Date: August 03 2012
In a famous altercation between Gore Vidal and the novelist Norman Mailer after an episode of the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, matters got so heated that Mailer is said to have knocked Gore Vidal to the ground. Vidal, however, won the encounter on points by responding, from his prone position: ''I see words fail Norman Mailer, yet again.''
Words never failed Gore Vidal, and the sheer volume of his production, both fictional and essayistic, beggars belief. There are 24 novels, from the 1946 Williwaw to the 2000 The Golden Age, including an immense series of perverse, but massively well-informed, anti-readings of American history, beginning chronologically with the 1973 Burr. (The series reaches a high point with an outrageous account of Roosevelt deliberately bringing about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.)
There is a long list of non-fiction, memoirs, and even more perverse essays on public and literary matters. There are plays and screenplays, including Ben-Hur and a fine adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer. That judge of the literary pantheon, the Library of America, which has found justification for a volume of James Agee's film criticism as a classic of American prose, has not so far gone near Vidal. When they do, they are going to have quite a task in just bringing all the material into the same room.
And then there is the career as the professional controversialist, saying the unsayable as well as amusing, affronting or insulting interviewers. What the response was depended largely on the range of sympathy and intelligence of the interlocutor. The New York Times was so offended by The City and the Pillar's treatment of homosexuality in 1948 that it refused to review any of Vidal's novels for many years. Later, William F. Buckley was so riled by Vidal's urbane cattiness that he said, to Vidal's face on ABC News, ''Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.''
Vidal was never at a loss for an elegant turn of phrase or the sharp public put-down. George W. Bush was ''the stupidest man in the United States'', and Vidal went on to say that he could not be a conspiracy theorist about the administration, since ''they could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they had wanted to''.
Asked about the Roman Polanski child rape case, Vidal enjoyed saying, ''I really don't give a f---.'' Ronald Reagan? ''A triumph of the embalmer's art.'' These are the sort of provocations more common in the literary world than in public discourse. Vidal excelled at the literary dismissal, saying of Edmund White recently that, ''He likes to attack his betters, which means he has a big field to go after.'' It is unusual for this kind of critical, perceptive and witty mind to go into public conversation. But then, like very few writers, Vidal never separated the world of great public events, however idiosyncratically viewed, from the contemplative world of the polished phrase and the incisive observation, where the novelist thrives.
Vidal lived a public life, close to, yet never quite a central part of, public events. He was a member of the Washington gratin from birth. When he entered his last novel, an account of '40s politics, as a character, it was not so much in post-modern vein as in a plain account of public reality. His father was an Olympic decathlete and a founder of the airline TWA; his mother was a very smart socialite who married repeatedly and had (according to Vidal) a long affair with Clark Gable. A later marriage was to Hugh Auchincloss, who later still married Janet Bouvier, mother of Jacqueline Kennedy.
The intricate connection of sharing (at different times) the same stepfather seems to have produced some kind of binding as well as disillusionment with what came to be called Camelot; Vidal knew lots of presidents, but was forever most closely connected with the Kennedys.
The extraordinary thing is that, despite his outrageous opinions and writings, Vidal maintained a public life, and indeed a life within politics - he ran as a Democrat for Congress in 1960 and the Senate in 1982. He lost both times, but was by no means a joke candidate: in the Congress election he won 43 per cent of the vote.
Could anyone ever again have the career of a Gore Vidal? Is there space, or licence any more for someone who engages in public life with such knowledge and wit; such a command of texture, personality and policy? One of the most striking things of the past 40 years is the professionalisation of the careers both of politician and of writer.
Since Disraeli, very few novelists have engaged on a high level with both political and literary life. Most MPs who have written fiction have produced mundane to lamentable volumes.
The novel of political life, today, may be a genre effort which is certain not to surprise the reader. It was Vidal's one-time friend Christopher Hitchens who remarked that the standard Washington novel always includes a villainous part for the British ambassador, and a similar observation could be made about the Chief Whip in the English political thriller. Or political engagement may come with a domestic story of changing society, closely observed.
The political novel that looks at the political animal intimately, as Vidal's do, with a sense of public issues affecting and being driven by public lives, is now a rare beast. (A recent example in America is Curtis Sittenfeld's splendid American Wife, the contrived autobiography of a presidential wife startlingly like Laura Bush.)
A couple of unusual examples of publicly engaged figures among novelists might include Robert Harris, whose social connections have given him a rich understanding of public figures, rewardingly displayed in The Ghost as well as, like Vidal, in a number of novels of ancient Rome. And there is the very different figure of Ferdinand Mount, whose exceptional novels, memoirs, detailed studies of history, and political and journalistic interventions draw on his experience close to Mrs Thatcher in the early '80s, and who, like Vidal, apparently knows everyone.
Vidal, casting around for a ''successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino'', in the late '90s nominated the English essayist and controversialist Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens later called him a ''crackpot''). But Hitchens pre-deceased him; and he was never a novelist, let alone one of Vidal's power, range and relish for outrage.
Gore Vidal was a one-off, and the conditions that might create a Vidal are now long gone; dead as the Jimmy Trimble who inspired so much in the first place.
London Daily Telegraph
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