Gore Vidal, Selected Essays (2008).
The day that the American writer Gore Vidal died, his quarter-century-old prediction about how the obituary would be handled turned out to be pretty accurate. Well, more-or-less-sort-of right, if you allow for some leavening to take account of the author’s penchant for laying it on a bit thick.
Vidal (1925-2012) was, as most readers know, America’s pre-eminent literary essayist in the second half of the 20th century (he was also an interesting novelist, playwright, memoirist, screenwriter, and all-round public figure). He died at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles (where he relocated in 2003 after decades of living in Ravello, Italy) at the appropriately ripe old age of 86 — appropriate, that is, for dagger-tongued curmudgeons — on July 31, 2012, about a year ago.
In a 1985 essay recounting the funeral of the renowned Italian writer Italo Calvino (Vidal and Calvino were friends and neighbours; they both had pied-a-terre apartments on the same street in Rome), the American reflects on some of the differences between European and American culture. Vidal accepts that “unlike the United States, Italy has both an educational system (good or bad is immaterial) and a common culture, both good and bad.” He notes that “in recent years Calvino had become the central figure in Italy’s culture.” Nor does he forego the opportunity to plug his own role in Calvino’s international reputation. “Italians were proud that they had produced a world writer whose American reputation began, if I may say so, since no one else has, when I described all of his novels as of May 30, 1974 in The New York Review of Books. By 1985, except for England, Calvino was read wherever books are read.” The acerbity, hyperbole, self-deprecating self-promotion, even the name-dropping all come with the (Vidal) territory — and anyway, when Vidal drops a name, it’s the name of someone he actually knows (and he knows a lot of people).
Vidal then comes to the point, and an intimation of un-immortality, as our modern social media might put it. “Three weeks short of Calvino’s 62nd birthday, he died; and Italy went into mourning, as if a beloved prince had died. For an American, the contrast between them and us is striking. When an American writer dies, there will be, if he’s a celebrity (fame is no longer possible for any of us), a picture below the fold on the front page; later a short appreciation on the newspaper’s book page (if there is one), usually the work of a journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work… and that would be that.” (Cf., Gore Vidal, “Calvino’s Death,” United States: Essays 1952-1992, 1993).
The day that Vidal died, his picture promptly popped up on the “front page” of the New York Times website, and even though there are no longer paper “folds” in the online world, I’d say it was above rather than below where the fold used to be. The lengthy obituary (which could be accessed not only from the book pages, but from obits and other portals) was written by Charles McGrath, the NYT Book Review’s long-time senior editor, hardly a mere “journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work.” (See, Charles McGrath, “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2012.) Nor was that all.
Perhaps surprisingly, on two of the national network evening newscasts that I caught (even though far fewer people watch network news today than in the past), there were prominent obituaries of Vidal, complete with pics, video clips, and sombre voice-overs. I remember thinking to myself that probably a lot of viewers would be puzzled about the fuss being made over the late Vidal or, more likely, asking each other and/or their Google search engine, “Who’s he?” Vidal’s death was also reported on CNN, and there was a tribute on its website by fellow novelist Jay Parini, who’s also the editor of Vidal’s Selected Essays, which I’ve recently been re-re-reading, as I’ll explain in a minute.
That night, when I went to bed, I took with me Vidal’s 1981 historical novel, Creation, his very under-rated tale of the classical world told from the point of view of an elderly, blind Persian ambassador to Athens, whose adventures and memories include encounters with Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates, Zoroaster, Buddha and Confucius. Vidal was not exactly shy about doing virtuoso turns. I wanted to re-read a chapter or two in memory of its late author, and as on previous occasions I found the story and crisp writing as satisfying as ever. As I nodded off, I put the book not on the bedside table but on the empty pillow next to mine, indulging in the terribly sentimental conceit that perhaps the book would be a little less lonely, given that from now on it had to make its way in the world without its deceased scribe. As far as I know, that’s the only time I’ve slept with Mr. Vidal.
