In the age of the common man, said Malcolm Muggeridge, we all want to be uncommon, and they don’t come more uncommon than Gore Vidal, a writer for whom the term sui generis might have been coined. Quickened by a sense of mischief and a sense of justice, Vidal has been a thorn in the side of the American Establishment for more than sixty years. Pithy, trenchant, a lifelong enemy of cant, he is the embodiment, over there, of what Sir Maurice Bowra called the Immoral Front – subversives whose aim is to question everything and respect nothing.
It is largely upon his essays that Vidal’s reputation as a subversive rests, and it is as an essayist – at once arch and magisterial, intimate and urbane – that I celebrate him here. Reviewing a collection of Vidal’s essays Stephen Spender said that you have only to read a few sentences and he’s right there with you in the room, ‘sitting in the chair opposite’.
One explanation for this is that you do not simply read Vidal, you hear him; and to the fury of his detractors he has many of the best tunes. He possesses what a character of his calls ‘the fatal gift of phrase’, as witness his mordant description of President Reagan, ‘a triumph of the embalmer’s art’, and his equally caustic jibe at John Updike’s expense: ‘Irony is an arrow that the Good Fiction Fairy withheld from the Updike quiver’. He is also prepared, where appropriate, to strike a personal note, exemplified by his indiscreet and often very funny sketches of people he has known. Here, for instance, in a beguiling piece about Tennessee Williams, is a catty aside about Truman Capote’s ‘mischievous fantasies’: