A decade ago, I went to lunch with Gore Vidal at his house in Ravello. That house (since abandoned) and that sort of occasion have been written about so often by Vidal’s guests and interviewers, and by Vidal himself, that there is little to say that hasn’t been said. It is a beautiful place, if you like houses perched on cliffs, with an epic view of the Tyrrhenian Sea (somewhere in the hazy distance south of Salerno are the remains of the Greek settlement at Paestum). If you don’t like houses perched on cliffs, then the blinding absence of a horizon at noon on a summer’s day and the steep plunge to the road below are unnerving.
Before lunch there was swimming, and the vague sense of being sized up. The host reclined on a beach chair under an umbrella dressed in a faded denim shirt and a pair of ancient, stained trousers, his white hair immaculately whipped above a face somewhat hidden by a pair of huge Imelda Marcos dark glasses – this combination of tremendous care and inattention the style of a Sicilian mafioso, his patrician composure suggestive of Burt Lancaster playing Lampedusa’s Leopard. Neither Vidal nor Howard Auster, his long-standing companion, swam in the pool, which was even more impressively blue than the sea at the foot of the cliff. Sunshine, cypresses, cicadas, scented air, the physical drama: all the sense-heightening Mediterranean stuff. Kurt Vonnegut, a house guest, had disappeared: his photographer wife, Jill Krementz, couldn’t find him anywhere on the eight acres of the Vidal estate. Vidal, who seemed to know something about Vonnegut his wife didn’t, presumed that Vonnegut only wanted for a while to be out of range of the marital camera. This was true; Vonnegut eventually returned.
Lunch inside the house at a glass table, the throne-like chairs used in a scene in Ben Hur: four were made for the movie, which Vidal helped script – uncredited, he said – and he had two more made for his dining-room. As I sat down, opposite Vidal and next to Auster, I accidentally knocked Auster’s shin. ‘I like it harder,’ he said. The drawing-room, sofas, books. On a console table, photographs of many famous people. ‘Some family, some friends,’ Vidal said, with weary affection. Those on display were some of the people Vidal writes about in Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation, his new memoir, people he’s not always generous about. His affection for and dislike of those he knows, or knew: this is central to Vidal’s ambivalence about America and Americans, friends and friends as enemies, his loving and loathing of it and them, and more generally his two minds about the United States. Some are in two minds about Gore Vidal: they admire his wit but consider him insufficiently American or, some say, anti-American. They’re wrong: what he’s against is anyone who is willing to be led, anyone who says they must be followed.
‘Likeable’ isn’t a word you would use to describe Vidal. ‘Irrepressible’ is one word you would. He’s written 29 novels, hundreds of essays and the two memoirs: it is a daunting bibliography, and no obvious starting-point presents itself, other than the man himself. In Two Sisters, his ‘novel as memoir, memoir as novel’, the narrator, V., an idealised Vidal, says: ‘In a sense, the only purpose of life is the creation of a self and what matters is the sum total of all one’s attempts.’ There have been many attempts, and many lives. As well as being a novelist, satirist, playwright, essayist, formerly an American abroad now an American at home, Vidal is a television and radio wit, patrician, actor, conversationalist, self-made man, host and sometime Congressional candidate. Anti the American empire he is, but he’s a bit of an empire himself. Or a caste.
There’s the Vidal who appears in Two Sisters and the Vidal who appears as his young self in his Roosevelt novel, The Golden Age. There’s the ventriloquist Vidal, recognisable in some of his historical characters – Aaron Burr and the Emperor Julian – as well as in his satires. In Burr, Charles Schuyler, a character invented by Vidal to be this vice president’s biographer, says his subject is ‘a man of perfect charm and fascination. A monster, in short.’ Not unlike the novel’s author. ‘I suspect Cromwell was right,’ Vice President Burr tells Schuyler, ‘the man who does not know where he is going goes farthest. Talleyrand used to tell me that for the great man all is accident. Obviously, he was not a great man since he survived by careful planning, by never showing his true feelings. You must learn that art, Charlie.’ Vidal hasn’t known many accidents, or he’s chosen not to write about them if he has. He doesn’t show his feelings, but he doesn’t hide himself either. He is at his fullest as a memoirist. His essays are his achievement, but Palimpsest is his best book. You can’t help wondering if he isn’t gloomy about the essayist’s reputation and its fragility. Essays are addressed to the times in which they are written, as they must be, alive one moment, often inert the next, but he has little reason to be concerned about that: Vidal knows as well as anyone that in America things have a habit of repeating themselves; many of his old essays have more life than recent ones.
