Private Eye

Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 449 pp., $8.95

I first met Gore Vidal in 1947 (or was it ’49?). He was very young and looked spruce and golden. He had tawny hair and eyes that made me think of bees’ abdomens drenched in pollen. The center of each eye, perhaps its iris, held a sting.’ He wore a bow tie and a well-tailored light-brown English country-style suit. He discussed his success (had he just published The City and the Pillar?) like a joke which we shared. He showed me an envelope on the inside cover of which an ardent fan had glued an ecstatic self-photograph. He could not have been more enviable.

Perhaps it was on this occasion that I made the priggish remark he quotes in his essay on Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. The conversation had shifted for a moment from his success to some other young writer who had “unexpectedly failed, not gone on, blown up.” Apparently I said, “The difference in England is that they want us to be distinguished, to be good.” I should have added, of course, that in England success is supposed to be kept within the bounds of decency: that is to say, to bring to your friends credit for knowing you but not pushed to that extreme where they might become envious. I have always suspected that the real reason why E. M. Forster gave up writing novels was in order not to provoke his English friends.

Just about this time there was an even younger American writer who, when we met, looked at me coolly and said: “When I meet older writers I can just smell failure!” Fortunately I was able to get back my own some minutes later when he asked me, as one infinitely acquainted with the sordid ways of the literary world, whether I considered that he should follow his publisher’s advice and have himself photographed entering a brothel. I saw my chance and answered: “I assure you there isn’t a brothel in the world that could do you more harm than your publishers are already doing by promoting you.” The remark went unheard.

The difference between Gore Vidal and the second writer was the sense in which Gore Vidal wasn’t serious. Or perhaps I should have written “was serious.” For he is one of those who had learned “to care and not to care,” and to discriminate between things that are worth and things that are not worth caring about. For all he talked about it, I do not think he really cared about success. Certainly someone mad about success would not achieve his most genuine effects in a form so modest as the essay; and this is what Gore Vidal does in the present volume. Not only are the individual essays excellent, the whole volume is more than the sum of its parts. For taken together these essays compose the features of the writer, complex and a bit mysterious, like a face mirrored in the darkened waters of a well.


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