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It is to be found in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington. And there in the grass is a stone slab, bearing the names and dates of birth of Vidal and his lifelong companion Howard Austen. The hyphens that come after the years and respectively lie like little marble asps, waiting to keep their dates. Who knows what decided the cemetery authorities to advertise their prospective clients in this way? Elsewhere among the crosses and headstones one may find Upton Sinclair, Nobel laureate and defeated Socialist candidate for the governorship of California, Alice Warfield Mien mother of Wallis Simpson and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, grande dame of Washington dynastic bitchery.
And all this seems fitting for Vidal: radical candidate in a California Senate race, collector and generator of gossip from the exile Windsors and the Georgetown ladies, and master in novel-form of the Washington of Henry Adams, John Hay and Teddy Roosevelt. Or is it so fitting? On second thoughts, is not Vidal a natural for the Protestant cemetery in Rome, hard by Keats and Shelley and Gramsci and Labriola, and sheltered, in serene pagan and Mediterranean style, by the pyramid of Sestius?
What is an exile cosmopolitan doing in this Wasp rockery in the District of Columbia? The following passage in the confessedly autobiographical Two Sisters , published a quarter of a century ago, supplies one clue.
Death, summer, youth — this triad contrives to haunt me every day of my life for it was in summer that my generation left school for war, and several dozen that one knew but strictly speaking, did not love, except perhaps for one were killed, and so never lived to know what I have known — the Beatles, black power, the Administration of Richard Nixon — all this has taken place in a trivial after-time and has nothing to do with anything that really mattered, with summer and someone hardly remembered, a youth so abruptly translated from vivid, well-loved if briefly flesh to a few scraps of bone and cartilage scattered among the volcanic rocks of Iwo Jima.
A couple of years ago, Vidal dropped another hint in an article looking back on the Pacific War. He said that he gave way to emotion on hearing, even now, the song that goes:.
And then, going back almost to the beginning, there was the matter of those initials on the dedication page of The City and the Pillar. And here the quest is over. Palimpsest fills in the blanks.
For half a century, Gore Vidal has been living selfishly and hedonistically, because all this time he has been living for two. It is via the Jimmy Trimble romance that the madeleine of these memoirs is unwrapped, and it is with that incomplete or uncompleted love that it closes. Along the way, it is the thread of Ariadne in the narrative. Vidal has written often and well about himself and others. In fact, he has written better.
The chief enchantment of this book has not to do with the celebrated dust-ups between himself and Mailer, himself and Capote, himself and Tennessee Williams, or himself and William Buckley. We come to understand how divided a self he is; not just as between love and death but as between literature and politics, America and the world, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane.
And we get the goods not just about his sex life, but about his sexual nature. To get the beastliness out of the way first, then. In his rather sere and melancholy condition, Vidal tells some old stories rather less well than he recounted them the first time.
Of a disastrous visit to Cambridge, provoked by an invitation from E. Forster that had been meant for Tennessee Williams:.
But, dutifully, he took me on a tour. Forster thought that I meant the chapel when, actually, I was referring to a youthful couple in the middle distance. A ruthless moralist, Forster publicised my use of the dread word.
Told in Fitzrovia and published in the streets of Dacca, the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced; the daughters of the uncircumcised triumphed. Of these two versions, the second and earlier is the more spirited and frightful dangler in the last sentence notwithstanding the better-written.
Thus the newer version is more instructive and nearer to the nitty, if not indeed the actual gritty. Or he could have pressed Kerouac himself, as Vidal certainly did almost a year later:. Jack raised his head from the pillow to look at me over his left shoulder.
Come, now, this is more like it. Vidal is not a pillow-biter or a mattress-muncher. Nor does he suck. I have no plans for them. Is he queer? Or is he on to something in saying that there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts? None of these matches is rekindled in order to prove any defensive point. What might have arrested the development of some has emancipated it in our author. In a last letter home from the Pacific, Jimmie asked his mother to send him some Walt Whitman poems.
And Vidal wants very much, still, to know who it was that recommended this front-line reading to the hoplite. Is that a proof of an unsentimental carapace? At various other points in the story, also, he makes himself out to be slightly more emotion-proof than I would guess he really is. The depiction of family life is amusing, often side-holdingly so, but must have been extremely gruelling at the time.
I should note that the only advantage for a child in having an alcoholic parent is that you acquire, prematurely, quite a bit of valuable data. Apparently, there was going to be Sex whether Nina liked it or not. She did not like it. Since Hughdie wanted children, Nina was obliged, in some fashion that she, on several occasions in her admittedly never-long-empty cups, vividly described to me and I would promptly erase from memory.
I think she inserted — with a spoon? But who would not have preferred to flee the home of fetid sex, booze and old money and embrace the clean limbs of Jimmie? The memoir is partly diaristic and at intervals loops back to the writing desk at Ravello and to the present day. The love supplies a refuge from the everyday now, as indeed it must have done then.
