- Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
Deutsch, 432 pp, £17.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 233 98891 2
I recently paid a solemn and respectful visit to Gore Vidal’s grave. It is to be found in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington. You take a few paces down the slope from the graveyard’s centrepiece, which is the lachrymose and androgynous Mourning Figure sculpted by August St Guldens for Henry Adams’s unhappy wife Clover (whose name always puts me in mind of an overworked pit pony). And there in the grass is a stone slab, bearing the names and dates of birth of Vidal and his lifelong companion Howard Austen. The hyphens that come after the years (1925 and 1928 respectively) lie like little marble asps, waiting to keep their dates. Who knows what decided the cemetery authorities to advertise their prospective clients in this way? Elsewhere among the crosses and headstones one may find Upton Sinclair, Nobel laureate and defeated Socialist candidate for the governorship of California, Alice Warfield Mien (mother of Wallis Simpson) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, grande dame of Washington dynastic bitchery. (She had a motto emblazoned on her sofa-cushion in Georgetown: ‘If you can’t think of anything nice to say about anybody, come and sit by me.’) A clutch of Supreme Court Justices, political bosses and Civil War generals completes the roll. And all this seems fitting for Vidal: radical candidate in a California Senate race, collector and generator of gossip from the exile Windsors and the Georgetown ladies, and master in novel-form of the Washington of Henry Adams, John Hay and Teddy Roosevelt.
Or is it so fitting? On second thoughts, is not Vidal a natural for the Protestant cemetery in Rome, hard by Keats and Shelley and Gramsci and Labriola, and sheltered, in serene pagan and Mediterranean style, by the pyramid of Sestius? What is an exile cosmopolitan doing in this Wasp rockery in the District of Columbia? Even before Palimpsest, it was possible for close readers of Vidal’s fiction to make a shrewd guess. The following passage in the confessedly autobiographical Two Sisters, published a quarter of a century ago, supplies one clue. The narrator is set off by a recollection of Henry James, who after fifty years remembered ‘a boy cousin being sketched in the nude at Newport before his life was “cut short, in a cavalry clash, by one of the Confederate bullets of 1863” ’.
Death, summer, youth – this triad contrives to haunt me every day of my life for it was in summer that my generation left school for war, and several dozen that one knew (but strictly speaking, did not love, except perhaps for one) were killed, and so never lived to know what I have known – the Beatles, black power, the Administration of Richard Nixon – all this has taken place in a trivial after-time and has nothing to do with anything that really mattered, with summer and someone hardly remembered, a youth so abruptly translated from vivid, well-loved (if briefly) flesh to a few scraps of bone and cartilage scattered among the volcanic rocks of Iwo Jima. So much was cruelly lost and one still mourns the past, particularly in darkened movie houses, weeping at bad films, or getting drunk alone while watching the Late Show on television as our summer’s war is again refought and one sees sometimes what seems to be a familiar face in the battle scenes – is it Jimmie?
A couple of years ago, Vidal dropped another hint in an article looking back on the Pacific War. He said that he gave way to emotion on hearing, even now, the song that goes:
Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor
Couldn’t face it without you
Don’t get around much any more.
And then, going back almost to the beginning, there was the matter of those initials on the dedication page of The City and the Pillar. This homoerotic drama, Vidal’s second novel, won him attention and execration in about equal measure. The dedicatee was one ‘J.T.’ Just a few feet away from that marble slab in Rock Creek, one can discover a small grey stone with the inscription ‘James Trimble III. 1925-1945. Iwo Jima’. And here the quest is over. Vidal intends to be buried as near as he can be to his first and only love, who played the saxophone and shone on the playing fields and whose anthem for doomed youth is in the refrain of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More’: a combination of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the more candid letters of Wilfred Owen. Palimpsest fills in the blanks. For half a century, Gore Vidal has been living selfishly and hedonistically, because all this time he has been living for two.
It is via the Jimmy Trimble romance that the madeleine of these memoirs is unwrapped, and it is with that incomplete or uncompleted love that it closes. Along the way, it is the thread of Ariadne in the narrative. Vidal has written often and well about himself and others. In fact, he has written better. The chief enchantment of this book has not to do with the celebrated dust-ups between himself and Mailer, himself and Capote, himself and Tennessee Williams, or himself and William Buckley. Rather, we learn, not without preceding markers but in many ways for the first time, about Vidal’s family and about the Kennedy branch of it. We come to understand how divided a self he is; not just as between love and death but as between literature and politics, America and the world, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane. And we get the goods not just about his sex life, but about his sexual nature.
To get the beastliness out of the way first, then. In his rather sere and melancholy condition, Vidal tells some old stories rather less well than he recounted them the first time. Of a disastrous visit to Cambridge, provoked by an invitation from E.M. Forster that had been meant for Tennessee Williams: