As impossible as it is to believe, Vanity Fair is 100 years old. And yet I must believe it, for there’s Graydon Carter telling me so in his “Editor’s Letter” opening this extra-big anniversary issue, pompously holding court as he’s done so inimitably for what feels like most of those 100 years. Carter headed the team that’s recently put together the truly spectacular book Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, and the experience has put him in a gently woolgathering mood. He ranges his wind-baggy rhetoric over the century in question, stretching from the birth of modernism to the birth of the Internet, and he reflects wistfully on Frank Crowninshield, the man who gave the magazine its recognizable form. “A Yankee born in Paris and educated in Rome, Crowninshield – known as ‘Crownie’ to intimates – was cosmopolitan to his bones.”
Crowninshield died two years before Carter was born, but that slight bar to intimacy doesn’t stop Carter from calling him “Crownie” for the remainder of his opening remarks. Thankfully, those remarks are brief, although they’re hardly the end of the issue’s woolgathering. No: Carter has commissioned ten essays for the occasion – one writer per decade, and readers unwise enough (as I was) to read them straight through will get a very rocky start. The 2000s are covered by somebody named Bill Maher (a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he’s a TV talk show comedian, and a quick YouTube search reveals that he’s an imbecile) in what amounts to the transcript of an unconvincing Catskills stand-up routine. The 1990s fare far worse: their emcee is talentless egomaniac vanity publisher Dave Eggers, who’s very nearly Carter’s match for insinuating that a vast stretch of time’s main purpose is to sit still while he, the Great Man, reflects upon it. The 1980s – lucky in this as in all things – get Kurt Anderson, and things pick up from there: Lorne Michaels writes about the New York of the 1970s, Robert Stone about the turmoil of the 1960s, Jan Morris about greeting Edmund Hilary when he descended from summiting Mount Everest; Daniel Okrent dares to be dark about the 1940s, Laura Hillenbrand and A. Scott Berg do fine historical turns on the ‘30s and ‘20s respectively, and – in a neat twist that works better than it should – Julian Fellowes (he of “Downton Abbey” fame) eulogizes the 1910s.
And some of the magazine’s standard players are here like clockwork (one can’t help but wonder what kind of piece Carter would have extorted out of Christopher Hitchens – and to miss seeing it), including James Wolcott writing at the top of his game about the peccadilloes of some of TV’s celebrity chefs, including the nationally-disgraced Paula Deen:
Deen’s trademark dishes, such as her bread pudding made of Krispy Kreme doughnuts cut into cubes, recall the grand tradition of good-ol’-boy cuisine that helped Elvis Presley keel over at Graceland. Rich in sugar, flour, and nostalgia, they slow down the metabolism and thought processes, inducing a semiconscious sloth bliss state that is deaf and blind to the entreaties of Barack and Michelle Obama as they extend a head of broccoli as America’s last hope. A true American entrepreneur, Deen excelled in playing it both ways, promoting a diet conducive to diabetes and then pushing diabetes medicine.
Also in this issue, Sarah Ellison, in a well-balanced piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, swerves just slightly to get in a little well-deserved dig:
The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.
The curious thing about this special anniversary issue of Vanity Fair, in fact, is how ordinary it is – it serves as the best possible reminder of just how extraordinary the magazine always is, month after month. An old (one might almost say intimate) friend of mine alerted me to the customary VF pattern a long time ago, and the magazine has stayed true to that pattern ever since: the fluff and “Hot Type”-style flutter is always quartered in the front half of every issue, and the meat in the back half – and so it is here, with the longer, jump-cut articles after the half-way mark tending to be the highlight of the Table of Contents. Certainly that’s the case in this issue, where we get “What Lies Beneath,” a great piece by William Langewiesche about the vast, unmapped underground of New York City – the waterways, the subways, the sewer system, and how all of it fared during the pounding of Hurricane Sandy. He specifically disavows urbane-legend rumors of giant albino alligators, the killjoy, but even so, the piece is superb – we can only hope it’s the prelude to a book.
Criminal film directors, the royalties of two different countries, the idle obscenely rich right here in the United States, plus great photography throughout – special issue or no special issue, it’s a feast. Crownie would have been proud.