Engaged as a reader to the blind old man, he also became an omnivorous consumer of books and lover of libraries. Here again, there is a sentimental ambivalence which is registered rather than resolved. Vidal knows that much American populist talk, with its loud affectation about the common man, is bullshit. Yet when he writes about his years in Guatemala in the Fifties setting for Dark Green, Bright Red , he admits to great shock at the discovery of what American intervention in the southern hemisphere had really been like.
Vidal, most cosmopolitan and internationalist of American novelists, is in bizarre company when he views Europe as the polluter of American native innocence. There is no reason for him not to try and have this both ways, like so much else. But that would mean noticing that he was trying to do so. In a way that is not perhaps quite dissimilar, Vidal returns again and again to his contempt for the life of the American professional politician.
He saw it up close when young. He saw it up close in the Kennedy era. He has the lugubrious example of young cousin Al always before him. Yet he knows he could have been a player, and he still likes to tell of the advice that he gave to Jerry Brown as late as the Democratic primaries. It could of course be a luxury to be in this position.
The Kennedys were all on display. Hughdie and Janet, too. He shovelled the dirt with casual contempt, more Kennedy gravedigger than keeper of the flame. Vidal ran, not on the Kennedy ticket but with the somewhat sluggish Kennedy tide, for Congress in a reactionary district of upstate New York in With some rather feline help from Eleanor Roosevelt — who never trusted JFK — he came marvellously close to winning.
Pressed to try again, or even to try for the Senate, he declined. In , the year of the donkey par excellence , his mediocre Democrat successor was lifted into the seat by the LBJ surge. Can Vidal really say with complete composure that he is delighted not to have been that man? Clues in the text, and in other texts, suggest not.
Not for nothing was he a friend of Tom Driberg, whose own non-political needs also made him the perfect division-of-labour cruising companion. Vidal has spoken elsewhere of never missing a sexual trick, and of not having to decline in years while brooding over the lost chance of this one and that one.
I suspect that he still wishes he had given the rough trade of Congress a fair shake. But in general, what a blessed life. Right places at right times. Sound bets made on the writing possibilities offered by Broadway and Hollywood, in both of which he shone while shining was still possible in those dark mills.
Then, having succumbed to boredom but having proved that he could make his own way, off to Rome to write Julian. How nice that such a deft piece of editing should have made such a difference, and how nice also that it is restored to the original when the lapidary question comes up.
There is also a pregnant observation borrowed by Vidal from his post-war visits to the monkish cell of George Santayana. So here is a new take, which by no means invalidates the earlier ones especially when you reflect on what family did to, and for, Vidal. Podhoretz, I always thought, made his fatal mistake when he accused Vidal not of being anti-semitic but of being anti-American.
The blood of the clan was thereby aroused. Could be. The finest and most revealing passages in Palimpsest , those which best synthesise the public and the personal, are the ones which treat of the Kennedy court.
For this and other services to power and family and deceit, the triptych under review, he is properly contrite. His description of a vacation spent in the Kennedy compound at Hyannis, at the time of the bogus crisis over Berlin, is a real document of tawdriness and vulgarity and opportunism.
Portentous and shallow power-worship pervades the scene, and it becomes appallingly clear that JFK himself can only be interested or excited by risky and violent and gamey solutions to the boredom and impotence which he is already feeling. Written from notes made at the time, this is a seriously revealing chapter. I have often wondered what would have become of Jackie had Nina stayed with Hughdie.
Jackie would certainly have married money.
If the rumours about Gore Vidal are true, what does this mean for his work?
No one inside his famous circle is too sacred for words, except the writer himself. He has claimed to be "the least autobiographical of writers," a claim less true that he would have us believe. He has always lived life on his own terms, even in childhood, and always without a dash of regret, an emotion for which he had repeatedly said he has no time. And lately, he has taken to declaring that university English departments cannot possibly teach the development of the post-World War II American novel without teaching his work. If Vidal were not such a provocative essayist or such an entertaining storyteller, his ego would certainly have overshadowed his career long ago. But the Vidalian canon has something for everyone: vivid historical novels, like "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln"; outrageously sexual ones, like ''Myra Breckinridge" or "Duluth"; even tales of the future, like ''Kalki" and "Messiah.
This is a memoir of the first 40 years of Gore Vidal's life, ranging back and forth across a rich history. He spent his childhood in Washington DC, in the household of his grandfather, the blind senator from Oklahoma, T. Gore, and in the various domestic situations of his complicated and exasperating mother, Nina. Then come schooldays at St Albans and Exeter; the army; life as a literary wunderkind in New York, London, Rome and Paris in the '40s and '50s; sex in an age of promiscuity; and a campaign for Congress in Myra Breckinridge And Myron. The Last Empire: Essays