John Lanchester

  • United States by Gore Vidal
    Deutsch, 1298 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 233 98832 7
  • What Henry James Knew, and Other Essays on Writers by Cynthia Ozick
    Cape, 363 pp, £12.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 224 03329 8
  • Sentimental Journeys by Joan Didion
    HarperCollins, 319 pp, £15.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 00 255146 2

Few discussions of the essay fail to begin etymological: essai, ‘assay’, ‘trial’, ‘attempt’. The project of the essay is interrogative, investigative, exploratory, provisional; the essayist’s duty is to seek a personal confrontation with Montaigne’s question, so characteristic in its quizzical severity: que sais-je? Or so we are told. In practice, though, the essay tends to be more or less the precise opposite of such a sober and responsible self-examination. The writers who have used the form in the questioning spirit – the essayists, from Montaigne to Stanley Cavell, who generate a sense that the act of writing is for them a genuine process of intellectual exploration – are far outnumbered by those for whom the essay is a forum for pyrotechnics and exhibitionism, for politics and for performance. The history of the essay – from Hazlitt on his first acquaintance with poets to Orwell on the sex life of the common toad – is the history of writers taking a break from other forms in order, not to ask themselves que sais-je? but simply to strut their stuff.

Hardly anybody has done that to better effect than Gore Vidal, whose essays are unmistakably a performance – more of a self-celebration than a self-interrogation, and none the worse for that. United States is a fat volume which gathers within its pages all (as far as I can tell) of the essays that Vidal has published in book form. (Vidal remarks at one point, à propos a biography of his old chum Eleanor Roosevelt, that if the book had been shorter it ‘would have had a smaller sale but more readers’. True for this 1300-pager too, perhaps.) It is divided into three sections: ‘State of the Art’, which deals with literature; ‘State of the Union’, which deals with history and politics; ‘State of Being’, which deals with ‘personal responses to people and events, not to mention old movies and children’s books’.

If nothing else were known about Vidal one could reconstruct the outlines of his life from these pages. Born in West Point in 1925 (delivered by an army doctor who went on to be Eisenhower’s physician: ‘Just indigestion, Mamie,’ he told Mrs E. on the night of the President’s first heart attack); son of a soldier who went on to be Roosevelt’s minister of aviation (and as a result the first child to fly across the USA, and a boyhood friend of Amelia Earhart’s); maternal grandson of the blind Senator T.P. Gore (whom the young Vidal once collected from the Senate wearing nothing but swimming trunks, whereupon ‘finally, the Vice President, Mr Garner – teeth like tiny black pearls and a breath that was all whisky – came down from the chair and said: “Senator, this boy is nekkid.”’) He enlisted in the US Navy at the age of 17, and published a novel about his experiences, Williwaw, two years later; wrote five more novels in the next four years; spent ten years working as a contract writer for MGM (which included an uncredited feat of script-doctoring on Ben Hur, into which Vidal inserted a much-needed homosexual subplot); twice ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate; wrote 17 more novels; lived to memorialise (in essays in this book) his friends John Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Italo Calvino, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anaïs Nin ...

In this kind of summary Vidal’s life sounds almost comically glamorous and eventful. One of the secrets of his social and professional success lies in the combination of class circumstances into which he was born: grand enough not to feel frightened by anything, and not to be in any way impressed by the trappings of power and state; but at the same time not disempoweringly affluent, and wholly without any belief that the world owed him a living. To put it another way, few people with so many opportunities also possess so much determination to make the most of them.

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