On the outside chance that some readers here need their memories jogged about Gore Vidal, before I go on, let me provide a paragraph or three of potted literary history to fill in the fuzzy edges. Vidal was born in 1925 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his father Eugene worked as an aviation instructor, and later went on to be an aviation pioneer in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Gore, a senator from Oklahoma, with whom young Gore spent considerable time in Washington. When his mother remarried, it was to the wealthy stockbroker, Hugh Auchincloss, who later became the stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Through the latter connection, Vidal’s Washington ties were corresponding deepened, and his political interests were come by honestly (if that notion isn’t an oxymoron).
During World War II, Vidal served in the army, as a first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. Upon demobilization the young military veteran began writing Williwaw, a novel set on a troopship, which was published in 1946, when Vidal was 20. Two years later, in 1948, Vidal’s The City and the Pillar appeared, one of the first serious post-war novels about homosexuality, a subject Vidal would intermittently address for the rest of his writing life. The resultant career-damaging scandal caused by his gay novel led Vidal to a clever profile-lowering end-around for the next decade or so: a series of detective novels written under a pseudonym, and then a lot of very successful writing for television, stage, and the movies, including Visit to a Small Planet, the hit Broadway play The Best Man, and the screenplay for the movie version of his friend Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.
In the 1960s, a shrewder and more accomplished Vidal returned to writing novels. Julian (1964), Washington, D.C. (1967), and the best-selling Myra Breckinridge (1968) rapidly relaunched his fiction career and indicated his range. Julian signalled Vidal’s interest in the classical world, and perhaps came to fruition in the previously mentioned Creation (1981); Washington, D.C. was the beginning of a several- volume American history cycle known as “Narratives of Empire” that included Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984); and Myra Breckinridge began a line of satiric post-modernish confections, among them Duluth (1983), and Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992).
Equally important, Vidal simultaneously began writing literary and political essays on a regular basis. The essays became volumes, a dozen or so, and garnered such prizes as the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Second American Revolution (1982) and the National Book Award for United States (1993). Finally, but not to be forgotten, is Vidal’s own memoir, Palimpsest (1995), in which he recounts the tale of his teenaged, same-sex, one “true love” affair and all the rest that became history. Even with all of the above duly catalogued, there was much more; for those requiring the details of Vidal’s public life, his quarrels with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William Buckley et al., his film and cartoon appearances (on The Simpsons, where else?), as well as his political interventions and private life, Fred Kaplan’s biography, Gore Vidal (1999) will do.
The day after Vidal’s death, I was prepared to go on in a world that was slightly sadder, a tad more lonely, “and that would be that.” Instead, I stumbled into a Facebook catfight. One of my FB friends (who I’ll leave unnamed) was having a conniption fit about, of all people, Gore Vidal. It was one of those intemperate “I’m glad the bastard’s dead” kind of eruption.
Along with the unkind posthumous sentiment, there was a string of adjectives ticking off Vidal’s alleged failings. I don’t have the verbatim list at hand (it’s kind of technically difficult to dredge up old Facebook conversation threads, but I’m sure the remarks are safely stored on some Internet “cloud” or deep in the bowels of the National Security Agency’s Prism program computers). As I recall, the litany included most of the standard jibes about Vidal: elitist, patrician snob, conspiracy theorist, racist, and oddly, “judeophobe.”
My friend (who was an actual friend and not just the horrible FB version of “friend,” which includes total strangers, vague acquaintances and anyone within six degrees of separation) was apparently having a bad day (in a bad world). Although it was obvious that he fit within the category of “journalist… who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work,” still, I was struck by the term “judeophobe.” Perhaps it was because I’m also a descendent of the famous “Chosen People,” though admittedly I’m what’s known in the trade as a “bad Jew.” Surely, my however feeble anti-semitic radar should have picked up on, over the many years, Vidal’s alleged loathing of Jews, if it existed.
That’s what led me, a month or so later, to download Vidal’s Selected Essays. I wanted to check for any evidence of judeophobia and, more important, to see whether the essays were as exciting as I remembered from reading them at the time of publication in various magazines, mainly The New York Review of Books over many years. The charge of judeophobia seemed prima facie unlikely, given that Vidal had lived for some 50 years with a Jewish companion, Howard Auster. And, as I quickly re-discovered, there was absolutely nothing in the essays, including one of Vidal’s best-known essays to explicitly discuss Jews and homosexuals, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (1981), that substantiated the claim of judeophobia.
