Sunday, March 11, 2007

Monsieur Vidal

As I've been driving about the state, I have been enjoying an audio book of Gore Vidal's latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, as read by Vidal himself.

I admire much of Vidal's fiction--- not so much the historical bestsellers like Burr and Lincoln, where he's so busy trying to shock us with the behavior of our elders that it gets in the way of his characters, or Myra Breckenridge, an artifact of the Sixties which fails to escape its decade, but the works that grapple with humanity as well as history, like Washington, D.C., possibly the best political novel ever written, and the magnificent Creation, which I wish I'd written myself.

Along the way I have also enjoyed his science fiction novel The Smithsonian Institution, admittedly a trifle, in which time travel rescues Vidal's great love, Jimmy Trimble, from death on Iwo Jima. If the book had been in genre it would have taken the science a little more seriously, but by the end I was impressed by Vidal's genre-riffic mastery of technobabble. It also contains the unforgettable line: "Beware Mrs. Grover Cleveland. She is a notorious chicken hawk."

Vidal's earlier memoir, Palimpsest, is superior to the present work in that it has a character arc--- it's about how Gore Vidal became Gore Vidal. In this latest, Gore Vidal is already formed at the start, so the book is about Gore Vidal being Gore Vidal, and how much you enjoy it depends on your tolerance for rambling anecdotes about the famous and for Vidal's cynical take on American politics.

For myself, I've always been refreshed by Vidal's straightforward claim that (1) the USA is an Empire, and (2) that it has a ruling class, into which he, Vidal, was born (but which he consistently betrays). What other writer could crack the facade of the suave William Buckley, and produce the following threat: "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."

Class, Vidal wrote somewhere, is the most difficult subject for American writers to deal with as it is the most difficult for the English to avoid. Vidal did not avoid the subject.

[For the record, Vidal's family has been involved in American politics since the 1690s, his grandfather was Senator T.P. Gore, his father was FDR's air minister and the founder of three airlines, he's the sort-of stepbrother of Jacqueline Onassis, and he's run one time each for congress and the senate. He counts Jimmy Carter and Al Gore among his cousins.]

I had almost missed Point-to-Point Navigation, because I'd made the mistake of reading the reviews, which condemned the book for its rambling structure, its repetetiveness, its politics, and the relentless name-dropping. The book is repetetive--- it could have used a good copy-editor--- but the politics, sexual and imperial, give it spice; and its rambling structure is perfectly suited to Vidal's life, style, and lifestyle, all of which admirably evade consistency. As for the name-dropping, it's not Vidal's fault that he's not a pleb, and that he was on first-name basis with the Kennedys, Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, and Federico Fellini. Perhaps the celebrity anecdotes would have been tiresome if I'd read them all in one go, but since I was listening during trips to the supermarket or to the library, I found them tasty.

And Vidal has always had bad reviews, because he's always had enemies. Academe disliked him because he became a major literary figure without ever having gone to college. Time and Life hated him because they thought he was anti-American. The New York Times condemned him for decades for his unconventional sexuality. In his essays, Vidal his given as good as he's got, or better. It helps that he's in his mid-eighties now, and has outlived most of his enemies. (Throughout both his sets of memoirs, he peers into other people's autobiographies and zestfully tries sets the record straight.)

As I listened, I mostly spent my time chuckling at the Vidal wit, but occasionally he produces a passage that just knocked me flat. One of these is his his clear-eyed account of the death of Howard Auster, his companion for fifty-odd years. It's a piece of prose that most writers would give a decade of their lives to have written.

As for the Vidal wit, there are many examples online, but in P-t-P N he modifies his earlier statement, "Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television." He would not give this advice, he says, in the age of HIV, or its electronic equivalent, Fox News.

10 Comments:

Blogger JBodi said...

I like the essays and memoirs better than most of the novels, but 'Creation' and 'Julian' are really good.

I'm not so sure he's right about America being an empire - hegemon seems more accurate to me - and anyway, he seems to have been killing it off in his essays since about 1947. Still, he's fun to have around.

James Bodi

PS - I loved the Praxis. Doing any more in that universe?

PPS - the Confucian gentleman you mentioned down-blog: Confucian in a literal sense, or just in the sense of being an all-rounder?

8:48 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I found that the essays got repetetive after a while. Vidal's got a few nails that he just keeps hammering at, long after they've been driven far into the target.

Whether there are more Praxis books is up to the publisher, and so far they ain't talkin'.

I meant Confucian gentleman in the sense of all-rounder, someone who (through mastery of basic principles) can write poetry, fight a battle, run a meeting, and whip up a stir-fry whenever the occasion calls.

3:11 PM  
Blogger HaloJonesFan said...

Oh, burn, Fox News! Gore Vidal just sassed you guys but good!

WJW: Well, you know what they say. If all you've got is a hammer, etc. etc.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

He's on public talk radio and Air America programs frequently. I like listening to him better than reading him, generally.

Which is what you wisely did with this book.

Love, C.

2:16 PM  
Blogger JBodi said...

Thanks, Walter.

I agree that he's repetitive - there's 30 years of him hammering Podhoretz Senior, and reading about culture wars that were over when one's parents were in highschool can be confusing. Sill, the bitchery's good.

I hope your publishers make the correct decision about the Praxis. Is there any way I can remind them along which path truth lies?

In any case, I look forward to reading about the all-rounder.

James

7:01 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Vidal also has a lot of enemies because he thinks very, very highly of Vidal, and very badly of anyone who doesn't.

The man's a mountain of conceit.

4:09 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Vidal =is= a mountain of conceit, to be sure, but it's not as if this is exactly rare in our world.

I'm a mountain of conceit myself, come to that. If I give the impression of being modest and affable, it's only because I don't really care what any of you mortals think.

2:49 PM  
Anonymous Peter D. Tillman said...

More good stuff. Gee, Walter, why don't you sell this kind of thing, instead of giving it away? I know, limited markets...

Loved the Zelazny piece, too. Just posted both links to rasfw, so you may get some comments there too.

Thanks & cheers -- Pete Tillman

2:37 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Pete, if you can tell me where a science fiction writer can sell a brief appreciation of Gore Vidal, by all means let me know.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Peter D. Tillman said...

Hmm. Well, if you had a current event to tie it too, this is about the right length for a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece. Too short for a review there, though.

Hmm-2. The Atlantic runs short reviews sometimes, but you're probably too late for this one?

Still, either of these markets would likely pay for your a/c repair... {G}

Really, don't sell yourself short. This is a first-rate piece of writing. Next time, maybe you'd want to try a top market or two. Why not?

Incidentally, and totally off-topic, I came across Melinda Snodgrass's account of her Other Life -- as an oilwoman:
http://www.melindasnodgrass.com/musings/2007/03/21/what-i-do-when-im-not-writing/
Very cool. Now we know how she can afford that Mercedes sportscar....

Cheers -- Pete Tillman

11:07 PM  

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