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Friends on the Patio

By (November 1, 2015) No Comment

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal
by Jay Parini
Doubleday, 2015

GV PariniAn entire media library of books and documentaries on the subject of Gore Vidal have appeared in the three years since he died. None are the one we need.

The clip-reels and interviews collected in The United States of Amnesia and Best of Enemies are largely concerned with Vidal’s public persona. There we see the witty TV intellectual, the progressive warrior leaps ahead of his time. On Charlie Rose he coyly refuses to hold gay and straight as absolute and exclusive categories; on Johnny Carson he vents his anger at America’s economic injustice (“socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” in his prescient phrase); on Dick Cavett he steadfastly insists on his assertion that opponents of feminism are the moral equivalent of slaveholders, and Norman Mailer challenges him to a fight about it; in cozy interviews at his palatial Ravello villa, he refuses to be deceived by textbook fairy-tales about American history, and the cruel morasses of organized idolatry (unless he himself is the idol).

Meanwhile, in bookland, it’s the off-camera Vidal (but, crucially, rarely the writing Vidal) who takes center-stage. Michael Mewshaw’s unsympathetic Sympathy for the Devil is a final kick aimed at the coffin of a man who’d been unfailingly kind and generous to him in life. In a more scholarly volume, Tim Teeman spends the first two-thirds of In Bed With Gore Vidal tracking down everyone Vidal had sex with or was rumored to have sex with (Jack Kerouac and Fred Astaire pop up briefly), and his final third describing the last ten years of Vidal’s life, increasingly alcoholic since the death of his long-time companion Howard Austin in 2003 (a loss described more affectingly – and in richer detail – in Vidal’s showbiz memoir Point-to-Point Navigation) and increasingly paranoid in the bad years of the George Bush wars. Fabian Bouthillette covers much of the same sad span in Gore Vidal’s Last Stand but, unlike Teeman, scores an introduction by Stephen Fry.

Nothing in his Vidal’s life, it turns out, was as unbecoming as the leaving it. Jay Parini, in his new bio-memoir Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, offers the fondest and most generous picture yet of the last years, but what can you do with them? In his more lucid moments, Vidal sat alone in the polo lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel, hanging out for hours by the piano, “listening to the songs, drinking scotch, sometimes singing along in a soft voice.” He wrote some careless books. He didn’t want to live now that Howard was gone.

So far, these are the Gore Vidals we’ve decided to remember: the prescient TV personality and late-life alcoholic. But isn’t this all a bit easy? Am I the only one who suspects that these isolated facets of Vidal’s life we’re choosing to frame and hang in the sudden silence of his passing are exactly those tempered to flatter ourselves and fan our nostalgia? Those maudlin evenings at the Polo Lounge may satisfy the vicarious self-pity of the aspiring young writer (right down to the torch songs), and those shouting matches with William F. Buckley may delight our supercilious nostalgia about the Mad Men age: one-liners and transatlantic accents and cool old TV; but none of this touches of Vidal’s most impressive achievements. And none of it alights on the reason we need to remember him better, though some of Jay Parini’s book may be a step in that direction.

Vidal’s triumph, and his real life, lived, and lives, in his prose. He went on TV to sell books, and he descended into darkness when he was too old and sad to write them anymore. But the books remain, and the best of them still stand as some of the most eloquent, most fearless, most stylish, and most fun books of the 20th Century.

Parini’s own book, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, is both like and unlike the other entrants in the post-Vidal cannon. Parini and Vidal were good friends for many years, and maybe a third of the book consists of stuff he would only have learned by the old lion’s side: how much the increasingly fleshy Vidal ate and drank, how he talked in private about his friends, how he bore up at the end. Large amounts of the remainder give us the most readable and engaging run-down we’ve had so far of the facts and some of the nuance of life among others, away from his desk.

Born 1925 to a privileged DC family – his grandfather was a senator – Vidal saw a lot of the Great World but never really felt a part of it. “Withdrawn, moody, and bookish,” he spent long hours in Senator Gore’s library, entranced by the worlds he found in those books and also in hiding from his objectively cruel and alcoholic mother.

He was sent to Exeter, where he cheated routinely (“after all, it was their honor system, not mine”) and started to make a name for himself as a debater and a wit. When the war came, he joined, riding out his time apart from the main action on a supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. While in service he also slept with a lot of young men, and a few young women, and thoroughly enjoyed both

gv1aaaHe published his first novel at 19, moved to New York, and met everyone in Who’s Who. Annual novels followed for ten years (aside from Messiah, they’re not his best books), followed by a decade-long break when he wrote in Hollywood and tossed off half a dozen mysteries under false names. In the middle sixties he started making novels again and these are his masterpieces: Washington DC, Julian, and Burr, along with the essays collected in United States.

