." He hopes that Hilary Clinton - whose visit to his Italian villa is recounted in Palimpsest will become the next president. "She also is very intelligent. It isn't terribly common, particularly now that most of our politics is simply money. Whatever you can say about either Clinton, they give you the money's worth, although one can object to their slowness to condemn the war." Vidal is a fierce libertarian, objecting to the criminalization of all drugs. "If people want to kill themselves with pills, let them. Everybody has a right to suicide. It would be nice if we could encourage more people to do it." Vidal maintained a correspondence with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh prior to his execution in 2001, after McVeigh wrote to Vidal about an essay on the bombing he published in Vanity Fair. "He was very aware of the loss of our constitutional liberties. He would have made a good constitutional lawyer, had he gone the conventional route. He rebelled against the lawlessness of the country by doing something hugely unlawful." Vidal regards himself principally as a novelist, and chafes at the common view that his primary achievement is as an essayist. "I know perfectly well the reading habits of my country. No one reads novels, so no one reads me and no one reads much of anything else except media. The media tells the truth about nothing if it can find a self-serving lie to tell. The ignorant opinions of you are based upon gossip that is often invented." He is adamant that he has never benefited from an editor. "Along came in the '20s a bunch of near-illiterates, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who couldn't spell. Max Perkins, his hack editor at Scribner, would help him turn his prose into recognizable English. Somehow in the world of hackdom it's got out that every writer needs a stern person as teacher behind him, who will tell him 'i before e except after c.' I've never known a good writer who needed an editor. Many of them have been destroyed by good editors. Luckily, no one knows how to edit anymore either, so I think that phase is over." Point to Point Navigation makes clear that, even at 81, Vidal feels remorse about nothing. "I don't know what people mean by guilt. I know what they think they mean sometimes. We always have guilt about things - about minor things, I suspect. But the major guilts, which people seem to worry about, are notoriously absent in my works. So just looking over what I've done, I don't see much guilt there at all, just curiosity."

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