As a by the by, I should note that although Vidal’s homosexual novel, The City and the Pillar, wasn’t very good, Vidal’s subsequent writings on homosexuality, of which “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” is a paradigm example, were almost always on the mark (and almost always bitchy and funny). Not bad for a thinker whose starting position is that there is no such thing as “a homosexual,” there are only “homosexualist” acts or “same-sex” sex. Vidal thought “gays” and “straights” were fake constructed categories to divert attention from the remarkable fluidity of sexuality, as reported in Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948), which claimed that about a third of American males had had at least one same-sex encounter to the point of orgasm. All in all, Vidal probably did as much to advance the argument about homosexuality as any of the better known “gay liberationists.”
It took only a couple of minutes of Internet rummaging-around to get to the source of the judeophobia charge. My friend had been reading a batch of pro-Zionist blogs that slagged the recently-departed polemicist Vidal for his views on Israel. My Facebook friend was a fervent anti-Islamicist-terrorist (a perfectly respectable view), but he had lately acquired a rather indiscriminate corollary affection for my Jewish compatriots who were citizens of Israel, especially the more militant right-wing members of that category (a not-so-respectable fondness).
The blogs, which had names like “Harry’s Place” and “The Socialism of Fools” (I’ll spare you the hyperlinks) both quoted from a 2010 Christopher Hitchens essay, written more in sorrow than in anger as they say, about the crankiness of Late Vidal and included the observation that Vidal had “a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong… But these tics and eccentricities, which I did criticize in print, seemed more or less under control, and meanwhile he kept on saying things one wished one had said oneself.” The late Hitchens, who was no slouch as an essayist himself, was probably right about many of Late Vidal’s political failings, and no doubt it was true, as Hitchens pointed out, that Vidal got worse after age 75 (i.e., after Sept. 11, 2001).
While many criticisms of Vidal, both personal and political, are justified, the judeophobe charge doesn’t stick. In the end, it was just another complicated dispute about Israel, Zionism and some American Jewish supporters of Israel, disputes of which there is no end. So, “judeophobe” is just exaggerated code for “anti-Zionist.” Phew! Enough of that. On to something more interesting, namely, how Vidal holds up as a writer.
My initial reaction to reading (or is it re-reading?) the Selected Essays a month or so after Vidal died was unexpected. I remembered the tremor of anticipation in picking up a new issue of New York Review and seeing that Vidal had an essay, and was about to say something-bound-to-be-interesting about Calvino, Updike, Mailer, Montaigne, Tennessee Williams, or, say, Frederic Prokosch, to pick a name out of a hat. Reading them now, there was a little ripple of disappointment that the essays on second, third or umptieth reading weren’t as exciting as the first time around.
Second, I felt a tinge of melancholy about the disappearing world that Vidal limned. Who today cares about what Nathalie Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet thought about the Nouveau Roman (“French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” 1967)? Or what Vidal thought about their thoughts back in the day, or what he teasingly thought about the serious “Miss Sontag’s” thoughts about their thoughts (at least Vidal credits Susan Sontag with being the only American cultural commentator back then “to make a sustained effort to understand what the French are doing”)?
Doesn’t Vidal himself begin the essay on a grim note?: “To say that no one much likes novels is to exaggerate very little. The large public which used to find pleasure in prose fictions prefers movies, television, journalism and books of ‘fact’.” As in his essay about “Calvino’s Death,” referred to above, wasn’t Vidal always lamenting the decline or absence of culture and education in America? Yes, he was quick to point out that the novel hadn’t disappeared; what had disappeared was readers of serious novels (a point Philip Roth frequently reiterated in the 1990s). A half-century on, when the “large public” prefers Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, texting and the rest to reading at all, is there any reason to reverse Vidal’s gloomy verdict?
Maybe I was feeling gloomy myself, or sadder and lonelier to live in a world without Vidal’s presence, or sorrowful over time’s erosion of our old passions and other freshnesses. In any case, I duly read the Selected Essays, not quite as passionate about Vidal as I’d been when his critics were denouncing him for crankiness and judeophobia. Good essayist, certainly, but maybe not as indispensable as I once thought. And would “that be that”?
