The disputatious man of letters expounds on Kennedy, Kerouac, the gay movement, his new memoir and, most grandly, himself.
Gore Vidal’s villa in Ravello, though not particularly big or grand, is as enchanting as he makes it sound: white stucco anchored miraculously into the sheer face of the cliff, 12 acres of vertical stone and terraced gardens, a pool that commands the same panorama as the house, an extra balcony for cocktails just along the rock face. Vidal’s forthcoming memoir, “Palimpsest,” which I have finished over breakfast, overflows with this place and its vistas: being here now is like being received at Elsinore the morning you finish “Hamlet.”
“You must be Solomon,” says a man, mild and tanned and middle-aged, as he helps me through the three gates between the private road and the house. He is Vidal’s companion of the last 45 years, Howard Austen (ne Auster), and has a marginal presence at best in “Palimpsest.” “A memoir is about what was — if he were dead, I might examine our relationship, but I’m not about to be a recorder of domestic detail and cooks that we have had,” Vidal will explain later. The secret to the sustained connection, he will add, is that they never have sex with each other. The study is the first room on the left. “Gore, this is Solomon.” Austen withdraws.
For almost seven years, Gore Vidal has refused to talk to newspapers and magazines. (He told Hillary Clinton that he would never again do a print interview in English.) “This is the last time,” he announces with grim satisfaction. I shake the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Wilde. We admire the variations on the view from several rooms, then settle for the day on the suede sofa in the study, Vidal reclining at one end like Xerxes, heaped on pillows, his head silhouetted against the window so that the sparkling sea seems a nimbus around his noble head. The light is kind to his 70th year, and you cannot miss the handsome shape of his face; his bare ankle on the pietra dura table top is curiously evocative of the same ankle, 45 years younger and as many years more slender, on the cover of this year’s hardback reissue of “The City and the Pillar.” His epigrammatic discourse — bred in equal measure of imagination, affectation and brilliance — is delivered in a voice as rich and smooth and alcoholic as zabaglione. Though he does not indulge the ego of the interlocutor, his manner of well-bred control is most engaging, and you can see at once why so many thousands of people slept with him (cf. “Palimpsest”), and why so many others wanted to (op. cit.). For someone whose projection of self and eros are so intertwined, growing old is unfortunate, but the effect is more anomalous than homely.
If the rest of the Democratic Party had Vidal’s subtle grasp of power, we might live in the welcome compass of liberal rule, for he, by his own admission, understands domination more profoundly than most modern politicians do, and perhaps better than any other American novelist does. We begin, gently, with the past. “Harry Truman, with bipartisan support, militarized the economy so that we might be forever at war,” he says, his tone grandiloquent with a thin edge of paranoiac insight. “It was just decided that we were going to stay in the war racket — that’s how we went broke. Now we have an enemy-of-the-month club. If it’s not Noriega, it’s Bishop in Grenada; Qaddafi, whose eyeliner is very ominous; Saddam, just like Hitler. When they get into their bunkers they always find a copy of ‘Mein Kampf,’ a portrait of Hitler, women’s underdrawers — which they wear — a couple of dead Boy Scouts and three mistresses, because they do both terrible things.”
Vidal’s grandfather T.P. Gore was a Democratic Senator from Oklahoma who flirted with the Presidency. In 1960, Vidal himself ran for Congress in New York’s 29th District (mid-Hudson), losing the race but winning more votes than any upstate Democrat in 50 years. He declined to be nominated for the United States Senate in 1962 and finished second in the California senatorial primary in 1982. “I’m shocked by the literary figures of our day who go from university to university and have no lives in the world,” Vidal remarks. “What was Goethe’s line? ‘Talent is formed in quiet, character in the stream of the world.’ I have been water-skiing on the stream of the world.” Jackie Kennedy was Vidal’s mother’s second husband’s third wife’s daughter, and so Vidal was an early member of the Camelot circle. “Palimpsest” includes a series of haloed recollections about J.F.K. that unfold Talmudically from 13 pages of notes that Vidal took in 1961. “Jack believed in the cold war,” he says now. “He really was a war-lover, a very, very right-wing boy from a very Catholic family; we can thank Cardinal Spellman for a good bit of the Vietnam War. Jack wanted to be a great President, and he’d figured out that the great Presidents were war Presidents.”
Vidal makes you feel that the world turns as it does because of some ultra-powerful people whom he has spurned and who have excluded you. (It’s an Emersonian, anti-Tolstoyan view: his “Lincoln” can be read as a rebuttal of “War and Peace.”) Do not say “conspiracy”: Vidal doesn’t like it. “They don’t have to conspire because they all think alike — I mean, who runs The Times and Harvard and the State Department and Hollywood? The country has always been an oligarchy of money.” He describes a debate with John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: “There is no ruling class, they said, and used as an example somebody — Levine, I think he was called — who was president of Du Pont, and no du Pont was. And I said: ‘Yes, I’ve been to Nelson Rockefeller’s house. He did not cook the lunch, you’ll be surprised to know, but it was still his house, I’m positive, even though somebody else put the food on the table.’ ” Meaningful pause. “Politics was for the ones who weren’t very good at business, and the family was terrified to make them president of the company. Nelson Rockefeller took it a little too far, and the family got quite upset, because the Governor of New York and the President of the United States, these are people that you hire, that you pay for, and then they do what you want them to do.”
Vidal’s influence disseminates through his novels. “Every Presidential candidate, even Reagan, claimed to have read ‘Lincoln,’ ” Vidal says. “He probably colored it — we had a version for them to color. Even Newt Gingrich said ‘Lincoln’ is a wonderful book. I’d like to say that professional politicians are struck by Lincoln’s lack of vindictiveness, which is almost unique in American politics, but what they like about it — it’s a complete blueprint for how to become dictator of the United States and cover it with rhetoric.”
It is possible to take exception to the structuring devices of Vidal’s historical novels. The classical ones (“Julian,” “Creation”) include tedious writing, but the American series — “Burr,” “Lincoln,” “1876,” “Empire,” “Hollywood” and “Washington, D.C.” — are strong works of fiction. They return America’s history to its people, humanizing events that frighten us in their abstraction, and present logical motivations for dark circumstances we thought impossible fully to grasp. Vidal’s trademark flights of fancy — “Myra Breckinridge,” “Myron,” “Duluth” and “Live From Golgotha” — are called by Italo Calvino “the hypernovel, or the novel elevated to the square or to the cube.” They are evil satires that out-poststructuralize the deconstructionists; when they are not maudlin, confusing and overwritten, they are gloriously uninhibited and very funny. Vidal is also the author of screenplays and plays, and a collection of his excellent essays won the National Book Award in 1993. He is perhaps the best-selling serious writer in our language. “At something like 13 or 14, I wanted to be a politician, but knew that I was a writer, and was writing. The surprise was, just going back over it, how consistently I was myself, from a very early age.”
It’s an alarming consistency, demon of an aphoristic mind. “I seem to have met everyone, but I know no one,” Vidal once remarked proudly. In “Palimpsest”: “Sexually, [Sir Henry Channon] preferred men to women and royalty to either”; “Osbert [Sitwell] was rosy-cheeked, with small sharp eyes alongside an important nose” and, ludicrously, “Fully clothed, I got into bed with [Cecilia Sternberg] and we passed bottle back and forth, and spoke blithely of the dead.”
He is a brilliant mimic: during the afternoon we spend together, he evokes Eleanor Roosevelt (“‘No dear, I’m not angry, only a little sad.’ That can drive a whole family around the bend, as hers was driven”), Lyndon Johnson (“That voice makes men in Washington tremble”), Anais Nin (“‘My nerves are shattered, but I am indomitable!’ I never thought women were very good at erotic writing”) and Truman Capote, whom Vidal famously, and successfully, sued for libel. “Truman could not tell the truth about anything. He was a psychopath, and the lies would get crazier and crazier, and I’d watch his face as he told them, and there was a kind of rictus going on, as though he was out of control, orgasmic — ‘And then, you know, Greta Garbo got down on the waiter, and I just said, “Greta, you can’t do this here, and. . . .” ‘ You’d have to take him away foaming. Truman thought his world was high society, never figured out that the jet set was not high society. I was not about to let him know.” The witticisms fly around stinging, like an invasion of beautiful wasps. Vidal has an air of geniality throughout. (“An air of geniality isn’t difficult, is it, if you’re nicely brought up and have gone to dancing school?”) It’s basically Charisma Central in Ravello, except that Vidal does tend to relate these tales of the grand and glamorous life with that tone of exaggerated, meticulous clarity with which I.B.M. support services will explain to you a computer you thought you knew how to use.
A former President of Colombia, Alfonso Lopez, was a classmate at St. Albans; Vidal recollects that he was the first to develop pubic hair — “Latin blood,” he says. Jack Kerouac was circumcised, “to my surprise.” Tennessee Williams cruised Jack Kennedy, which amused the President-to-be. Jackie douched with one foot in the bathtub and the other on the floor. Vidal’s maternal grandfather once raped a blind girl; Vidal’s father had three testicles. In Vidal’s hands, such information is power. Regarding a battle with an editor of the Exeter literary magazine some 50 years ago: “It was a lovely victory.” Meeting Norman Mailer: “Mailer tells me that I was curious about his age. . . . He says that I then calculated that I would ‘win,’ as I was bound, actuarially, to outlive him.” On the attacks that came from the mainstream when he wrote a novel about homosexuals: “I decided that I was going to win.” Of J.F.K.: “I am lucky. He was not.” Elsewhere: “I had risen far higher in the world than [my mother] Nina or our other connections, excepting always Jackie . . . and I was not about to let Nina forget my victory over her.” Martin Amis wrote memorably about Vidal: “He has removed pain from his own life, or narrowed it down to manageable areas; and it is one thing he cannot convincingly recreate in his own fiction. But his deeply competitive nature is still reassured to know that there is plenty of pain about.”
Vidal’s novel “The City and the Pillar,” with its portrayal of eminently male and athletic and “normal” homosexuality, is a landmark for the American gay movement, and Vidal is still one of America’s gay role models. “It was believed in right-wing circles that I invented same sexuality in 1948 with ‘The City and the Pillar,’ that nothing like that had ever happened in the United States until my book. I feel like Prometheus having brought fire from heaven.” But he staunchly resists the idea of gay identity. “I don’t want people in ghettos. I’m a universalist. I think people should intermingle. Once you get the idea that there’s such a thing as a gay sensibility, then you’ve got to say that there’s such a thing as a straight sensibility. It’s just hopeless. But if other people are going to proscribe people belonging to a nonexistent category, one must fight back with every weapon.” And on the modern gay movement: “The resentments! ‘I share your resentments’ should be a greeting. As you enter a queer bar: ‘I share your resentments, good evening, I share them. May all your resentments be mine.’ My God! ‘We had a wonderful day at the beach resenting consenting adults of the other sex.’ ” Nor does he much like the idea of gay fiction: “What on earth is that? Does that mean the book only hangs out with other books?”
Sex is as dissociated from love in Vidal’s narrative of his life as in his narrative of romping, rape-happy, fabulous Myra. “If you’re not in the business of baby making,” he says, “the anonymous or paid encounter is far more satisfactory. It takes so much time the other way. The anonymous encounter is the pure thing. If it’s somebody that you know, there’s nothing exciting about it at all to me; if I know somebody in one capacity, I certainly have no interest in the other.” He writes in “Palimpsest”: “In my anonymous encounters, at least, I was what used to be called ‘trade.’ I did nothing — deliberately at least — to please the other. When I became too old for these attentions from the young, I paid, gladly, thus relieving myself of having to please anyone in any way.” The sex with people he knew is rare and striking: he and Kerouac “both thought, even then (this was before ‘On the Road’), that we owed it to literary history to couple.” Vidal makes the point, emphatically, that he was the top.
But there is a figure throughout Vidal’s work of “the one and only,” most clearly presented as Bob in “The City and the Pillar” — an athletic straight man who in the innocence of youth gives a perfect erotic and emotional satisfaction to another young man. In “Palimpsest,” the model for this figure is revealed as Jimmie Trimble, a baseball hero from Vidal’s class at St. Albans. “He was the unfinished business of my life,” Vidal once told a journalist. Here he writes: “I had once been (in this very room — and ever since?) in love.” And, “We were in Arcadia.” And, “We were whole.” Trimble was killed at 19 in World War II, and Vidal’s memoir drifts back and forth to him, an elegy to an athlete dying young that is in curious contrast to the rather hard tone of the other memories here.
