One of the many fascinating photographs in Palimpsest, perhaps indeed the most fascinating of the lot, is of the author’s grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, having his portrait painted in old age. Reticently distinguished, the subject sits in his chair, ignoring the canvas, a remarkable likeness of him on a properly heroic scale, and presided over by the artist, Azadia Newman, whom we learn was soon to be married to the film director Rouben Mamoulian. The expression on her beautiful face, with its plucked eyebrows, is quite deadpan. Like a portraitist of the Renaissance she is doing her job, and has no special feelings about it or the sitter. But the photograph seems a revelation not only of the society in which Gore Vidal grew up—a very uncommon one in what Roosevelt was even then calling the Age of the Common Man—but of Gore Vidal’s ability to put his reader inside that society, to give us a happy and an unfamiliar sense of familiarity with it.
The reader—the English reader in particular—is here somewhat in the position of one of the characters in Anthony Powell’s long sequence of memoirized fiction, A Dance to the Music of Time. Marrying accidentally into the haut monde, this chap sets himself to find out all about its peculiar ways, while not for a moment aspiring to be part of it himself. Vidal’s skill as a memoirist puts his reader in the same privileged and enviable position. And he is very funny about it. Ever a stickler for elegance of language, he is careful not to use the word “palimpsest” in any merely approximate sense.
“Paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate” and “a parchment, etc., that has been written upon twice; the original writing having been rubbed out.” This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life; makes a text; then a re-vision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought…, writing something new over the first layer of text…. I once observed to Dwight Macdonald, who had found me disappointingly conventional on some point, “I have nothing to say, only to add.”
It might well have amused Proust, a great palimpsester, to have made a rather similar claim. And for the memoirist-novelist, as Proust and Powell would have agreed, the most essential thing is humor. True snobbery is always solemn. After the wedding of Vidal’s half-sister, Nina Gore Auchincloss (her marriage was a failure, “as family tradition required”), Vidal finds himself driving to the reception with the young Jack Kennedy.
In the back of the limousine, Jack and I waved to non-existent multitudes, using the British royal salute, in which the fingers of one hand unscrew, as it were, an invisible upside-down jar of marmalade. Jack thought that Nini had made a mistake in not marrying his brother Teddy. I had no view on the matter. Absently, he tapped his large white front …