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In the preface to his 1988 essay collection, “At Home,” Gore Vidal wrote: “I shall never write formal memoir (I have never been my own subject, a sign of truly sickening narcissism). In any case, as I write of politics, literature, aviation and my father, I do, occasionally, strike a personal note, in order to give some of the geography, if nothing else, of my own life.”
Since he was the one who brought up “sickening narcissism,” let’s go ahead and say it: The personal note in Vidal’s work, whether he was ostensibly writing about politics, literature, aviation or anything else, was never “occasional.” The “geography” of his own life has been virtually his only subject, which means that his new memoir, “Point to Point Navigation,” a follow-up to “Palimpsest” (1996), the first memoir he promised not to write, is, by definition, unnecessary.
For decades now, in print interviews, essays and TV guest appearances, Vidal has gone on and on about — take a deep breath — his father, Eugene, one of the country’s great aviation pioneers; his apathetic relationship with his mother; his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; his intimacy with Jacqueline Kennedy (some kind of connection through marriage that I never could get straight) and his subsequent falling out with Bobby Kennedy; his friendships with Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Newman; his on-again, off-again relationships with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote; his dogged insistence that there is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person, but merely “heterosexualists” and “homosexualists” (I still don’t understand the difference between a heterosexual and a heterosexualist, but let that pass); the death of the novel; the collapse of the American empire … and always, always in relation to himself. A self-created mythos bordering on kitschy myth-mongering has always been the real subject of anything Vidal has written or talked about.
So many conversations with famous friends over the years that no one else was there to witness, so many witty remarks by Vidal recalled only by him, so many famous names dropped. Dipping into the essay collections at random we find: “The last time I saw W.H. Auden …” and “I once asked Andre Gide several searching questions …” and “The last time I saw Dorothy Parker …” and “Carlos Fuentes told me …” If you groove on this kind of highfalutin gossip, “Point to Point Navigation” is your kind of book. To wit: “In London, [V.S.] Pritchett and I belonged to the same club …” and “I suspect that Paul [Bowles] found unfathomable my interest in how the American experiment was turning out …” and “Federico — pardon me, Fred to those few of us who knew him well — Fellini,” calling him to say “We must meet immediately.” He wants the advice of Gore — damn, how could I have forgotten, I meant Gorino — on how to deal with Paramount Studios. “You know all this?” he asks Gorino rhetorically, “Ah, of course, they tell you, don’t they?” Of course, they do. Everybody tells Vidal everything; like Nick Carraway in “Gatsby,” he is privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men all over the world. You may not have known that he knew Auden or have cared what club Vidal or Pritchett belonged to, but legends aren’t built by sitting around and waiting for other people to tell these kind of stories about you, especially when none of them ever has.
“There’s no such thing,” he tells us for the umpteenth time, “as a famous novelist now … I use the adjective in the strict sense.” By “strict sense,” he must mean novelists who were famous for just writing novels, like in the old days when William Faulkner was so famous that all his books were out of print in the U.S. when he won the Nobel Prize. There are, after all, still novelists who pursue fame and achieve best-dom as talk show guests while pretending to loathe star-making machinery. From his many appearances on the Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett shows to his guest shots on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and even his legendary live blowout with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic Convention, no writer has made more astute use of television. By the 1980s, Vidal’s name had become so associated with TV that in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” he was the featured guest on “The Jerry Langford Show” the night Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin takes it over.
Or at least, no “serious” writer has made such astute use of television, which made Vidal famous (if not a famous novelist). It’s doubtful that Vidal will remain so; a TV star’s name, like an actor’s before the age of film, is writ on water. The more interesting question is whether Vidal will continue to be regarded as a serious writer as his image fades. As the appearance of memoirs always calls a writer’s career into perspective, let’s look at the only part of Vidal’s career that will continue to matter.
Vidal’s reputation as a novelist has already begun to fade; indeed, regarding some of his notorious early works, such as “Williwaw” (1946) and “The City and the Pillar” (1948), it has already all but disappeared. Would anyone even remember his early works if Vidal hadn’t kept telling us, again and again, in essays, on talk shows and now again in his memoirs, that the New York Times blackballed reviews of his books for daring to use a homosexual theme in “The City and the Pillar”? Vidal seems to believe he can argue them into the critical acceptance he feels they should have received more than half a century ago. But the Times, like most of Vidal’s critics, was long ago whipped into submission — note the recent gushing reviews of “Point to Point Navigation” by both Christopher Hitchens and Janet Maslin — and still no one is rushing to read them. Isn’t it time to get over it and let his early books disappear into deserved obscurity?