The July issue of Vanity Fair has many standard features that are depressing. First and most noticeably, there’s the cover story-hand job common to most glossy magazines; in this case it’s a ‘profile’ of Hollywood’s current top box office Everyman, Channing Tatum, whose he-man pouting on the cover over the banner reading “Channing Tatum: An Action Star Who Can Act!” The banner might be true, but if Tatum can act it hasn’t yet been caught on film, and probably the piece’s talented author Rich Cohen knows that and was under orders to produce a standard-issue bro-file fawning all over Tatum in supposedly ‘up front’ ways that are nevertheless carefully choreographed to conceal everything the chunk of meat’s management wants concealed (Cohen makes no mention of Tatum’s tobacco habit, for instance, nor does he even lightly allude to the fact that Tatum isn’t exactly brightest warbler in the aviary).
The depressing features extend well beyond the cover, of course. There’s a culture-clash/French-bashing article by James Wolcott that reads like it was assembled from a kit and depresses in exact proportion to how talented Wolcott used to be; there’s yet another fawning puff piece, this one on Pippa Middleton’s love of tennis. Ingrid Sischy’s long profile of the odious John Galliano at least works in some uplift amidst its own depression: true, Galliano is a toxic, self-aggrandizing former pretty-boy piece of pastry who was a waste of protoplasm even before he exiled himself from civilized society with The Anti-Semitic Outburst Heard Round the World, but in compensation the reader gets to spend some time in the wonderful presence of Sischy’s writing, which is always a treat. Likewise Michael Joseph Gross’ long article on the cyber-war currently being waged between the U.S. and Iran, which was upliftingly well-written but depressing as all get-out to read.
But no issue of Vanity Fair ever entirely disappoints (not since Graydon Carter took over, much as I begrudge to admit it), and this one has a true gem underneath all the depressing mud: Laura Jacobs has an absolute corker of a piece about Mary McCarthy’s blockbuster 1963 novel The Group and the shockwaves it set off, both in the literary world and among McCarthy’s Vassar classmates.
Although even in this piece, there were plenty of slightly depressing elements. True, Jacobs can be wonderful about McCarthy’s prose:
And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear into the hearts of her male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But I don’t agree with the weird reduction in that penultimate line, that oddly sexist equating of sexual predation with literary fearlessness – it makes a troubling lead-in to the following line, where you’re left wondering just which of McCarty’s traits these female writers are aspiring to (not that it matters in this case, since no aspiring female writer under the age of 35 has even heard of Mary McCarthy, let alone read her)(one of the sharpest young female writers I know, for instance, would scorn the very idea of reading somebody who’s actually had the bad grace to be dead – if the ink isn’t still wet on your latest chapbook, you might as well be one with Nineveh and Tyre).
Likewise troubling is the bit where Jacobs relates some of the withering critical responses to The Group and then blandly agrees with them. She quotes Robert Lowell: “No one in the know likes the book.” And she quotes Dwight Macdonald: “Mary tried for something very big but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
To which Jacobs nods, “All true, and all beside the point,” even though it’s not true, nor is it true that the book’s “plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil.” And worst of all is the piece’s resort to psychobabble in defense of a flawed assumption:
Novelist lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young.
Or, alternately, there’s the faint possibility that Mary McCarthy knew what she was doing, that she wasn’t just some helpless fawn banging her head against the iron cage of her Freudian childhood hangups – that, ultimate heresy, she might have understood more about what was happening in her own fiction than virtually all of her critics, then or, apparently, now. It was McCarthy’s best friend Elizabeth Hardwick who once said, “When it comes to the written word, I wouldn’t bet against Mary.” Maybe Jacobs was emboldened by the fact that Hardwick herself nevertheless frequently did bet against her friend.
