The Immortal Vidal

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Why Gore Vidal will remain at the centre of 20th century American literature and political thought

Among my various claims to fame , here are the three most important. One, in the early 1970s, I have ridden twice or thrice in the same elevator as Ratan Tata, never mind that he was not head of the Tata empire at that time. Number two, Salman Rushdie said ‘Hello’ to me in a totally unplanned appearance at the Cambridge Seminar. The third of the lot is the story that I knew Gore Vidal personally and was on first-name basis with him. Ah, these apocryphal stories; if only there was some truth to them. (And what about my lesser claims to immortality, you ask. I am sorry to have raised your hopes, but I’m afraid the list ends at number three.)

But to get back to Gore Vidal. If you were to read all the obits, I doubt whether there’s a single one that doesn’t mention that he was acerbic, cantankerous, argumentative and cold-hearted. While I don’t doubt that he was a difficult man, I was lucky. He was kind and generous to me. Cuckold was about to be published when my then agent asked if I knew any major author abroad who would write a blurb for my new book. I had to shamefacedly confess that I didn’t know anyone, but the one person whose critical oeuvre I respected most amongst contemporary writers was Gore Vidal. My agent was a large woman with a heart and sense of what’s-to-lose that were just as big. Write a letter to Mr Vidal, she emailed me, and I will have it sent to his publishers. I was absolutely certain (and simultaneously hoped that Gore Vidal would prove me dead wrong) that this was an absurd idea, but I did write to him and got a handwritten reply asking me to send the book to him. When he had finished reading it, he sent me a blurb and told me that he would write to his editor about Cuckold. But he warned me not to raise my hopes for the one skill that most publishers lacked was a sense of literature and would publish only that which their tiny minds could grasp as a marketable quantity. He was right. No publisher in the US or UK bought Cuckold.

I don’t recall when I began to read Vidal. I could be wrong but I suspect, as so often happens, it was nothing but an accident; a happy one in this case. It is difficult to grasp how many different things Vidal could manage with such ease. But before I come to the one reason why he will be at the very centre of any canon of 20th century American literature and political thought, let me first very briefly get rid of all the scandalous page three stuff.

Vidal was as much a generator of gossip and intense controversy as he was the subject of it. He had a lethal turn of phrase and he used it against all the people he liked to provoke. In a debate with William Buckley, he called his antagonist a ‘crypto Nazi’, and Buckley returned the favour by calling him a ‘queer’. He and the Hemingway-obsessed macho Norman Mailer always tended to see the other as the competition, and their scraps were legendary. After one such run-in, Vidal was head-butted by the shorter but pugilistic Mailer.

Vidal was good-looking in a quintessentially 1950s Hollywood tradition and was a major presence there for a few decades. His homosexual bias was never in doubt and like many other young men of his ilk, he was in extreme sexual overdrive. But even in this area, he was unpredictable for he seemed to have gone to bed with women as well. His relationship with other famous homosexual authors was almost always uneasy, if not downright bitchy. His recollection of Tennesse Williams’ meeting with John F Kennedy is a classic example. President Kennedy was leading the way in the White House when Williams commented on the President’s delectable arse. According to Vidal, he related the remark to the President, and when the author of Suddenly Last Summer asked what Kennedy had to say, Vidal reported that the President was excited.

But it’s uncanny how often Vidal’s barbs hit the nail on the head. When Truman Capote died, Vidal wrote that ‘Death was his best career move’. In perhaps one of the strangest and ironic turns in literary history, Capote was unable to write a novel after his path-breaking and superlatively successful In Cold Blood.

In his autobiography Palimpsest, Vidal confessed that the only person whom he loved, Jimmy Trimble III, had died in WWII and since then his heart had remained frozen. Vidal lived in Italy and the US and had a life-long partner with whom, he claimed, he had never had a sexual relationship.

All these and many other trivial footnotes and shenanigans that tell-all biographies will now endlessly recycle are best buried with the physical remains of Vidal, and we can now turn to the prolific, exacting and extraordinarily erudite novelist that Gore Vidal was. As an essayist, he was in a class by himself. There’s no one who could touch him when he was in perfect form and he almost always was. Besides, it’s truly mindboggling how often his insights and observations were dead on. The depth and range of his interests and knowledge did not turn him into a recondite writer. On the contrary, he was an impeccable stylist who wrote transparent prose often laced with biting, red hot chilli sauce.

Vidal fought in WWII and was a precocious 19 when he published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946. Along with his compatriot and later rival Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, these were the two most influential literary war novels of the times. The next novel died a quick death, and the third one called The City and the Pillar, which dealt with homosexuality, got him into serious trouble. It appears after that book, even The New York Times kept him out of its pages for many years. By today’s standards, The City and the Pillar must appear rather tame and bland but that is the kind of misplaced anachronistic reading which makes many a critic and reader feel superior.

It looked like the end of the road for Vidal, but his writing took a different turn and he wrote his first historical novel, which, in a fundamental sense, would represent the author’s highly distinctive and uncompromising take on life, philosophy and politics. The novel was called Julian and dealt with the remarkable life of the apostate Roman emperor who wished to revert to the older pagan gods instead of being in thrall to the Christian faith.

In all, Vidal would write 25 novels, many of them chronicling the decline of social values in American society. His favourite weapons in this genre were corrosive humour and merciless satire. The satirical take-off on trans-sexuals in the novel Myra Breckenridge was turned into a film, with Mae West making a comeback in a not-insignificant role. But it is the three historical novels, Burr, Lincoln and Empire, about America’s early years that will leave their imprint for generations to come. They are formidable in their epic sweep, interpretation and their ability to make us rethink the founding myths of that continent and the great men who participated in its momentous rise to power. Vidal proposes that the issue of the abolition of slavery was an afterthought for Lincoln. If the civil war had been won earlier, slavery may have dragged on for God knows how much longer. As always, Vidal carries his learning and historical insights lightly without ever simplifying them. It’s not merely that he’s a compelling storyteller, he has that rare ability to have us see the philosophical underpinnings of history: how ideology and isms get reflected, deflected, distorted and corrupted in the evolution of democratic processes.

The words ‘a renaissance man’ are constantly misused and trivialised in our times. But they describe the full spectrum of Vidal’s multi-faceted personality. In the lean years after The City and the Pillar, Vidal became a highly successful screenplay writer and script-doctor. He wrote hugely popular plays, two of which (The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet) were big hits on Broadway and on the silver screen. He worked with Christopher Fry on revising the script of Ben Hur, but neither was given credit for his contribution. He got his name removed as one of the script-writers of the film Caligula since he believed that the script had been butchered by the director as well as the main actor, Malcolm McDowell.

That brings us to Vidal’s incomparable contribution to the essay form. There seems to be hardly any subject that he does not deal with. Literature, of course, is one of his main topics. His analyses of the semiotic and deconstructionist discourses is a superb lesson in how to write with great clarity about highly complex disciplines and yet make it clear that the author does not take kindly to all the convoluted thinking and obfuscating jargon that often conceals vast tracts of bogus intellectualism and posturing.

Another distinct area of Vidal’s interests is the hypocrisy and opaqueness that prevailed, and perhaps still does, in the public libraries of many states in America. They had banned children’s books like the Tarzan or Oz series, and Vidal took on the challenge of exposing their petty minds and the way they can affect future generations of readers. One other related area for which we all owe a huge debt to Vidal is reviving interest in authors who have gone out of fashion and been forgotten when they have much to tell us about what makes us tick. For instance, W Somerset Maugham has indeed fallen upon hard times. It’s infra-dig to read him today but Vidal took the trouble to re-examine the man’s entire body of work. He can be scathing but he also rediscovers much that is valuable in Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence. This was something he did time and again with different authors who had fallen by the wayside of time.

And yet his most memorable contribution will remain, I suspect, his steady, unflinching vision of American politics and policies under both the Republicans and Democrats. Not once in all his years of writing, no, not once, did he lose sight of the nation’s rapacious and grand imperial ambitions. The current US had been a colony of a tiny nation called England but since the time it won its independence, for all its lofty talk of democratic ideals, all it wanted was to make the whole world its colony. Yes, there was frequent talk of isolationism, but the imperial project always crept back centrestage. Phrase it any way you want, super-power games, overarching mendacity, lighting the torch of freedom, protecting its interests, double-and-triple speak, capitalism, free-market policies—everything boiled down to the grabbing of power, territory, influence, resources, monopolising commerce through trade agreements, the corporate takeover of politics and the machinery of the State, everything was grist to American greed and self-interest. Not that the USSR or Russia in the past decade or two has been any different, except they don’t pretend to be holier than everybody else.

Time and again Vidal exposed the sheer hypocrisy of American leaders of every hue. There was just an unbridgeable infinity of difference between what their words claimed and what their actions spoke. Vast tracts of Mexico were swallowed by the US, the Philippines were turned into a colony. They are still pretending to take democracy to different parts of the world while continually aiming to corner markets and resources. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Panama, they really believe they are the good guys. Vidal never bought into any of this high-minded hokum but kept puncturing and exposing the hollowness of every American doctrine. Nixon, Reagan, George W Bush, Clinton and then Obama, nobody but nobody was spared. It was not a monotonous, repetitious harangue. Vidal watched, he observed, he kept accounts of the terrible wrongs done to different countries, of the chicanery, the political murders, the stage-managed coup d’etats, and he spoke out without fear and without thought of consequences.

He was supremely witty, entertaining, humorous, satirical, abrasive, irreverent and unputdownable. And he was most of the time very wise and prescient. Ah, my friends, read and re-read Vidal. His novels, plays and essays. Many of the issues he deals with will have died, but not his insights. If anyone wishes to learn about the state of the world, be advised, keep Vidal always by your bedside. He is the voice of sheer sanity and he is wise to the ways of the world and he will catch you too when your ethics become shaky and you take the high moral ground.

You may not like all his novels, you may dispute and differ angrily with him, but you will always find him hugely readable, exuberant, egregiously right in his analyses, delightful and sharp as a razor cutting into your jugular. If you feel acute discomfiture, it is because he so often challenges your most dearly-held beliefs.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Gore Vidal.

This essay does not pretend to do justice to Vidal’s work. It has been written from my memories of reading his books and without being able to consult either the books themselves or the internet. I trust both he and the reader will forgive errors, if any