In 1904, when Leonard Woolf steamed off eastward to become a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service, he took with him seventy large and well-printed volumes of Voltaire, the edition of 1784, in Baskerville type. In Ceylon his duties were not light—from time to time it became necessary to hang a felon. Fortunately, in compensation, native women were available, and also, it appears, cheap. Very little more is heard from Leonard Woolf about Voltaire or the Baskerville type.
If I were planning to embark for a far place and stay for several years I think I’d take my forty-six volumes of the writings of Gore Vidal. (The forty-sixth, a collection of short fiction called Clouds and Eclipses, has just appeared.1 ) This count does not include the pseudonymous work, which would be for another essay. Given that print is smaller now, and margins meaner, I probably have about as much wordage of Gore Vidal’s as Leonard Woolf had of Voltaire’s; and the two men, Voltaire and Vidal, seem to me to have several things in common. Both were brilliant talkers; likewise brilliant satirists. Both initially needed money and worked very hard to get it. Both also needed courts: Where better to place their well-sharpened darts than in royal rumps?
Fortunately, they had courts: Voltaire the Versailles of Louis XV, as well as the Berlin of Frederick the Great and courts of lesser brilliance. Vidal had the Kennedy Camelot in Washington, D.C., as well as the courts of several emperors of the silver screen: Sam Spiegel, for example, and there is probably no better example.
Gore Vidal has the looks of a prince, the connections of a prince, more wit than any prince I can presently recall, and a prose style that should be the envy of the dwindling few who realize that prose style matters, both for the glory of it and also because if one makes one’s living mainly by the making of prose sentences, as Gore Vidal has, it’s nicer if the sentences are strong, supple, and pleasing. And his are.
One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality—or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.
As a rule I don’t keep magazines—if I did I’d need a new barn for them—but I have clung doggedly for almost four decades to the issue of Encounterdated December 13, 1967, which contains an essay by Gore Vidal called “French Letters.” I drag the magazine out every few years and reread this essay to remind myself of the happy time when men and women of letters went about doing what they all considered to be their normal work.
In “French Letters,” Gore Vidal, while registering some fairly gloomy thoughts about the ever-declining readership for serious fiction, sets out to examine the new theories of the novel produced, principally, by two French novelists, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet. In a little over a dozen pages he makes these two writers’ theories about as intelligible as they can be made. Along the way he mentions in a friendly way Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and George Steiner—altogether as weighty a line-up of intellectuals as the scene could offer in 1967.
Gore Vidal’s wit is so razorlike that it has decapitated several politicians without the victims even noticing. But with his fellow writers he’s polite and respectful. That the two theories being offered sometimes enter into contradiction, opacity, or even nonsense, Vidal well recognizes. But then, theory is hard; he patiently makes allowances, only using a light touch of the spur in his concluding paragraph, which seems especially germane now that there’s all this talk of e-books:
…No matter what happens to language the novel is not apt to be revived by electronics. The portentous theorizings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are forever trying to figure out what the next “really serious” thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. But that’s no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.2
Gore Vidal has published a dozen volumes of nonfiction, not counting the memoir here under review. The various essay collections generally include essays on literature, history, politics, etc. His airbus-size United Statescontains everything but the kitchen sink; it’s best read from a dictionary stand. But why shouldn’t there be a collection just of the literary essays of Gore Vidal? I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
Gore Vidal was born to status but not to money—not to serious money, at least. His schooling at St. Albans and Exeter was solid; Harvard, he felt, might just slow him down, so he got right to work as a writer. He was usually poorer than the company he kept, but he was good-looking, terribly bright, a fast learner, and a hard worker. Few young American writers of his time knew Grub Street as intimately as he did, and this included the dark back alleys that led to radio, television, and the movies. He was twenty-two when he published The City and the Pillar, his first best-seller.
Read today, The City and the Pillar seems polite, graceful, and most chaste—the moment it appeared, however, its young author was viciously pilloried for his realistic treatment of homosexuality. The critical, or rather the reviewing, establishment subjected him to a very smelly rain of toads. You would have thought that young Vidal alone had brought civilization—or at least the Judeo-Christian tradition—to an end.
Gore Vidal would always be the bright young man about town in any town he happened to be in, which might mean any of the capitals of the West. He worked quickly, and, always, professionally. So far as I can tell, he still does. He is eloquent on a number of subjects and is never reluctant to talk about himself or to prick the soaring ego-balloons of pretenders in many fields of endeavor, with a particular concentration on politicians and moviemakers.
As I said earlier, he needs a court in which to employ this stealth and cunning. What seems to me to have happened during his lifetime is that new money vastly expanded the population and range of the court. In the Seventies a tsunami of new money deeply submerged the caves of old money that had seemed so important when Vidal was growing up. There was junk bond money, mega-merger money, chip money, computer money. Private jets soon abounded, and for those who weren’t quite that rich there was, for a time, the Concorde. “Jet-set” soon came to seem too narrow a term for these rich—it was a fully international court whose members roamed like restless beasts from north Malibu to Vidal’s house on the Italian coast. And Gore Vidal, because of his looks, smarts, sophistication, and wit, has long been one of the genuine adornments of this court; he still is.
Meanwhile, though, he’s written nearly fifty books, which means sticking to one’s seat and bearing down. At one time in the Sixties it looked as if he might exchange his seat at his desk for a seat in Congress. Had he not as a lad led his grandfather, the blind senator T.P. Gore, into the Senate chambers? Congress would have seemed to be his birthright, and yet he did not get in. He went back to his desk and continued to write books, while entertaining himself, his hosts, and late-night America by contributing to some of the sharpest talk-television there has ever been. Gore Vidal doing Johnny Carson was about as good as talk-television gets.
In 1995 Gore Vidal published a lively memoir called Palimpsest, a narrative of his youth and coming of age. In my opinion Palimpsest is about as good a literary memoir as we have. It’s so frisky, almost lilting in style, that it makes Henry James’s three volumes of memoirs seem turgid. Gore Vidal knew everybody and in Palimpsest he seems to have summoned just the right energies and touch to bring the people he knew vividly to life.
At the heart of Palimpsest, though, is a tragic love story. While at St. Albans, so-called school of presidents, Gore Vidal fell in love with a fellow student named Jimmie Trimble, who was to be the great love of his life. Jimmie Trimble was killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, not far from the statue called “Grief,” which Henry Adams commissioned from Saint-Gaudens after the suicide of Adams’s wife Clover.
Jimmie Trimble had a girlfriend named Chris—had he lived perhaps they would have married. Had he lived we don’t know what he and Gore Vidal might have done, but it is no light question and Gore Vidal has this to say about it:
Jimmie was both homoerotic and heteroerotic. I suppose I am curious about the balance between the two in his nature. But then when one lover goes into shock at the news of his death and another mourns him to the end of his life, we have moved far beyond sex or eroticism and on to the wilder shores of love, and shipwreck.
Gore Vidal has now given us a second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, which, he explains, is how he was forced to navigate during World War II, while being first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutians: that is, lacking radar, they used whatever landmarks they could memorize. This sounds dangerous and was dangerous. The first memoir took Gore Vidal only to his fortieth year—this one sails him into his eighties, an area dangerous almost by definition. In the first memoir Mr. Vidal was bursting with energy; he was at the top of his game. By the end—or even the beginning—of Point to Point Navigation I think it’s fair to say that he’s weary—perhaps not weary of life exactly, but of the emotional and physical wear and tear that long life holds for those who survive to live it.
In Gore Vidal’s case the wear and tear was sharply aggravated by the loss of Howard Austen, his companion of fifty-three years. Howard Austen’s ashes now lie in a plot near Jimmie Trimble’s grave; Gore Vidal’s ashes will one day join them all. Gore Vidal and Howard Austen long ago chose the plot, and Grief, Saint-Gaudens’s statue, like the emotion it’s named for, will always be nearby.
Lately the American intellectual community has absorbed some notable deaths, and some of the mourners have written eloquently of the lost. David Rieff reported on the long hard death of his mother, Susan Sontag. Leon Wieseltier spoke of a last meal with Saul Bellow. Joan Didion wrote a book about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo. After the death of Barbara Epstein saddened this journal, I wrote a tiny tribute, along with many others.
None of these offerings is more painful to read than the dozen harrowing pages Gore Vidal devotes to the passing of his long, long companion, Howard Austen. Here’s from the last night:
Since we usually watched the evening news together I decided one night that he should stay in his armchair and I’d sit next to him and so we watched together, talking to the screen as much as to each other. When the news was off, he was silent. Leto was out of the room. “Don’t you want to talk?” I asked. There was a long silence, then he shook his head.
“Because,” he said, “there’s too much to say.”
Howard Austen then died, but Gore Vidal, having learned that the optic nerve does not immediately shut down, made one last try:
“Can you hear me?” I asked him. “I know you can see me.” Although there was no breath for speech, he now had a sort of wry wiseguy from the Bronx expression on his face which said clearly to me who knew all his expressions, “So this is the big fucking deal everyone goes on about.”
Which in itself is a nice variant on Henry James’s “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.”
Those passages, like those of some of the other writers about our great recent dead, really can’t be improved upon. Death trumps gossip; death trumps gab, no matter how brilliant the gabber, and all the more so when there’s fifty-three years of shared experience packed into it.
The death of a long-loved friend deserves its own tone, and this Gore Vidal provides, and yet I find myself wishing that the death of Howard Austen chapter could have been printed separately from the gossip and the gab—of course, it still can be. It’s all there and Gore Vidal is appropriately moved, and moving.