Jumping (somewhat belatedly) into the fray of 2012’s Penny Press, we find the party in full swing, which is always inviting. In the 6 January TLS, for instance, Mary Kenny writes a letter whose simple honesty about the late Christopher Hitchens will be cried down instantly by the millions of arrested adolescents who jumped on the bandwagon of his tardily-adopted religion-bashing:
Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in the 1970s (and who was much encouraged by my husband, Richard West, as well as by Anthony Howard), was often brilliant and beguiling, and he was also brave. But he would not have become a world-famous celebrity if God Is Not Great had been a more conscientious book; and that’s the pity of it. It was because his message could be reduced to a simple, tabloid black-and-white picture that Hitchens became more famous than Vaclav Havel.
Of course, during the week-long obsequies in the wake of Hitchens’ death, no such clarifications were possible, but it’s nevertheless true: if Hitchens had written a book praising disco (Recatching the Fever, or some such), passionately calling for its return, and that book had somehow struck up an international response, it would have been in the cause of disco that Hitchens would have hit the lecture circuit, and he’d have been every bit as eloquent and biting and funny and crowd-pleasing on that subject as he was on how shitty your parents were for making you go to church when you were a kid. And more importantly (and this is also more than Mary Kenny is willing to say, bless her), before, during, and after those disco-lectures, there would have been not one word about the tyranny of organized religion – because there would have been no money in such words. When fans would approach the touring Hitchens and tell him he was their intellectual hero, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t make me a hero – just buy my book.” When serious young idealists approached him on tour and told him how much his ideas meant to them, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t tell me your beliefs – just buy my book.” I give the man all the credit in the world for a freelancer’s naked opportunism, but I got a little weary, at the end of 2011, hearing how the world had lost a great philosopher (or worse, in the case of Salman Rushdie, a great philosophe).
That same issue of the TLS had a wonderfully controlled review by Andrew Scull of Raymond Tallis’ latest screed, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, which Scull summarizes quite succinctly:
As an atheist and a materialist, Tallis cannot appeal to a soul, a ghost in the machine that can operate and somehow direct the actions of the body. But he is fiercely dismissive of those who contend that we are nothing more than complicated organic machines, fated to live fully determined lives along lines programmed into our bodies and brains. Humankind’s place in nature is, he insists, unique. We are nothing but our bodies and our brains, and yet we are somehow able to move beyond our biology. Our self-conscious, self-reflective capacities allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, to create an ever-richer and more complex mental life and culture, and to make choices, to act freely on the world.
Scull maintains more control in the face of this nonsense than I would have, certainly, but then, Tallis and his like have always irritating, since this outlook justifies every kind of cruelty mankind has ever perpetrated on the rest of the animal world. It takes a signature ability of the human brain – self-reflection – and elevates it to the sine qua non of the Chosen, and the people who do that elevating never seem to stop and reflect on the rigged game they’re playing.
There is a symphony in the way scents layer down on top of each other out in the natural world, for instance – the older ones yielding their strongest flavors over time, merging those flavors with both the surface (plant, wood, rock) and the surface-trails insect and bird-life has tracked through them, the less-old ones merging with the older ones and creating (both immediately and over time) new dimensions, and of course the newest coats charging the whole lattice with new meaning, filling it with both data-heavy short-term information (“This is me,” “this is what I ate an hour ago,” “this is my sexual receptivity, and for whom,” etc) and data-heavy longer-term information (“this is where I live, and I generally like/don’t like visitors,” for instance, and all the scent-graffiti that accumulates from others, both short and long-term). All of that – the whole totality of it – blends together into an incredibly detailed, incredibly vital tapestry – something that can be either intensely interactive or solitarily absorbing. Simply reading it can induce a zen-state of pure reception that’s often more compelling than hunger, thirst, or need for shelter.
Humans are physically incapable of experiencing that symphony. They lack the physical senses even to know it’s there, much less to read it. If an alien species came to Earth with force-fields and laser-guns to compel mankind’s submission and, far more importantly, a centuries-old philosophical framework built on asserting the moral, intellectual, and ethical superiority of beings who could experience that scent-symphony, mankind would find itself in cages, or in funny costumes, or experimented upon – at the very least, mankind would find itself relegated to a secondary caste of beings. And mankind’s protest would be: “But this is inherently unfair! You’ve arbitrarily set the criteria for superiority based on a physical capability you just happened to evolve, and that we just happened not to evolve – you’ve taken the random chance that you have such an ability and made it the basis for everything!” And then mankind would be prodded back into its lab cages, or its circus shows, or its meat-processing plants – not by argument, but by those force-fields and laser guns.
Tallis makes much of his atheism, but he’s unwilling to face some of its most embarrassing consequences. I suspect that in this he’s no different from the late Hitchens, who makes yet another hagiographic appearance, this time in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter” at the front of the February Vanity Fair. Carter is wonderfully opinionated on just about everything, so of course he wasn’t going to let the death of his long-time correspondent Hitchens pass in seemly silence. Instead, he’s got a classic anecdote to tell, about a typically epic lunch he attended with Hitchens – a lunch at which enormous amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all, despite looming deadlines. The sequel will be familiar to Hitchens fans: “After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.”
Saint’s lives must have their miracle-stories, I know, but Carter is old enough to realize this was no unique talent in Hitchens. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s – hell, in any decade he cares to name – there have been word-hacks over-fond of wine would could bang out 1000 words of clean copy on an Olivetti even three sheets to the wind. Some of those hacks could even do 2000 words, or 3000. I suspect that Carter himself has known more than just one such seedy paragon.
Fortunately, as always, he introduces an absolutely great periodical. There’s a stand-out, horrifying profile of Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, retailing all the usual ghastly stories about how brusque and inhuman the presumptive Republican front-runner is. The piece (cunningly called “The Meaning of Mitt”) also relates sobering anecdotes from people who encountered Romney in his capacity as poo-bah of the Mormon faith. These new anecdotes are uniformly damning, and one of them, told by Suffolk University’s Judy Dushku, is all the more so because she’s a kind and very mentally flexible person – if she came away from Romney with a bad impression, you can take that bad impression to the bank.
But the issue’s highlight was so sparkling as to wipe away all such tawdry worries. The always-reliable Bob Colacello turned in a piece called “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” – a wonderful, fittingly gossipy, absolutely glowing portrait of an effervescent phenomenon that’s now almost vanished: the so-called ‘ladies how lunch,’ the battalion of wealthy society matrons (and the men they sometimes brought along) who made a long, leisurely ritual out of highly visible lunches at some of New York’s most glamorous venues, places like the Colony Club, Le Pavillion,Orsini’s and of course Le Cirque. These women – everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie Onassis to society bluebloods like Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner – ruled New York’s glittering apartments for decades (from the real kick-off during the Kennedy years to the Reagan ’80s), and Colacello’s piece captures that lost world perfectly – it’s one of those VF articles I read and then instantly hope to see as a full-length book sometime soon.
“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” was so enchanting it distracted me from the annoying fact that neither Daniel Craig nor Matt Damon mentions smoking during their Proust Questionnaires, even though they’re being asked about the things that matter most to them in the world – and it distracted me from the Burberry ad at the front of the magazine, in which talented stage and screen actor (and ten-pack-a-day tobacco addict) Eddie Redmayne is so dedicated to his addiction that he has to hide his cigarette behind his leg even during the one photo of him that made it into the shoot. Hell, the piece even distracted me from the fact that Mitt Romney might by some fluke end up as President of the United States. That’s some writing! (And of course I liked the fact that the greatest beauty among the “ladies who lunched” actually made it into one of the photos, there on the left-hand side)
Recently I was talking with a friend of mine, as well-read a young man as you’re likely to meet all week, and he related a fascinating – and disturbing – thing: facing an hours-long trip, he bought a copy of the current Atlantic and a copy of the new Vanity Fair to read on the way, and he found there to be no contest between the two in terms of general literary merit.
Vanity Fair won hands-down.
This is disturbing for the same reason that it’s fascinating: it’s supposed to go the other way. Atlantic has a century-long reputation as the pinnacle, the showcase of periodical literary merit; Vanity Fair too has a long reputation of occupying a pinnacle – but a different one, a pinnacle of stylish and exuberant celebrity gossip. Both have been indispensable magazines forever – but they’ve been separate and fairly distant peaks in the same mountain range. I’ve praised both often here at Stevereads, and I’ve also commented on what struck me as a general dumbing-down of the Atlantic (staved off only by virtue of the brilliance of some of its regular contributors, foremost being Benjamin Schwarz) and a general deepening of Vanity Fair‘s content under leadership of the visionary and irritating-as-hell Graydon Carter. So this switcheroo shouldn’t really surprise me – but it was jarring to hear it as an assessment made by somebody else, somebody who perhaps doesn’t watch the Penny Press quite as avidly as I do.
There’s undeniable truth to the assessment. The latest Atlantic was so relatively unremarkable that I felt no compunction to write about it, whereas the August Vanity Fair is so chock-full of fantastic, interesting, challenging stuff that virtually any potential reader will find something to keep them reading. The issue wisely opens with humor, the redoubtable James Wolcott writing with his usual zest, this time about the arrest of I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault:
Devouring the news reports, you could picture [Law & Order‘s] Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe and Chris Noth’s Mike Logan cavalierly parting the curtains separating executive class from the peasantry, spotting the suspect, identifying themselves as N.Y.P.D., and ordering the suspect to unbuckle his seat belt and take a little ride with them downtown. After receiving the requisite amount of indignant lip from the suspect about important meetings in Brussels to attend, and how this is all a terrible mistake, Lennie would crack, “Sorry, pal, consider yourself grounded.”
Wolcott strikes a very welcome note of reminder that what this guy is charged with is no laughing matter – but he also can’t resist going for chuckles himself whenever he can:
But Americans like to rag on the French, as the fatuous renaming of French fries as “freedom fries” during the Iraq war showed, and the Frenchification of the case had the ooh-la-la effect of making the scandal seem almost cute. And when journalists get cute, something curdles inside.
Of course, the magazine will never entirely forget its roots: Alexandra Wolfe turns in an appropriately soapy ‘profile’ of something called Emma Stone. This creature appears to feature somehow in movies, but the photo accompanying the article is the single most disturbing non-Cute Overload image I’ve seen all year. The life-form in the photo has a head the size of a State Fair pumpkin and no arms, no legs, no breasts, no muscles, no tendons, no circulating blood, no belly, and no buttocks. I didn’t read the piece, of course (that way lies madness), but I can’t help but wonder what kind of roles this thing could play. Whitley Streiber-style aliens, I’m assuming.
Most of the issue is deadly serious, however – and wonderfully unapologetic about that fact. There’s a gripping excerpt from a new book by Robbyn Swan and the great Anthony Summers that look at the links between the 9/11 terrorists and Saudi Arabia – 15 of the hijackers on that day were Saudis, and it’s all but impossible to believe they were operating without the knowledge – or outright financial support – of the U.S.’s alleged ally. The piece – and, one imagines, the book – digs as deep as it can into the connection between the Saudi royal family and the funding of al-Qaeda. The main thing that stonewalls their investigations is the angering fact that most of the key documents have been completely redacted – on direct orders of former President George W. Bush.
(Angering in a lesser way is the interview the insufferable Dave Eggers conducts with cranky old childrens book illustrator Maurice Sendak about his new book Bumble-Ardy. “I called him the other day to talk about it …”)
Edward Klein turns in a chatty (and equally stonewalled – I lost track of how many times I read a variation on “The Palace refused to comment”) piece on the Queen’s wayward, scumbag son Prince Andrew and his “sybaritic lifestyle” – which apparently includes underage girls and convicted sex offenders. Reading it made me squirm with vicarious embarrassment, and it made me certain that in due course I’ll be writing about Prince Andrew’s arraignment in an American court of law – watch for it in “Keeping Up with the Windsors.”
There’s so much more in this single issue, like Tracy Daugherty’s engrossing look at the origins of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but for me the most intense – and saddest – piece was Alex Shoumatoff’s harrowing report on the recent resurgence of elephant-poaching throughout central Africa. He interviews many of the people engaged in a daily struggle to protect elephants (the article is accompanied by a recent photo of Iain Douglas-Hamilton looking typically masterful but so old – it made me apprehensive about a day when Africa’s elephants will lose their most passionate human protector) and relates a tiny fraction of the lore that has connected humans with elephants throughout the entire history of mankind, although he’s careful to maintain the distinction:
But elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive. We have been in close association with elephants from the beginning. The few dozen humans who left Africa may have even followed an elephant trail, but the prodoscideans are on a distant branch of the tree of life, closer to manatees and aardvarks than to primates. It is amazing, really, that something so antediluvian and unlike us is still here. This is the feeling we get as we are watching these elephants. They are what they are, and they put things into badly needed perspective. The world needs them. We need them.
Of course you finish the article completely convinced that we are living in the last days of the wild elephant – and by extension the last days of non-human ‘apex’ animals of every kind: polar bears losing their habitat, sharks being hunted to extinction, tigers virtually non-existent in the wild, etc). This is staggering, sobering stuff, but at least a thin note of thanks is due to Shoumatoff for writing so sharply about it all.
It’s only right to extend that vote of thanks to the whole of Vanity Fair, which manages to produce an issue as good as this one every single month. And free of charge, I’ve got a solution to the disturbing dilemma my friend (and I, and every reader of the best magazines) experienced: Vanity Fair should hire Ben Schwarz and give him a nice roomy monthly column devoted to books. There! Problem solved! Mr. Carter, kindly make a generous offer (and while you’re at it, I’d be happy to BLOG for VF, but don’t expect me to update my wardrobe – if it was good enough in 1960, it’s good enough now, dammit).
I knew something like this was coming, and I thought I was prepared to control my outrage. A friend alerted me to a one-page squib in the latest Vanity Fair (I intended to wholesale ignore the issue, since it was boring enough to feature a philandering famous athlete the cover) in which Christopher Hitchens – him again! – takes a public potshot at Gore Vidal. I acquired the page in question (a single page! I’m starting to wonder if the brevication bug I spotted over at the Atlantic isn’t as widespread as termites throughout the printed world), and boy, it sure packs a lot of sly vilification and sloppy vituperation into only a few paragraphs.
The tiff – such as it is – arises from the fact that over a decade ago, Vidal apparently began referring to Hitchens as his heir apparent in the realm of literary gadfly-hacks, then 9/11 happened and the Iraq war began, and not only did two writers find themselves on different sides of the issue (Hitchens famously supporting the war, Vidal applying the same ‘Washington must have known’ gambit to 9/11 as he’s done for years to Pearl Harbor), but Vidal began publicly scoffing at the very idea that he ever nominated Hitchens as his successor.
The little squib in Vanity Fair is a decidedly odd production. Hitchens starts off with some tepid praise of the Vidal That Was (I honestly think Hitchens has grown so enamored of his linguistic virtuosity that he thinks he’s the only person who can see when his praise is tepid … like he’s having a good little laugh behind his hand as he fools us all into thinking this is the face of his enthusiasm – it seems impossible, but if it’s true, somebody really needs to remind this guy that you can’t have private little jokes if you’ve published every thought you’ve ever had for the last twenty years) – he’s our Wilde! – then immediately starts in with the pussy-footed knocks:
I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.
This is only the first whiff of the scurrilous cowardice that animates this little jingle (“very, very minor tendency,” in truth? But not so minor you don’t bring it up, right?)(and if any of you imagine for a second that Hitchens himself has ever forgotten even the smallest slight, real or imagined, I’ve got a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you). Things get worse when Hitchens starts talking about a lengthy interview Vidal recently granted to the London Independent, in which Vidal goes into Full Crank mode, gnawing on about the downfall of America, the dominance of China, and whatever other favorite sawhorses he felt like talking about with the interviewer. Hitchens affects to deplore such rhetoric – “What business does this patrician have in gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?” he plaintively asks, a rather ironic inquiry coming from the in-house apologist for The Nation.
It’s only toward the end of the piece (that is, immediately after its beginning) that Hitchens veers close to what is probably his true motivation. He’s talking about Vidal issuing that repudiation of the very idea that he would call Hitchens his successor:
Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted – I have the correspondence – and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character – a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.
How about if we call it assisted suicide? Does that make base betrayal a bit easier to swallow?
