Gore Vidal was, at times, a man effortlessly timeless, or at least able to convey times wider than those he lived through. A man of many talents, author, playwright, screenwriter, man of letters, political commentator, so-almost a politician, liberal, right to be gay, if not necessarily gay rights, champion because there was nothing remotely abnormal about it, self-imposed American exile, satirist, wit, and national conscience when it appeared the United States had none, I wonder who could take his place on the America’s intellectual stage.
Vidal formed part of the cadre of writers, all American, all white, all male, who dominated the sixties and seventies literature scene being famous in themselves as much as for their words. Vidal follows John Updike, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and all the others to the far side, leaving just Philip Roth still working, still writing, still being relevant in a way, for a certain sort of person.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Vidal recently, even before the news of his death. I wanted to shoehorn him into an upcoming blog series about the pleasures of rereading, but also I’ve just read, for the first time Messiah, which I’d found a tatty paperback of for seventy pence. A compelling almost science fiction drama about the power of the media and religion of the masses taking in notions of fleeting celebrity, it was, incredibly, published in 1958 not 2008. He didn’t make the cut of the writers I wanted to discuss, partly because he was threatening to be yet another white male and I already had several of those, but also because the sheer unadulterated joy I’d experienced in rereading the entirety of the Narratives of Empire series in historical chronological order was no surprise and so doesn’t fit with the theme I’m exploring.
The Guardian makes a compelling case Vidal’s novels being irrelevant and lumpy when faced with his talents as an essayist, but with a career spanning sixty years, from Williwaw, in 1948, to the final Narratives instalment, the Golden Age, in 2008 it’s hard to ignore such a vast body of work. It’s probably no surprise that he was destined for greatness, he came from that sort of family. He learnt to read through reciting congressional records to his blind Grandfather, the senator TP Gore, whilst his father founded the airline TWA and was commerce secretary for Franklin Roosevelt and his mother got drunk. Jackie Kennedy was his half sister through his mother’s remarriage which got him a front seat at the early-sixties Washington Camelot, although he later described John Kennedy as “the most charming man I ever met and by far the worst President.”
As a writer he was utterly unafraid of saying what was right and true. The City and the Pillar, his third novel at a time when it was normal to build up a catalogue before success came knocking, no one-novel wonder massive sales in the late forties, caused outrage for its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality. Shocking at the time, today rather than anything remotely graphic it instead reads as a tender paean to his love killed on the beaches of Iwo Jimo. “There are no such things as homosexual or heterosexual people, merely homosexual or heterosexual acts,” he once said and whilst seemingly preferring men for most of his life there were times where he was distinctly unfussy as to his partner’s gender.
The novel caused such controversy that he was forced into his first exile, escaping to Hollywood to write plays for television and films, including an unaccredited rewrite of Ben Hur. When he eventually returned to the novel form with the superb Julian, a dramatised biography of the only non-Christian Emperor to ascend to the purple following Constantine’s conversion of Rome in 330AD, the book’s huge success may have indicated he was prepared to shy away from upsetting the conservatives. Far from it. The likes of Myra Beckenridge, a satire starring a trans-sexual feminist, the aborted involvement with the notoriously mildly pornographic film Caligula and the novel Live from Golgotha which had him appearing on Newsnight in the UK with irate theologians answering the charge that “there’s no historical evidence for St Paul being homosexual” with “there’s no historical evidence for St Paul existing” showed he never lost his nerve.
Somewhere along the way he managed to fall out with most of the literary and political establishment, or at least those who dared to disagree with him. He spitefully declared Capote’s death to be a “good career move” and the argument with Mailer deteriorated so badly that at a party Mailer threw whisky over Vidal, head-butted him and then punched him to the ground. Vidal responded with arguably the most biting insult to a writer: “What’s the matter, Norman? Lost for words again?”
He argued with Bobby Kennedy so badly – for apparently touching Jackie in too intimate fashion of all things - that he was banished from Camelot. It was hardly the man of letter’s most erudite moment, apparently descending into a “no, fuck you” row. Despite his worldly, liberal, privileged image, meek he was not.
In the twenty-first century he seemed to take the election of George W Bush as a personal affront, as though America had betrayed him (even though he was living on the Italian coast, self-exiled again, at the time) – but, then again, he was a relative of Al Gore. Still, he used his position of authorly authority to go after “the junta”, as he referred to the administration, and was one of the first commentators to seriously suggest – and be taken seriously – that the wars in the Middle East were more about oil than any moral right for revenge.
Age was however catching up with him. Shortly after his appearance at the Hay Literary festival in 2008 my friend Jonathan commented that he appeared less like a giant of literature and more like a tired old man who just wanted to be left alone. And who, to be honest, would have wished to prevent his retirement after having done so much other than himself.
Despite all the above, and a lot more besides, it is the Narratives of Empire series for which I, personally, will remember him best. An entire education in American political history for the uninitiated, ie me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez called them “historical novels or novelised histories” unable to tell apart the fictional bent and the repetition of fact. For me, they are like an exceptional version of the West Wing with more heart, better jokes and real events against a backdrop of a society evolving at a pace never seen before.
The series came about almost by accident. Vidal took the maxim write what you know and crafted Washington DC as one of his comeback novels, essentially an account of the Roosevelt administration using the insider knowledge of his father and grandfather plus a thinly disguised Kennedy and dollops of gossipy scandal. The process seemed to awaken an urge in him to cement his country’s brief history into a fictional cannon. And so followed Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire and Hollywood taking in, respectively, a Vice-President who killed a rival in a duel whilst in office, the civil war, a stolen Presidential election, American imperial expansionism through the domination of trashy media and the vanity of celebrity. Who says that the lessons of the past aren’t laid out before us today to be ignored?
The novels told, mainly, through the eyes of a fictional family whose generations lurk around the corridors of power have a deep rooted affection for the country and the men who made it, but shirk away from sentimentality and the placing of people on a pedestal. Everyone in history is human, everyone is fallible, heroes are just those who don’t get found out. That’s what makes them real and interesting. That’s what makes them just like us.
The Golden Age is an odd book, the final part of the Narratives series it is partially a rewrite of Washington DC, partly a companion piece, going further and beyond, with the same yet different characters and events, the writer’s camera turning left when its predecessor exited stage right. Vidal himself even crops up towards the end as a legitimate cultural figure of the capitalist Empire. It’s almost as though he drawing to a close a magnificent sequence of novels, America’s past and his own life on the page as his vanity demanded.
“...the generations of men come and go and are in eternity no more than bacteria upon a luminous slide, and the fall of a republic or the rise of an empire – so significant to those involved – is not detectable upon the slide even were there an interested eye to behold that steadily proliferating species which would either end in time or, with luck, become something else since change is the nature of life, and its hope.”
The Golden Age? The light’s gone out now.