The political Vidal dominates. If you don’t believe that every human action is motivated either by politics or considerations of personal gain, then Vidal’s writing, his novels especially, will be less rewarding. His protagonists are forceful, knowing, rational, sometimes monsters. Power and fame, getting ahead: these are essential American themes; and the lengths some go to achieve power and, once in possession of it, go about protecting and expanding it the better to coerce others, these are Vidal’s favourite subjects. His versions of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Emperor Julian are all more or less dictatorial. ‘How candid I am,’ Vidal’s Julian says. ‘I have never admitted to anyone that in my first encounter with Constantius, all that I could think about was how much I should like the dominion of the earth.’ One of Vidal’s best essays is on the Oz novels of L. Frank Baum, and like Baum, Vidal is curious about the extreme forms of power that arise in democracies. In Glinda of Oz, the last in the series, the Supreme Dictator explains himself: ‘I’m the Supreme Dictator of all, and I am elected once a year. This is a democracy, you know, where people are allowed to vote for their rulers. A good many would like to be Supreme Dictator, but as I made a law that I am always to count the votes myself, I am always elected.’ Vidal read Baum as a child, but the influence of the Oz books has lasted, and like many Americans, Vidal believes that some out-of-the-ordinary voting has gone on in recent US elections. The computerised voting machines selected by some states for elections can’t even produce a paper record of the votes they’ve collected: it’s impossible to count them by hand. What wizard came up with that idea, and why such mania to improve on a piece of paper?
From the beginning, Vidal was a writer who set out to prevail. He went about trying to outperform, or push aside, those who challenged what he believed was his position at the head of the post-World War Two pack. He wasn’t pleased when Truman Capote appeared on his tail, and was infuriated when Capote professed an intimacy with André Gide greater than his own – though this proved to be Capote’s embellishment, proof for Vidal that embellishment was what Capote was best at. Nor was he tremendously happy when Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead. He caught up, and in the seven years after 1945 wrote seven novels. He wasn’t satisfied with the first few. The one he likes least, In a Yellow Wood (1947), was written when he was briefly an editor at a New York publishing house, and is about a man presented with a choice between the office and life. He thinks his authorial voice didn’t properly appear until The Judgment of Paris (1952), a tale of an American living in Europe among Americans far wealthier than himself, who decides as he meanders from Paris to Rome that life isn’t about choices but doing what you want to do. Avoiding other people’s demands is the best way to keep going. That was the path taken by Vidal.
In New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he pursued a life on the town, and was intimate with Anaïs Nin, who was besotted with his good looks, as he with hers for a time. He bought a Neoclassical pile upstate, with views over the Hudson and a colonnade painted white to give the appearance of marble when seen from a distance. Edgewater, Vidal’s Hudson home, is identical to the New York houses described by Tocqueville in Democracy in America, constructions with wooden columns that proved to Tocqueville that in the US appearance counted more than reality. Vidal, too, thinks that reality is less important than appearance, and one of his aims has been to appear more American than anyone else.
As he made his name, the US went to war in Korea. The US was also involved in covert activities, such as massaging a coup in Iran and another in Guatemala, where Vidal bought a convent, cheaply, and lived for several years in the late 1940s, having persuaded his father to give him the money that might have been spent on the Harvard education he declined. Guatemala led to Dark Green, Bright Red (1950), a novel about the way the US and the United Fruit Company went about furthering their interests in Central America. Vidal was quick to notice the consequences of the Cold War in the US, and the conformity he thought it inspired. Like Mailer, he believed that American society in the 1950s had been put to sleep by government-manufactured fears and hatreds, by religion, and by the relentless talk that all was well in the US when it wasn’t. His response was to talk and to write, just as relentlessly.
Tennessee Williams, who first met Vidal in Rome in 1948, the year the CIA orchestrated the outcome of the Italian elections, said: ‘I wonder if any other living writer is going to keep at it as ferociously, unremittingly as Vidal. He has a mania for bringing out one book a year. They are now stacked up like planes over an airport, waiting for the runway.’ Williams probably didn’t know when making his dig that Vidal’s father, Gene, one of Amelia Earhart’s lovers, was a founder of the US airline business and served as Roosevelt’s air commissioner in the 1930s. He may not have known either that Vidal’s mother, judging from Vidal’s account, resembled one of Williams’s ‘monster women’ – Vidal’s phrase for those figures of self-destruction in Williams’s plays. Nina Gore, the daughter of a blind senator from Oklahoma, divorced Vidal’s father in 1935 and next married Hughdie Auchincloss, who later became stepfather to Jackie Kennedy. She had eight children with different husbands, but wasn’t apparently much of a mother to any of them. She was a drinker, and a lover of Clark Gable’s. Vidal isn’t entirely forthcoming about his mother and father: his parents’ lovers, it seems, are more important for him, and count as evidence that everyone is so very closely connected with everyone else in the US, and so very closely connected with Vidal.
Vidal couldn’t stop writing books; nor did he stop going to bed with men: more than a thousand, he’s said of his immediate postwar conquests. ‘Not a world record’: which isn’t intended as modesty. ‘I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers,’ says V. in Two Sisters. ‘Why is that such a powerful line? It keeps going through my head. Maybe it’s because it’s strangers I like in bed.’ Maybe, but the line is Blanche DuBois’s in A Streetcar Named Desire, and echoes what she’s already said: ‘Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for protection.’ You couldn’t say that Vidal has hunted for protection, or known panic, but he has hunted for trouble.