The sordidness of this business is very efficiently encapsulated in that horrifying line “I have the correspondence” (the equally loud and only barely unspoken second part, “…and I’m happy to publish it” certainly goes a long way toward explaining Vidal’s towering, disillusioned bitterness with the world in general). Hitchens trots out as much of the Independent interview (I’m not sure they’ll appreciate the gesture, gutter market that they apparently are) as he thinks will serve his purpose of charting a mental decline, including this knee-jerk summary Vidal gives of some of his famous writing coevals:
Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.
Hitchens laments: “One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second.” But long-time readers of Vidal will instantly point out that he’s never shown all that much grace or generosity to those of his contemporaries he considers fools (indeed, several of the top-form enshrined quotes Hitchens alludes to are savage – and savagely funny – toward other writers). And there’s also the fact – apparently weightless to Hitchens but perhaps not to everybody – that those three literary assessments, in addition to being flippant, are entirely accurate.
But Hitchens criticisms miss two bigger points by a mile, and a reader looking to understand this little squib will be hard-pressed to understand how this could be. First, sarcastic flippancy hasn’t replaced wit or profundity on the subject of, say, Vidal’s literary peers – we in fact have the wit and profundity, on all three of those writers and hundreds more, fully preserved in Vidal’s essays. What’s the man supposed to do at age 85? Endless parrot his best lines, or endlessly coin new ones? He’s old and intermittently sick and running out of time – perhaps he’s entitled to a little sarcasm, especially if he’s feeling like his interviewer could come up with better questions.
But the second big point is the more important of the two, and it’s one every other eager young(er) literary gun out there should heed before they launch their own little broadsides against the old lion: Vidal is in what we used to call his dotage. This isn’t to say he’s demented, not at all (or at least not necessarily) – but he is, though it seem impossible for such an erstwhile paragon of youth, granddad. Granddad gets cranky (being old is, as is commonly attested by the old and universally disbelieved by the not-old, no picnic); granddad has pet theories that aren’t always sensible; granddad can be abrupt, and his abruptness can hurt feelings. A year from now, two at the most, and granddad won’t be here anymore – and he knows it, and he hates it. The lesson of the story? Once granddad is in his dotage, you suffer him in silence. Period. You don’t justify yourself. You don’t try to win old arguments. You don’t produce his correspondence. You suffer him in silence, and you thereby hope to be treated so well when it’s your turn.
The vital thing to remember when you finish this little squib of Hitchens’ is the relative scale of what we’re seeing here. Yes, the Vidal That Is continually says unworthy things in unworthy ways. But Hitchens has been writing professionally for what? Thirty years? More? And for that he has what to show the year 2210? So far: nothing. Ephemera, often bashed out hung over ten minutes before deadline. Thirty years ago, Vidal had produced a body of work almost unequalled by any 20th century practitioner of English – and that was before he collected United States or wrote Palimpsest. It entitles him to forbearing silence whenever the tawdriness of his dotage makes an appearance. It obliges Hitchens and his ilk to shut their disrespectful yaps about inscriptions on frontispieces.
And that doesn’t even touch on the obligation shat upon by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, whose typically sanctimonious issue preface revs the readers’ appetite for the squib to come, sarcastically saying, “As you well know, our columnist has never used his soapbox for anything less than a well-turned intellectual inquiry. In this issue, the topic happens to be somewhat personal, but no less intelligent: Gore Vidal. Vidal has written for and appeared in this magazine going back to the first Bush administration …”
Yes he has, and what thanks does he get for it from his editor? The respectful silence I mentioned? No, he gets a squib by an attack-dog greenlighted against him. On the chance that it’ll interest ten people, or better still, draw a response from Vidal himself.
Such a response might come, and no doubt Carter is hoping it’ll be salacious and Hitchens is hoping it’ll be conciliatory (or, lacking that, looney). Me, I’m hoping – though I know it’s impossible – that it’s somehow magically from the Gore Vidal of twenty or so years ago (you know, around Hitchens’ age). Imagining that riposte – and the party-colored carpet-smears that would be all that remained of Hitchens afterwards – is pretty much the only thing that put a smile on my face about this wretched little piece.
We’ll talk about books next time, to cleanse the mental palate.