Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012

In his memoir, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal refers to the "tyranny of sex," and of how he was finally free of it in his old age. And soon, he said, he would be free of the greatest tyrant of all: life itself. Freedom came to Gore Vidal on Tuesday at age 86. In Psalms 14:1, we read ""The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." To his discredit, Gore Vidal was not a believer in God or an afterlife, but he was certainly no fool. His novels, and, even more so, his brilliant essays, the finest ever written in my opinion, make that clear. A wise man, and a brave one, he was, until his passing, the man I called my favorite "living writer." Now, I guess he has moved up to become my favorite writer, period. Of course, he has no heir.

Unlike most writers, Vidal loved to be on camera, had, in fact, expressed a desire to be a movie star, his idol of the screen being Mickey Rooney (a revelation made in the superb - and, alas, out of print - Screening History). In a documentary titled Profile of a Writer, Vidal appeared without voiceover commentary from a narrator and without a single glimpse of his interviewer. It was nothing but Vidal offering a monologue from Rome where he lived at the time. Oh, he could be pompous, alright, and aloof, possessing an icy detachment that I saw as a protective device. For all his wit and intelligence, he was undoubtedly a man who had been severely wounded by life, obvious in his description of his mother as someone who married, several times, for money. That, he told John Kennedy, is why the family from which both he and Jacqueline Bouvier were sprung was a disaster (Bouvier, a.k.a. Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was Vidal's step-sister through one of his mother's marriages). The "disaster" led Jacqueline to become a "professional widow" and led Vidal to become a professional writer. Did Vidal see a need or desire to write as a symptom of an emotional or psychological disturbance? I think he did. One writes to impose meaning on life, to, in a sense, control it.

As much as I admired Vidal, I did not agree with his every stance. He despised Christianity, seeing it as the first religion to insist its truths are absolutes. He could also be a bit of a hypocrite. During the impeachment proceedings brought against President Clinton, he defended Clinton and attacked independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, claiming they had orchestrated a witch hunt based on nothing more than a sexual indiscretion on Clinton’s part. Like Bill Maher and others who came to Clinton’s defense, he claimed it was strictly “about sex.” But it wasn’t about sex. It was about Clinton’s having lied under oath. Sex was a sidebar. Yet in his Profile of a Writer segment, Vidal tells of how he was once approached by a Mafioso who knew of his intense dislike of Bobby Kennedy. Did Vidal want to stop Kennedy in his quest for a seat in the Senate? Yes, he did, so Vidal met the “tall, swarthy” hoodlum in a bar where the author of The Best Man declined to use knowledge of Kennedy’s affair with an underage girl because, as he said in his play, sex should play no role in politics. But the mobster knew of a woman whose “carnal knowledge” of the president (Bobby’s brother, John) led to her being threatened with deportation if she continued to pursue a lawsuit related to the matter. Vidal thought that this episode could be used fairly because “although sex is involved, this is an interesting story of how power is misused by a royal family." Vidal didn’t make use of this scandalous information only because it had been sealed by a judge. But that example of an abuse of power mirrors Clinton’s abuses of power. Vidal was an observer, but like any observer, he didn't always observe objectively. But nobody's perfect.

From 2006, my review of Vidal's second memoir, Point to Point Navigation:

When it comes to Gore Vidal's latest, and, no doubt, last memoir, Point to Point Navigation, the Publishers Weekly review gets it right: "readers' reactions will be determined by how they already feel about him."

I like Vidal. Even when I disagree with him, I can't help but be impressed by the wit of his arguments and the style in his writing. And I like Point to Point Navigation, even though it seems like something of a cheat, opening as it does with four chapters - 27 pages - recycled verbatim from 1992's Screening History, a small gem about the impact that movies have had on his life and society at large. Vidal explains his action by saying (in parentheses) that the book "has been allowed to go out of print and so now I reprise its principal argument."

The appearance of old material seems eerily prescient in some ways, as if Vidal, now 81, can't be bothered restating anew that which he has already said. After all, time is short. It also seems to be a testament to his recent admission that "I no longer find myself waking up every morning with the compulsion to put pen to paper.''

The specter of death hangs heavy over this volume, with Vidal devoting many pages to his late partner, Howard Austen, as well as reminiscing about Johnny Carson, on whose late night show I was introduced to this man of letters in the early '70s. There are times when his memory fails him (as does his proofreader). He tells us his father died in February 1969, yet claims he lived to see man walk on the moon, an event that occurred five months later. Elsewhere, he takes on his own biographers, dismissing Fred Kaplan's "authorized" account of his life as inaccurate, but expressing some admiration for recent books by Dennis Altman, among others. The general tone is one of a man attempting to set the record straight and to tie up loose ends.

Vidal is sometimes dismissed these days as an eccentric who no longer deserves to be taken seriously. He is, after all, a "conspiracy theorist" who has questioned, in such books as Dreaming War, the official story about the events that led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Vidal is unbowed. "Ours is a society riddled with plots of every kind. . ." he writes before delving, once more, into a conspiracy theory related to the JFK assassination.

Point to Point Navigation is rather scatter-shot, jumping from one subject to another without the benefit of nice comfortable segues, but that tends to be true of memory itself. If you like Vidal, you'll forgive the book its inconsistency, and be rewarded with a worthwhile read.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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