But there are still 175 pages of the book left and the best character in it is dead. Having made us care about Howard Austen he can’t just spin around and get us interested in Greta Garbo. Even memoirists are subject to the problem of anticlimax. The parade of great names goes on, but leaves me, at least, cold. Of course Gore Vidal is working; he may be as bored by the parade as I am, but court life, of a sort, is his subject and on he goes.
Lately, though, the seemingly bottomless belligerence of the Bush administration has shifted Gore Vidal’s attention back to policy and politics, and has revived his polemical gifts, which are considerable. The criticisms in his books The Last Empire, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, and Imperial America will not please the leaders who are even now driving the chariot of the American empire right off a cliff. Gore Vidal was part of the Washington scene long enough to know where to strike when he strikes.
At the very outset of Point to Point Navigation he frankly announces this priority:
As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Naturally, Sex and Art always took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen.
Well, to each his own, of course, but what I enjoy most from this memory-crammed volume is the passages where he allows us some glimpse of the literary scene:
From time to time, Saul Bellow would appear in Rome, usually alone. He had, by the end, five wives, I think, and since they were all so alike I never put their names to memory. Each had a tendency to nag him for trivial lapses; “I told you not to forget the yogurt when you went into Red Hook,” our common village. At one point he shared a house with Ralph Ellison…. I don’t recall which of his wives was in residence while Ralph’s brilliant wife lived in New York City and visited on weekends. Of contemporary novelists only Saul was, properly speaking, an intellectual with a wide knowledge of philosophy and that small amount of history he felt connected to. It was always a relief to talk to him about many things as opposed to such dead-end subjects as academic tenure, bestsellerdom, and, inevitably, adultery, a major theme in the postwar novel. I was fascinated by Saul’s Herzog, none of which, as far as I could tell, was invented, including the villainous Valentine based on one Jack Ludwig, a sort of primitive Iago never quite at home on the Hudson or in the groves of Academe where Mary McCarthy had also served time at Bard, giving rise to a brilliant satire of the world of Bard and what Terry Southern liked to call Quality Lit. The novel Pictures from an Institution was Randall Jarrell’s response to Mary whom he calls Gertrude. “Although,” he wrote, “Gertrude was not much of a novelist, she was a marvelous liar.” What feuds there were in those days when Partisan Review ruled the roost and Delmore Schwartz was the great poet of the second Jewish generation! But Delmore’s reign ended with the appearance of Robert Lowell who proved to be a far more brilliant careerist than the rest of the field despite occasional bouts of madness from which Delmore also suffered. In the end, Lowell was king of the castle while Delmore ended up as the protagonist in one of Saul’s most generous novels, Humboldt’s Gift. As I write these lines I find myself suddenly in the Gotham Book Mart, the bookstore that Frances Steloff had made a center of the “New York School” of the forties.
Life magazine did a famous photograph of twenty or thirty writers honoring Edith and Osbert Sitwell on their first tour of America. Although the N.Y. School didn’t think much of the Sitwells, Auden and Spender were also on hand. Auden, perched atop a ladder, picked a book off the shelf nearest him and handed it to me: Problems of Men by John Dewey. Riotously funny.
Well, from this distance it may not seem riotously funny but it does offer a little insight on how the literary life was being lived on the east coast at that time.
Gore Vidal chooses to end his memoir by circling back once more to the Kennedy assassination, an event about which there will always be new theories, new speculations, perhaps even new facts, forever and ever amen. Mr. Vidal has led a remarkable life, and perhaps he’ll keep leading it until one day we’ll have a third volume of memoirs. After all, Henry James had three; why should Gore Vidal have less?
My choice of a place to interrupt this long train of memories is a little reminiscence of his grandfather, the blind senator T.P. Gore, whom his Mississippi contemporaries in his youth called Guv:
In due course, he moved west to the Indian territories and helped organize Oklahoma as a state where he was elected their first senator in 1907 and served until 1937. His last years were spent working as an attorney for several Indian tribes that had been cheated of their land by the US government. Not long after his death the tribes got a considerable settlement. There is a city named Gore in the state; he always threatened to go live there when its population was under a hundred but thought better of it when it became a city. I have never seen his house in Lawton if it still exists. It is somewhere near those ubiquitous railroad tracks on whose other side the future Joan Crawford was growing up at the same time as my mother, Nina, who was forbidden to play with her young contemporary because her mother was deemed a scarlet woman by the pious folk of the town….
Every now and then malign fate takes me through Lawton, Oklahoma, and I usually peel off on West Gore Boulevard and drink a milkshake in honor of the two Gores, the senator and the writer. It just seems like the right thing to do.
November 30, 2006