He sipped cocktails with Mike Nichols and Ralph Ellison on the banks of the Hudson, vino with fancy expats in Rome, and tea with minor English royalty. But what strikes the unwitting reader as pages turn and time presses on is how time and again we’re told about how Vidal spent most of his time – most of his life – crafting prose that you could crack an egg on.

So: what of the work itself? Parini notes each book (though several titles go unmentioned). Generally we get them in order. Their plots are dutifully rehearsed and their merits briefly tallied.

Oddly, Parini is better about why the problematic novels fail than why the good ones succeed. Empire, he writes, “lacks subtleties of expression at just those junctures where it most requires them.” This is excellent. Though sometimes he just settles for a thumb’s down: he tells us Two Sisters is “a bit of a mess” but doesn’t tell us why. (I find it neat, narrative-messing fun and I’m not really persuaded why I shouldn’t; probably I should re-read it with “Jay Parini doesn’t like this” in mind and see if it’s any different.) He’s not shy with praise for the uncontested standouts in the canon: he rightly lauds the historical novel Julian for its postmodern “radical subjectivity,” or rather he quotes Michael Lackey so praising it, which is fine.

On the meaning of Vidal’s career as a whole, Parini does, as any good friend might, seem more concerned with personality than prose. “Perhaps the most impressive thing about Gore was his will to power,” he writes in his summing-up, but he does not then go on to apply this plaudit to the books themselves. It seems obvious to the reader of Vidal’s own work that this will to power was most meaningfully expressed not on the Merv Griffin Show, but through the eyes and the reflections of Aaron Burr, the Emperor Julian, Myra Breckenridge, and the politicians nervously pacing the stage in his perennially-remounted play The Best Man. Because of Vidal’s own will to power he understood (and charmingly deconstructed for his readers) the various species of that same impulse in Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and in Norman Mailer and Henry Miller. This is why the best of his novels and his essays are so indispensable, and why his books will be read long after the novelty of the old TV clips is gone.

Of course, contemporaneity is part of the problem. Few living people are disapprovingly portrayed in Parini’s pages. He knows they’re reading over his shoulder as he writes. What the reader wonders is how often Vidal, in life, was was also looking over his biographer’s shoulder. Lots of these pages were written when the old man was still alive. “A biographer is not a judge, and I have no wish to do more than describe a man I admired and valued as a friend” Parini writes, and one can picture Gore’s head nodding as that’s read back to him. Yes, that’s good, that’ll do.

This is not to say the book is a hagiography. Gore was a great self-explainer and Parini teases him about it. At one point Parini quotes Vidal in a spell of denial and lays it on: “’I never talk about myself.’ he told me, talking about himself.” This is fun. Parini also steps in to quietly correct a few of the oft-told tales, and that’s useful, though there are a few that he misses. “Gore appeared on the cover of Time, as his grandfather and his father had done before him.” About the most that can be said for that claim is that Vidal repeated it a lot.

“It was written in sections over several decades, with many gaps,” Parini admits of his book, and there are times when that comes across. Truman Capote’s anatomy is described as feline by Vidal on page 38 and then by Parini on page 55 and again on page 79. Meow.

Plenty of critics haven’t quite known what to do with Vidal’s sex life so Parini’s in good company here. “He would never feel at ease with his sexuality,” we’re told, but we don’t for a second believe it. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a major American writer more at ease with his sexuality. “Sex was always furtive for him,” Parini says elsewhere, meaning for all I can tell nothing more than men sleeping with men was frowned upon in his day, and also that when his suntanned hustlers popped round for a frolic, Gore chose not to parade them past his eminently respectable Italian-American friend of a certain generation.

Much of the trouble critics seem to have – both the straight right and the gay left – lies in their desire to pin Vidal down as full-on born-that-way-gay involved in some weird creepy everyone-is-bisexual denial. You can see why they’d do this. Conservatives like William Buckley went around claiming homosexuality was a choice – one you could switch on and off –including it under the category of sin (only original sin can be non-voluntary) and so accursed by God.

gv-Writing300dpi-1200Meanwhile, the Larry Kramers of the world, quite naturally reacting against the bigots on the right, averred that homosexuality was very far from a choice: one was simply born that way and that was that, and as a consequence it was cruel and unusual to punish or even really disapprove of it (as you wouldn’t punish someone born left-handed, or born Hungarian).

What Gore believed – and in this, he and Miley Cyrus are as one – is that human sexuality is a long and fascinating spectrum. Yes, there probably are a few people who are oriented to only to mate with the same sex, or with the opposite sex, but most people, if taboos were to lift and druthers had, would probably settle somewhere more toward the middle of the spectrum. Polls among the young seem to indicate this attitude is growing increasingly reasonable, and is increasingly read as natural; that just hasn’t yet gotten through to Jay Parini, or, to be fair, a lot of people.

Vidal was writing this way as early as 1952, where, in a review of Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, he avers,

 It would be wrong … to dismiss, as so many commentators have, the wide variety of Caesarean sensuality as simply the viciousness of twelve abnormal men. They were, after all, a fairly representative lot. They different from us–and their contemporaries–only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies. This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius. What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything … It is an odd experience for a contemporary to read of Nero’s simultaneous passion for both a man and a woman. Something seems wrong. It must be one or the other, not both. And yet this sexual eclecticism recurs again and again. And though some of the Caesars quite obviously preferred women to men (Augustus had a particular penchant for Nabokovian nymphets), their sexual crisscrossing is extraordinary in its lack of pattern … If nothing else, Dr. Kinsey revealed in his dogged, arithmetical way that we are all a good deal less predictable and bland than anyone had suspected.

Here’s something we know for a fact about Vidal: while living in Guatemala, in his early 20s, he sent a letter to his friend Anaïs Nin in which he asked her to marry him. We have the letter and Gore was a good enough writer not to be ambiguous about his intentions. But Parini describes the whole affair to us as though the story was an invention (or misunderstanding?) of Nin’s. “She later bragged that Gore begged her to marry him, to return to Guatemala as his wife. He may have said this, but she doubtless understood he wasn’t serious. How could he be?” Well, very easily. Not only is there all that spectrum business that we thoroughly covered above and don’t need relitigate here but, as Parini surely knows, people with a pronounced same-sex attraction very often married partners of the opposite sex for any number of reasons, and continue to do so. Paul and Jane Bowles – good friends of Vidal’s – were among them. In any case, Nin didn’t any more sleep with her husband Hugo after a number of years than Gore slept with his own eventual long-term partner Howard. They were too busy sleeping with everyone else on the planet.

Vidal was remarkably consistent in his vision of sexual dimorphism, at least for someone desperate to cover up something about which he was embarrassed. In his 1991 essay “The Birds and the Bees,” he plays the same notes in a slightly looser style:

Actually, the percentage of the population that is deeply enthusiastic about other-sex is probably not much larger than those exclusively devoted to same-sex–something like 10 percent in either case. the remaining 80 percent does this, does that, does nothing; settles into an acceptable if dull social role where the husband dreams of Barbara Bush while pounding the old wife, who lies there, eyes shut, dreaming of Barbara too.

“Gore was a shy man” Parini sums up toward the end,

who, when not wearing the elaborately contrived mask of Gore Vidal, could be awkward with people, even frightened of conversations and encounters with those outside of his immediate circle. Having missed out on college because of the war, he became a lifelong autodidact, and one of the most learned men of his time.

Like Plato’s parting epigram for Socrates in Crito, this is a big claim. Also, like in Crito, Parini is probably correct. If we see lot of the man in Empire of Self but not as much of the learning, well that’s alright. The books aren’t going anywhere and Parini writes well and is always himself worth reading, even when his attention is misplaced.

“One looks in vain for his successors,” Parini ends his story. This is another way of calling Vidal sui generis. Of course he was. In an era of hasty blogposts and hot takes, slapped together into sloppy books with slogan titles (and renamed “essays” and sold in airports), we could stand to re-acquaint ourselves with this careful, thoughtful, and endlessly entertaining author and raconteur. If Parini’s new biography gets us a fair part of the way there, then it’s all to the good.

RAVELLO - AUGUST 7 : Gore Vidal poses at his studio of "Villa la Rondinaia", the Italian residence of the American writer, on August 7, 2004 in Ravello on Amalfi's coast (Peninsula of Sorrento-Italy). (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images FOR NY TIMES House and Home Section) *** Local Caption *** Gore Vidal
John Cotter is Executive Editor at Open Letters Monthly and author of the novel Under the Small Lights.