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’:
Then Capote showed us a gold and amethyst ring. ‘From André Gide,’ he sighed. Happily, I was able to check that one out. A few days later I called on Gide in the company of my English publisher. ‘How’, I asked in my best Phillips Exeter French, ‘did you find Truman Capote?’ ‘Who?’ Gide asked. I suspect that it was then, in the fabulous summer of ’48, that the non-fiction novel was born.
Elsewhere he detects a surprising chink in the ageing Cecil Beaton’s armour: ‘He has not yet learnt that, after fifty, you must never look into a mirror whose little tricks you don’t already know.’ But Vidal is always aware that what defines an artist is his work:
What strikes me as most remarkable in Isherwood’s career has been not so much the unremitting will to be his own man as the constant clarity of a prose style that shows no sign of slackness even though the author is, astonishingly, in his seventies . . . There is no excess in an Isherwood sentence. The verbs are strong. Nouns precise. Adjectives few. The third person startles and seduces, while the first person is a good guide and never coy.
Asked by an interviewer for his qualifications as a critic, Vidal replied, ‘What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament.’ He has never been afraid to tell the unpalatable truth, whether about icons like Lincoln and the Kennedys, protected species like the American Zionist lobby or, most subversive of all in ‘freedom’s land’, male sexuality. As early as 1952, when assessing Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars
by Suetonius (to whom he has sometimes been compared), he wrote approvingly of Suetonius’s assumption that ‘man is bisexual and that given complete freedom to love others, he will do so, going blithely from male to female as fancy dictates’. Vidal had already challenged American masculinity in his homosexual novel The City and the Pillar
(1948). Had his hero, Jim Willard, been a ballet dancer or a milliner, all might have been well. But by making him a professional tennis player, an athlete
for God’s sake, Vidal had goosed the sacred All-American boy. That this hunk liked being goosed, and much else besides, Vidal knew from his ‘magical evenings’ cruising New York’s bars and bathhouses in the first winter of peace. ‘This was sex at its rawest and most exciting and a revelation to me . . . Most of the boys knew they would soon be home for good, and married, and that this was a last chance to do what they were designed to do with each other.’ And yet despite his louche reputation Vidal has always been more interested in power than sex. ‘All my novels’, he once told me, ‘are meditations on power.’ Power for its own lovely sake. More provocative than his endorsement of Suetonius’s take on male sexuality was his assertion, in the same piece, that the motives of a modern politician like, say, Roosevelt were no different from those of the Caesars: ‘[H]e wanted to be President merely to wield power, to be famed and to be feared.’ Well, it takes one to know one. Raised in Washington, the grandson of a senator and the son of one of Roosevelt’s aides, Vidal was brought up to be a politician and once described becoming President as ‘the unfinished business of my life’. Though expatriate by choice for many years, he retained his country’s ‘vulgar Darwinism – the idea that there’s room at the top for only one’.
It is always a delicate matter when a friend or acquaintance becomes President. Ease must be maintained, yet one may not call him by his first name or walk ahead of him into a room.
Vidal liked JFK, ‘a great gossip’ who alone of his clan had been ‘civilized’ by his years in London. Yet I believe he also felt that anything Jack could do, he could do better, a dangerous presumption in a courtier, particularly one armed with ‘the fatal gift of phrase’. It was sheer chance that he quarrelled with Bobby first, and was thus exiled from Camelot before he could draw a bead on Jack.