Most of Vidal’s later fiction can be roughly divided into two categories. The fantasy-satires are best represented by “Myra Breckinridge” (1968), whose transsexual-in-Hollywood theme had jaws dropping in the late 1960s, but which is little read today. The second is his historical novels, the best of which are “Julian” (1964), about the last pagan emperor of Rome; “Creation” (1980), about a Persian ambassador who travels the ancient world from Greece to China; and “Lincoln” (1984). James Wolcott wrote off the lot of them as “club-footed,” but at least they have a sense of scope and narrative, and don’t have the irritating presence, as many of his other novels do, of Vidal whispering in our ear telling us which characters and ideas he wants us to embrace or reject. Even at their best, though, Vidal’s historical novels seem populated by signifiers, not living, breathing people as in the fiction of E.L. Doctorow or Kevin Baker.
What of Vidal the playwright and screenwriter? Again, one wonders if he would have any reputation at all in theater and film if he hadn’t so relentlessly promoted it over the years. “Palimpsest” spent a great deal of space telling us how Jerry Lewis ruined the film version of “Visit to a Small Planet,” a play that would surely have been forgotten if not for the Lewis fiasco. He tells us in “Palimpsest” that the film adaptation of his political drama, “The Best Man,” went “from commercial failure to ‘classic’ without intervening success.” Exactly when and where, outside of Gore Vidal’s memoirs, one wants to ask, did “The Best Man,” either as play or film, metamorphose into “classic”? And where is the evidence for the inside knowledge of the film industry that Vidal has made so much of over the years? What is there in his uncredited work on “Ben-Hur” or “Suddenly Last Summer,” the pumped-up feature film of Tennessee Williams’ short play, that reflects an intimacy with the craft of film writing?
Even for those who dismiss Vidal as a novelist and playwright there is Vidal the essayist and critic. This is the Vidal who has the best chance of enduring. Wilfrid Sheed nailed the difference between the two Vidals as early as 1969 in the New York Review of Books. In his nonfiction, as elsewhere, wrote Sheed, “Vidal is a divided man. One head says Progress, the other says traditionalist humanism, and the second head is not only the pleasanter but the more intelligent of the two.” I don’t want to put words into Sheed’s mouth, but I think this is a polite way of saying that Vidal is a fine critic and a crackpot pundit. Even as a critic, though, his limitations should be acknowledged. He was responsible, more than anyone else in the English-speaking world, for bringing Italo Calvino into our bookstores, and his justly praised skewering of post-World War II French literary theories helped restore sanity to a great many college students of my generation who stayed up late tearing their hair out trying to figure out what zero degree writing was and why we were supposed to care about it. But aside from the handful of writers who tickle his fancy, Vidal as a critic of literature and indeed of American popular culture as a whole is, in retrospect, sorely limited, particularly compared with say, Sheed, who now that I’ve brought him to this table, is both a more catholic and a more eclectic critic than Vidal, and infinitely less self-serving.
What Vidal doesn’t want to deal with he simply dismisses out of hand. For instance, aside from his endless proclamations about the death of the novel, he has had practically nothing of interest to say about the great innovators in fiction over the past 50-odd years — Calvino, yes, but not Borges (except to put down his imitators), Márquez or even Nabokov (aside from repeated hints that there was a feud between them, though somehow it never surfaced in the writings of Nabokov). As Sheed shrewdly observed 37 years ago, “In shooting down the New Novel, he makes sure to shoot down all hope for any other kind of novel as well.”
Most puzzling of all is Vidal’s failure to produce any incisive criticism of theater and film, two branches of the arts where one might have thought he would have genuine insight; aside from charming stories of Tennessee Williams’ eccentricities, he has really had nothing of particular interest to say about Williams’ work. It’s when we get to Vidal the political essayist, though, that we encounter some real problems. It’s doubtful that any writer taken seriously as a public intellectual over the past several decades has propagated more wacky positions, from his scheme for worldwide birth control to the belief that FDR maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor to his spirited defense of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Commentators of the right, usually those pricked by Vidal’s wit, are quick to label him a liberal, though in fact many of his express beliefs might be filed under libertarian or even libertine. In Vidal’s conspiracy theories and virulent anti-federalism — take a bow, Mr. McVeigh — one can find just as many attitudes embraced by the far right.
No liberal, certainly, would appeal to the notorious apologist for anti-Semitism, Bill Kaufman, author of “America First,” a book for which Vidal wrote the foreword and mysteriously kept his credentials as an intellectual. Would any self-respecting liberal or conservative have written, as Vidal did in a 1979 issue of Playboy, “Many Christers and some Jews don’t like poor white people very much, the old Puritan ground that if you are good, God will make you rich”? Or, from the same essay, “The hatred and fear of women that runs through the Old Testament (not to mention in the pages of our justly admired Jewish novelists)”? Or, “Whatever the original reasons for the total subordination of woman to man, the result [Judaism] has been an unusually ugly religion that caused a good deal of suffering not only in its original form but also through its later heresy, Christianity.” (I quote those passages, by the way, not because they are exceptional among Vidal’s views on Judaism but because they strike me as his purest expressions.)
Note to Mel Gibson: Next time simply drop a few anti-Christian slurs into your tirades, and you will find many are willing to regard you not as an anti-Semite but as an intellectual.
If you have followed Vidal’s career as a writer and television celebrity, “Point to Point Navigation” will, along with “Palimpsest” (available in paperback from Penguin), serve as a kind of Cliffs Notes to his life. Admittedly, the more than 260 pages of the current volume combined with the 430-plus pages of “Palimpsest” makes one heck of a thick Cliffs Notes, but then Vidal has had nearly 50 volumes published since “Williwaw” 60 years ago and has appeared on hundreds of TV shows. Unfortunately, this raises two questions, neither one of which I have a satisfactory answer for. First, either you don’t care about Vidal, in which case why would you want to read these books, and second, if you have followed Vidal over the years, why would you want to hear all this material rehashed? All the old feuds are resurrected — if I read him one more time on his almost coming to blows with Bobby Kennedy, I think I’m going to punch someone myself — and all the old enemies, most of whom we would have never known of in the first place if not for Vidal, are thrashed again. I would have thought that an editor, friend, someone would have advised him to stop going on and on about how Fred Kaplan supposedly screwed up his 1999 authorized biography, “Gore Vidal.” I got it the first time: Vidal thinks the book is full of errors. I hadn’t planned on reading it anyway, and even if I did, it would be a matter of profound indifference to me whether or not Kaplan was right about Gore Vidal and Paul Bowles renting a hovel in Tangier, Morocco, in 1949.
Much of the material in “Point to Point” overlaps with “Palimpsest,” as indeed all of it overlaps with several thousand words Vidal has written over the years already published in collections such as “Matters of Fact and Fiction,” “At Home” and “The Second American Revolution,” among others, as well as countless hours of interviews. There are, to be sure, long, beautiful, thoughtful passages about the passing of Vidal’s longtime companion, and a highly readable section on his friendship with Johnny Carson. “As we sat drinking on the balcony in the moonlight,” Vidal writes, “we recalled [Jack] Paar’s tantrums and how he had once, in a rage, walked off his own show. Also, how he had asked me if I’d like to be his summer replacement. I had said no. Paar was amazed, but then so was [Freddie] De Cordova, who asked me half a dozen times over twenty or thirty years if I’d like to sit in for Carson when he was performing in Las Vegas.” Did I say a section about Johnny Carson? Pardon. Of course, I meant a section about how Johnny Carson related to Gore Vidal.
All of this is narrated in the same tone of lofty personal indifference that has always characterized Vidal’s prose. Now, though, it sounds weary, as if the author has at long last become bored with his subject and is writing his memoirs again only because he doesn’t know what else to write about. If a single visual summed up the style, it would be of a Cheshire cat, smug and smiling and disappearing as we watch. Indeed, Vidal’s image in American literature is erasing itself as we close the book.
Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.More Allen Barra.