Under my byline

Vidal, withal

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 24 October 2009

Gore Vidal, Snapshots in History's Glare (c)OVERLEAF 52

A year or two ago Gore Vidal was expected at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and was scheduled to make one appearance in Delhi. I was all ready to arrive early and stick my hand out to have it shaken by the master. There must have been many others with similar aspirations. But in the event Gore cancelled his trip to India.

It’s forgiveable: he’s old now (he turned 84 this month). I suspect, however, that I’ve missed my chance to see the great man in the flesh.

Old does not mean mellow — far from it. Vidal still reaches out from his wheelchair, through profiles written on him by various Western journalists, to refresh the stale and circular discourse on current affairs and the multiple crises afflicting our leading superpower with statements of surprising force and even, sometimes, viciousness.

Lately there has been a small flood of such articles and interviews, because Vidal has a new book out. It is not a novel or collection of essays, the two forms at which he excels, but a picture book, a “visual memoir” of his life, containing photographs, letters, clippings and so on. It is titled Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (Abrams Books) — a remarkably un-euphonious title from a writer who liked single-word titles.

Not only does Vidal himself figure in this picture book — and he was an uncommonly goodlooking young man — so do the many famous men and women of mid-century America whom Vidal knew personally. The Kennedys, John and Jackie, Eleanor Roosevelt, the playwright Tennessee Williams, the writer Jack Kerouac, movie stars like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ballet dancers, aristocrats, royals, musicians, politicians and so on — the list is long.

That radiant generation (or two) is more or less extinct, but Vidal remains, with his many memories. He put many of those memories into his memoir, Palimpsest (Andre Deutsch, 1995), which turned out to be more about the people he lived, worked, partied and had sex with than about Vidal himself. Yet something of his peculiar combination of blazing wit and vulnerability could be sensed.

Gore Vidal, Palimpsest“Gore Vidal is not only grieving for his own dead circle and his fading life, but for his country,” wrote Johann Hari, portentously, in a recent profile for the UK Independent. Further on in the same piece Hari quoted from the diaries of Kenneth Tynan, a theatre critic and friend of Vidal’s: “What superb and seamless armour he wears, as befits one for whom life is a permanent battle for (social and intellectual) supremacy… Gore could never surrender (ie, expose) himself to anyone.”

Those are two sides of the many-sided Vidal. Tynan knew Vidal in his glory days. Those who write about Vidal now tend to fixate on the first side: that of the writer, man-of-the-world and part-time politician (Vidal’s grandfather was an Oklahoma senator and he himself contested one election) as participant in and observer of the great affairs and chief personalities of his time — that is, when they’re not referring to his being (mostly) homosexual.

Vidal himself helps the journalists along, recently by giving them robust copy about how Barack Obama has turned out a failure (that made the headlines) and how America as an empire is doomed. It’s not so much pessimism as glee — Vidal was never a proponent of war and has always been mistrustful of the methods by which his nation is run. Even though he’s old and cranky, there’s such an aura around Vidal that his words still shake people.

But nobody seems able to represent Vidal quite as the reader sees him, as, indeed, a palimpsest of complexity, humour, depth and shallowness. I, for one, read his novels as if they were non-fiction, because that’s the kind of writer, and man, Vidal is — too good to be false.


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