In the Ravello sunshine, he declares that Trimble was his “twin” (the notion of the twin fascinates, nearly obsesses him) and that such things do not happen twice in the world — but it seems to me that for most people, they either happen not at all or over and over again. In “Palimpsest”: “I was obliged to face the fact that I was never going to make the journey from homoerotic to homosexual and so I was never going to be able to have anything other than one-sided passing sex. . . . This belated revelation was to prove a great timesaver over the years.”
Vidal has kept himself out of psychotherapy of any kind, which seems to reflect an astonishing self-discipline; if ever anyone has had the painful credentials for the psychoanalysis racket that has spoiled many of our most interesting writers, it is he. He connects his resistance to sexual and emotional ties to the horrendous example of his mother, who sounds, in his description, like the worst mother anyone has ever had. “She confessed that rage made her orgasmic. I forgot to ask her if sex ever did.” And: “I got one good thing from Nina. I would never marry. Ever. If they’d said, ‘You’ll get the White House if you have a wife and five children,’ all I had to do was think of my mother and, nope, nope, no way.”
A striking passage from “Lincoln”:
“Oh kindness . . . !” Stevens turned to Hay. “Are you kind, sir?”
“No, sir,” said Hay. “I don’t think I am.”
“But surely,” said Chase, the only believing Christian of the three, “you try to be.”
“Well, no, sir, I don’t think I do. At least not very hard.”
“You see, Mr. Chase? There is a candid young man. He is like me. What kindness we possess is of a general nature. You will be a statesman one day, Mr. Hay. No doubt of that.”
Vidal twice in the course of a day tells how Francois Mitterand, asked what quality is most necessary in a great leader, said, “Well, I’d like to say sincerity, but I’m afraid I must say indifference.” Vidal achieves much personal and literary power through the rigorous exercise of a steely disengagement. He once wrote of Mary McCarthy that she was “uncorrupted by compassion.” In explicating Mitterand: “You bring yourself to the point of indifference so that you can examine a situation with as little emotion and as much logic and intelligence as you can bring to it, which you cannot bring to it if your heart is breaking.” Later, he says: “Kind? Is that an adjective one uses for writing? Isn’t writing more observation? You write what you see, what you hear, what you think you see, what you think you hear, what you invent. Satirists are not kindly people, and I’m a satirist. Kindness might be disabling for the novelist.”
But he also says, “I can’t imagine how you could write anything without empathy.” No one would accuse Gore Vidal of being nice, and if he has inherited his mother’s particular relationship to rage, he must live in a state of perpetual climax. But he is not (as his reputation would have it) cold; he has sometimes aspired to but has never fully achieved the statesman’s indifference. He is a circumspect romantic; it is the need to transcend feeling that weighs on his heroes, from Cyrus Spitama to Lincoln to even the gorgeous Myra. The pathos and elegance of his work lie in the conflict between the bearing of a visionary if unelectable politician and the sensibility of a fine writer — between an accomplished distance and palpably emotional self-recognition. Vidal has been water-skiing on the stream of the world for 70 years, often in choppy water; he has occasionally got wet. These days, he both resists and acknowledges his experience of loss, concentrated in the manageable metaphor of Jimmie Trimble, because he reckons his startling gift for pain mostly as a liability.
All this matters little. Vidal is on stage for the moment not for his accomplishments, but for who and how he was. His memoir sensibly tails off with the Kennedy stories, as if to freeze the image of him forever in a period we have lately gilded. Like his chum Paul Bowles, whose concerts in New York last month were jampacked, Vidal has let his artistic successes be overshadowed by his life style. If he is to remain famous, it will largely be for his writing, but at this moment, his writing is nearly irrelevant to his aura of glamour. Lacking a live Scott Fitzgerald, one clings to his voice, cynical about an era previous to the one about which we are cynical, an era whose ickiness is far enough away to seem stylish to most of us. Vidal of the memoir is, depressingly enough, as charming as a poodle skirt with a tennis sweater, as chic as old Balenciaga.