Last month, as the first anniversary of Vidal’s passing approached, the New York Review, celebrating its 50th anniversary in print, reprinted a brief excerpt from one of Vidal’s essays that had first appeared in its pages, “The Top Ten Best Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973″ (New York Review of Books, May 17 and May 31, 1973). I had completely forgotten that Vidal’s hilarious excoriation of the ten best sellers of one week’s listing many yesteryears ago didn’t begin with a discussion of the books at hand, but opened with a slightly garrulous reminiscence of Vidal’s days as a Hollywood screenwriter back in the mid-20th century:
“Shit has its own integrity.” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would lack the one homely basic ingredient that spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal “because I’m a priestess of Baal,” and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he made such tasteful “products” as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Marie Antoinette.
In my day at the Writers’ Table (mid-fifties) television had shaken the industry and the shit-dispensers could now, well, flush their products into every home without having to worry about booking a theater. In desperation, the front office started hiring alien integers whose lack of reverence for the industry distressed the Wise Hack who daily lectured us as we sat at our long table eating the specialty of the studio, top-billed as the Louis B. Mayer Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls (yes, invariably, the dumb starlet would ask, What do they do with the rest of the matzoh?). Christopher Isherwood and I sat on one side of the table; John O’Hara on the other. Aldous Huxley worked at home. Dorothy Parker drank at home.
On and on it goes, until Vidal is good and ready to explain what this preface about the movies has to do with the top ten best sellers. Not to keep us in suspense: “…since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels apear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film-maker) recall past success and respond accordingly…”, and now, without further ado, we’re on to Number Ten on the best seller list, Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes, a novel about the Biblical Mary and Joseph.
This is what it sounds like when the sashimi-master is flipping his knives: “Since Miss Holmes is not an experienced writer, it is difficult to know what, if anything, she had in mind when she decided to tell the Age-Old Story with nothing new to add.” Well, there’s some fun, Vidal allows, in reading an account of “a Jewish mother as observed by a gentile housewife in McLean, Virginia, who has seen some recent movies on the subject and heard all the jokes on television.” You can imagine (and chuckle over) the rest of the savaging.
Which is to say, I suddenly remembered what the Vidal magic was all about. Since the NYR had only published an anniversary snippet, when I climbed into bed that evening, I took my Kindle along and went straight to the rest of Vidal’s “Top Ten Best Sellers” essay. And soon I was re-re-reading Gore Vidal.
There’s a temptation here to go on and on and on, which is the way the elderly Vidal once described himself to Christopher Hitchens. But as we know from the obituaries, that’s just not possible. So I’ll refrain from quoting each and every juicy passage, echoing all the quotable quotes, citing the famous quips (well, I may allow myself a quip). I’ll leave aside the crankiness of Late Vidal, and I won’t attempt to justify the tendentious political ramblings, other than to note they often start from a grain of truth, and that the critique of empire that motivates them has a genuine historical basis. I’ll try to remember that this is just a little requiem, not a night at the opera. The main thing at a requiem or a literary re-appraisal is to stick with remembering.
For instance, I also remembered that I, after all, was indeed interested in what Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet thought of “the novel,” and of what “Miss Sontag” thought, and especially of what Gore Vidal skeptically, mockingly, but seriously thought about the whole thing, and I didn’t really care if no one else cared. And ditto for his thoughts about Calvino; his portrait of the Glorious Bird, Tennessee Williams; his musings on Updike; and his perfectly sensible suggestion in “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” that gays, Jews, blacks and any other would-be outcasts make common cause, as well as his parallel detestation of particular homophobic neo-conservative Jews; and I was perfectly willing to peruse whatever else his editor, Jay Parini, had selected for the re-read. The particular homophobic neo-conservatives Vidal names and rails against, by the way, are Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Dector, prominent American Jewish supporters of Israel (which is probably how the whole “judeophobe” slur got started in the first place).
Most of all, I remembered that I cared about the state of the culture, and the relationship between that culture and the possibility of democracy, which is ultimately Vidal’s subject. Or as Vidal once quipped (I paraphrase): “Fifty per cent of Americans don’t read newspapers; fifty per cent don’t vote. Let’s hope they’re the same fifty per cent.” And finally, I remembered to put the Kindle with Vidal’s Selected Essays in it on the bedside table, rather than on the pillow next to mine.