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Gore Vidal, 1925-2012

VIdal's death marks the end of an era

Gore Vidal: even the name was wonderful. For a satirist, it seems almost too apt, though a satirist was only one of the roles Vidal assumed in a long, vastly prolific, and extraordinarily varied literary career. His full name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, “Gore” signalling his connection to a noted American political family of which president-who-never-was Al Gore is sometimes been said to be a part, but apparently is not. Vidal’s position as an American aristocrat was an essential part of his persona, the outrage he frequently provoked being all the more piquant because here, it seemed, was an insider breaking ranks. His was a unique and irreplaceable voice. It may seem a strange thing to say of so waspish, imperious, and seemingly aloof a figure, but Vidal is one of those writers one comes not just to like, or to admire, but to love.

In the late 1990s I saw Vidal deliver a lecture at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The auditorium was packed. Vidal was by this time in his seventies, a bulky, somewhat lumbering old man who bore little resemblance to the elegant, beautiful, movie star-like figure of earlier years. His subject that night was, of course, politics; Vidal never gave readings from his novels or talked about writing. I have never, before or since, heard so brilliant a speaker. It was said that Samuel Johnson could “speak a Rambler” – that is, deliver himself spontaneously, in speech, of an essay every bit as polished as those he published in the periodical The Rambler. Vidal had a like ability. He not only spoke in grammatically perfect sentences, even when making apparently off-the-cuff remarks, but sentences every bit as erudite and witty as those he consecrated to print. As he expatiated, as ever, on the American empire and its follies, he managed, as ever, to be both funny and frightening. This was before 9/11, Bush, Afghanistan, or Iraq; Vidal, I dare say, was far less caustic than he later became. During question time, he was challenged at one point by a member of the audience (with an American accent) who favoured “liberal intervention,” by America of course, in third-world countries. Vidal’s replies were withering, while scrupulously polite. He believed, to the end, that the USA should stay at home and tend to its own people, not, like the British Empire before it, pose as the world’s saviour. “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” Vidal once joked, and very frequently one found oneself agreeing.

Vidal made enemies. Inevitably, his status as both writer and public intellectual was, and will remain, hotly disputed. Within twenty-four hours of his death, hatchet jobs had appeared in the press. Sometimes he was damned with faint praise: Vidal was a good essayist, an amusing dispenser of bitchy bons mots, but a novelist of little talent who would soon be forgotten. Of course Vidal could be criticised on many grounds. Reading his memoir Palimpsest (1995), one might think that here was the ultimate champagne socialist, a wealthy man proclaiming anti-establishment views while living in a luxurious Italian villa and chronicling with evident fervour his encounters with the powerful and famous. Vidal was undoubtedly (though who would have him otherwise?) both an egotist and a show-off, but what wonderful use he made of his experiences! He once claimed to “know” nobody, but to have met everyone. And he had. If one person, in one life, was going to feud with Capote and Mailer and William F. Buckley, be ejected (allegedly) from the White House by Bobby Kennedy, go to bed with Jack Kerouac, show Mick Jagger the Italian Riviera, and listen to Princess Margaret play jazz piano while reflecting upon the showbiz career that might have been hers, how blessed we are that it was Vidal, who could write about it all so engagingly, and so tellingly. Like Proust’s, his life is justified by the literary use he made of it. That he should have lived so full a life and also been a novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and political and cultural commentator of such fecundity and variety is nothing short of astonishing. Vidal was one of those freaks of literature, like Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells: the great man, the great writer, the great controversialist who impresses his character on an age. I can think of no American writer to match him in this respect; I can think of no current writer, certainly not in the English-speaking world, who could ascend to his throne. Vidal, for all the modernity of many of his concerns, was an old-fashioned writer in the best sense of the word. He may have been the last of his kind.

There is always sadness when a great writer, artist, performer, or even politician dies at an advanced age. The death, naturally enough, was anticipated, but marks, decisively, the end of an epoch. Vidal, who outlived by so long so many of his coevals – it is startling to realise that both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote have been dead for almost thirty years – takes with him a huge chunk of literary and social history. That post-war twentieth-century world of which Vidal and his friends and enemies seemed so integral a part is slipping into history and soon shall be as lost to us as the Roaring Twenties or the Gilded Age. We are all, as Scott Fitzgerald said, borne back ceaselessly into the past. But writers, if they’re good enough, don’t really die. Through their books, they live to tell the tale. Gore Vidal’s long life is over; in another sense, his life is just beginning. I know I’ll be returning, many times in the years ahead, to that long and generous shelf of books which bear that magic name.

 

Gore Vidal was born on October 3, 1925 and died on July 31, 2012. The best brief summation of Vidal’s career I have seen is Jay Parini’s obituary in The Guardian. Vidal’s literary career was so long and varied that new readers may wonder where to start. The massive volume United States (1992) collects the principal essays. Of the fiction, The City and the Pillar (1948) is a groundbreaking early gay novel; the gender-bending Myra Breckinridge (1968) is the most famous of the satires; Kalki (1978) is apocalyptic science fiction of a brilliant stripe; Julian (1964) and Creation (1981) are novels of the ancient world; but Vidal’s largest achievement, and the one of which he was proudest, is the sequence of American history novels collectively titled “Narratives of Empire”: in order of story chronology, Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), Washington, D.C. (1967) and The Golden Age (2000).