There is some confusion about these matters in Palimpsest, and again in Point to Point Navigation. His boyhood love, Jimmy Trimble, was, he says, his twin, a perfect double self. He died at Iwo Jima. He appears under his own name in Vidal’s Lincoln, popping up as a steward. But Trimble’s death as motivation for Vidal’s will to succeed? Suppressed love as the engine for Vidal’s enormous output? Fifty years ago, Vidal told Christopher Isherwood that he was an enemy of love. It involved too much entanglement; and entanglements of any kind, whether they are conducted by an individual or by the US government, were too European for this American, for whom everything personal has a political dimension. For him, entanglements can’t fail to end with friendships destroyed and people getting hurt.
In ‘Reflections on Glory Reflected’, the last essay in his massive omnibus United States, Vidal tries to explain why he left New York for Rome before he turned 40. He says it was important to distance himself from his illustrious family. But how illustrious was that family, really, and doesn’t his associating himself with its illustriousness, such as it was, detract from the more interesting self-made life? ‘I knew from the start that I was out for Glory,’ he wrote in that essay. ‘Unlike Henry Adams’ – the writer Vidal fondly compares his own work to – ‘I got out at 17, and vowed that if I was not elected to anything, I would not come back to live in the capital when there were so many other worlds and glories elsewhere.’ He hasn’t gone back, but he has marked his grave in Washington’s Rock Creek cemetery, not far from Henry Adams’s tomb and next to the grave of Howard Auster, who died three years ago. A more plausible explanation for his departure from America was this: ‘I live in Italy because it’s a good vantage point from which to look at the United States. After all, I don’t write about anything other than the fact of being American. I have no other subject.’
There were, of course, many worlds for Vidal elsewhere: travels through Greece with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, gluttonous and bibulous tours of French restaurants with his editor Jason Epstein, conversations with his Roman neighbour Italo Calvino, lunch with E.M. Forster, chat with Princess Margaret. But in Rome there were only months of reading, and Old Glory. Few people have identified themselves as closely with the history of their own country as Vidal has – General de Gaulle maybe. In Italy, he began his series of historical novels on the making of the American empire. In his essays, he pours acid over glamorous versions of the US and its history, attacking those who were too cosy with power or who idealised American democracy or thought too much of US leaders, or who created myths about the so-called founding fathers.
‘Even those who write knowledgeably about politics tend to make certain fundamental errors,’ he wrote in ‘Barry Goldwater: A Chat’, an essay published in the early 1960s. ‘They look for subtle motives where there are none. They believe there is a long-range plan of war when there is seldom anything more than quick last-minute deployments of troops before unscheduled battle. In a society like ours, politics is improvisation. To the artful dodger rather than the true believer goes the prize.’ This is a view of American politics Vidal no longer seems to hold as firmly as he did, or so Point to Point Navigation suggests. He believes the Bush administration did have a long-range plan of war in the Middle East, even if the president himself is an artful dodger – the better to hide the true believers, the neocons, who hid in the wings and went about what Vidal considers their imperial work. ‘It suits courtiers to keep the great people apart,’ he writes in Julian, ‘thereby increasing the importance of intermediaries who are able to hurry from one wing of the palace to another, making mischief and policy as they go.’ That’s a passage that might have come straight from the pages of Castiglione’s The Courtier, but it’s also a fair description of the way the neoconservatives conduct their business.
A palimpsest is a parchment on which words are written over and over again, each act of writing partially erasing the earlier ones. All of Vidal’s books are to a greater or lesser extent palimpsests. Refrains from Palimpsest reappear in Point to Point Navigation, just as in Palimpsest echoes of Vidal’s essays and novels and interviews are heard again. In Palimpsest, there’s the sense of a life coalescing, but in Point to Point Navigation something stranger is going on. It’s as if Vidal is trying to cancel himself out until there’s nothing left to write, like someone finally drinking up the wine cellar they have been laying down throughout their life. But it would be a mistake to think that Point to Point Navigation represents the musings of an elderly man whose disappointments are only now surfacing, just as it would be wrong to dismiss Vidal as a know-it-all with a grating I-told-you-so style. He’s been as alert to the troubles the Bush administration has created as anyone else.
One question Vidal asks of his readers is: how American are you if you aren’t in two minds about the US? Another is: how well can you know the US if you’re not? These two questions tended not to be asked in the patriotic boom that followed 9/11, a time that allowed for authoritarian measures and actions that Vidal has warned Americans about for years. It is astonishing that the best American critics of the Bush administration have been successful, well-known novelists and writers over the age of 70: Vidal, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Arthur Schlesinger, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion among them. Jaundiced about American good intentions, unaffected by the roar of sentimentality after 9/11, they saw what armies of better informed, younger journalists couldn’t or refused to see.
‘The line between liberating the world and enslaving the world is amazingly thin,’ the liberal Paul Berman wrote in 1996, before later endorsing Bush’s wars. ‘Likewise, the line between liberating the world and throwing yourself off a cliff.’ Vidal thinks the US left the top of the cliff years ago: it’s what happens at the bottom that’s more the concern.