In the short term Vidal paid a high price for writing The City and the Pillar
. Not only the populist Hearst press but also Time
and the New York Times
blacklisted his next five novels, the literary equivalent of ostracism. By 1954 he was having trouble paying the mortgage on a mansion in the Hudson valley. In order to make ends meet he resorted to ‘piracy’ – writing first for television, then for stage and screen (his credits included Ben-Hur
and Suddenly Last Summer
). This was a good career move. He made lots of money and met a whole new crowd, among them that indispensable constituent of his Hollywood essays, The Wise Hack, an unrepentant studio lackey who solemnly insisted that ‘Shit has its own integrity’ – the best line ever said about Art, a straight-faced Vidal would affirm. But much as he enjoyed being part of a team, Vidal was always mindful of ‘the sullen, solitary joys of prose’. As early as 1952, in a letter to Louis Auchincloss, he regretted that ‘The idea of a writer becoming a man of letters, geared to the long haul, is not only foreign but detestable to our nation . . .’ Fortunately at about the time he became rich enough to devote a month or more to an essay, the New York Review of Books
appeared. They were made for each other, becoming, in the words of Vidal’s biographer, ‘almost synonymous’.2000 Vidal has said that writing for him ‘is almost entirely a matter of making sense’. Like his exemplar, Montaigne, he is an autodidact, and his opinions have been formed by reading and observation rather than by instruction, hence his disdain for the ‘Hacks of Academe’ who earn their bread by ‘teaching’ novels that were made to be read. But what really rips his knitting is when academic historians accuse him of ‘gross distortions’, as they did when he wrote his novel Lincoln
Where many English Department hustlers now favour literary theory over literature, the workaday bureaucrats of the History Departments are solemnly aware that their agreed-upon facts must constitute . . . a view of the republic that will please the trustees.
Notoriously, Vidal’s view of the republic is at odds with the Authorized Version. He thinks the rot set in with Teddy Roosevelt, whom he compares to Kaiser Wilhelm II: ‘a more fortunate and intelligent figure than the Kaiser but every bit as bellicose and conceited’. Instead of minding their own business, Americans – or at any rate, their rulers – developed a taste for empire-building. They didn’t call it that, of course, but it came to the same thing. And who were – indeed are – these rulers? The ‘Property Party’, a plutocratic élite who have been pulling the strings for more than a century. Vidal once described himself as ‘a correctionist. If something is wrong in society, it must be fixed. At least one should try to fix it.’ Most of his political writing has been with this end in view. Yet in Palimpsest
(1997), the memoir he said he would never write, he makes a surprising admission: ‘Without much pleasure I am reading Hazlitt’s political writings. I had the same experience with Orwell once he got off literature and popular culture and onto the politics of the day. How quickly our day’s urgencies turn tedious . . .’ I suspect his British fans would agree. Yet in general, Vidal has had a better press here than in America. One reason for this is that he has trodden on fewer of our corns. Another is that we will forgive a writer almost anything if he is witty. For his part Vidal has admitted to a ‘liking’ for the English he could ‘relate to’ – Princess Margaret, Tom Driberg, Mick Jagger, V. S. Pritchett, to name but four – combined with no particular regard for ‘the fallen big sister nation’. Like Edmund Wilson, he thinks class – ‘the English disease’ – is the basis for most of our humour: ‘someone tries to get above his station either socially or intellectually or sexually and is firmly put in his place
’. Is that still the case? I wonder. But Vidal himself is no slouch when it comes to high-hatting his social inferiors. He once described John Updike as ‘just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top’. And when ‘Doc’ Kinsey, author of the eponymous Report, expressed surprise at his lack of sexual guilt, he replied: ‘As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of guilt, a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt.’ (Kinsey gave Vidal a copy of his book, inscribed with thanks ‘for his work in the field’.) For most of his life Vidal, as he said of Somerset Maugham, has lived ‘just as he wanted’, a very rare achievement. But as Vidal also noted of Maugham, in a much-quoted phrase, the senile old monster ‘mined his own monument and blew it up’. Of late, Vidal has shown a similar urge to self-destruct. In the words of his estranged dauphin
, Christopher Hitchens, the ‘crackpot’ strain that was always there – for example, blaming Roosevelt for Pearl Harbor – has become dominant. Myself, I think it’s a pity that nowadays he is more often seen and heard than read. His natural aptitude for television, once a blessing, has become a curse. But as the elderly mischief-maker moves ‘towards the door marked Exit’, I think it is worth remembering these words of Evelyn Waugh: ‘Style is what makes a work memorable and unmistakable. We remember the false judgements of Voltaire and Gibbon and Lytton Strachey long after they have been corrected because of their sharp polished form and because of the sensual pleasure of dwelling on them.’ To Voltaire, Gibbon and Lytton Strachey I would now add the name of Gore Vidal.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 29 © Michael Barber 2011
Michael Barber would like to write a short book about Gore Vidal from an English perspective, but doubts whether anyone would publish it.