Saturday, February 16, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Gore Vidal


Gore Vidal seems a rare commodity these days, a man who knows and speaks his mind. This is not a knee jerk, reactionary, leather booted mind, but one endowed with perhaps more than it's fair share of wit and real perspicacity. There is a genuine breadth of understanding and perspective evident in these memoirs. Though he comes across as a little world weary, and in an 'I told you so' frame of mind, as he sums up his life, and that of others who've inhabited it. I've heard him speak quite eloquently on the radio, and read some of his novels, plays and essays, in a compendium volume I picked up cheaply at Fopp for £3. All contain elements of a wise, ironic perception of the political and cultural landscape that is the American Empire, as Vidal insists on calling it.

He calls both 'Palimpsest' and 'Point to point navigation', a memoir, these are not autobiographies. Of the two, 'Palimpsest' is the better realised. The structure is more obviously a reflection on a full and incident packed life. Passing too and fro, from remembering how a person or incident felt at the time, to reflecting and reconsidering it from today's perspective. 'Point to point navigation' felt, in comparison, insubstantial and closer to a book of celebrity gossip, or even bitching. Assembled not out of necessity, but out of a contractual obligation with a publisher. Snippets of recollection are presented with no real thread, like some left over crumbs from a much richer, and more fulfilling meal, that was 'Palimpsest'.

Born into a politically active family, with a Senator for a Grandfather, but with no real wealth or estates to pass on, Gore Vidal was forced to make his own way in life. He was not to follow his entrepreneurial Father into the aviation business, but to make his name as a writer. After the scandal which followed the publication of 'The City & the Pillar', the first novel to deal openly with a homoerotic relationship, Vidal became a pariah amongst the literary movers and shakers in Mc McCarthy's America. This forced him to work in low brow Hollywood and TV, before later returning in triumph to success in the Theatre, as a means to earn a living. His interest in politics, however, never deserts him, his most successful play 'The Best Man', still has contemporary relevance, particularly in this presidential election year. It is an uncomfortable and revealing play about the wheeling, dealing and mud slinging going on in the back rooms at a Democratic convention. He clearly brought his own experiences of real political figures to bare in it's characters and plot.

Vidal doesn't suffer fools gladly, dislikes all forms of deceit, out and out lying, and the inveterate fake. He has not a kind word to say about Truman Capote's habitual fibbing, and repeats his accusation that Capote shamelessly ripped off other peoples work, and paraded it as his own. His close association with JFK, and Jackie Kennedy in particular ( she being his step- sister ), is not without bitterness. He regrets, in hindsight, supporting such a flawed individual as JFK, and knowing it was all part of a concealed family plan to found a political dynasty. Gore later blows the cover on this plan, not just to expose the deceit, but to deliberately sabotage what was left of his own standing in conventional politics. At some point he seems to fall out with even his closest friends, usually because he speaks his mind, unguardedly and far too plainly. Does he have any lifelong friends left, one has to ask?

Though his observations are as acute as ever, and his criticisms informed, prescient, but sweeping. I get a sense of a certain emptiness at the core of Gore Vidal. He hold himself perpetually aloof, as only from that distant perspective can he observe all people and things with such dispassionate clarity. Though there is plenty of insight and criticism of others, there is little by way of concrete self-reflection, or self- analysis. Gore, as he presents himself here, seems to have grown up with his self-confidence undiminished, and his intellect flawless. Certainly, he was a handsome, if not striking man, in his younger days. His first, and so he says, only love of his life, Jimmy Trimble, died early in the taking of Iwo Jima, when he was 19 years old. Gore presents this in 'Palimpsest' almost as if this love was an unfulfilled obsession that continues now. How he felt towards Howard Austor, the man he lived with for over 50 years, remains a mystery. Even Howard's illness and eventual death is described in the manner of reportage, stripped of emotional resonance. Gore cannot seemingly drop that mask of detached observer even then. The nature of his relationship with Howard, is never explored, all he says is that it wasn't based on sex, or even love. One must assume it was an 'open' relationship, as he talks repeatedly about his compulsion for promiscuous sex. Whilst understandable not wanting to be caught in any predefined category, he leaves his personality and motives as one prolonged and worrying question mark.

Whilst I found both books interesting, they were rarely a fascinating or absorbing read. The lack of emotional presence, hampered and bothered me. It bothers me still. As clever, humorous and perceptive as Gore can be, I'm not sure I'd like to be in his company for long. In many ways it's not surprising he's made enemies inside and outside the American Establishment. It also explains why he's always been popular in the UK, we love any American who'll give the USA a hard time. Though I don't think he currently occupies that role. For a while Noam Chomsky was adopted for this dubious position by the informed liberal intelligentsia. The present occupant, Michael Moore, seems by comparison, a lightweight buffoon, and almost an indictment of the very shallowness and duplicitous nature of the media, which Vidal is so scathing of. Gore Vidal remains a maverick political commentator, but his cold streak of heartlessness, means you can never really warm to him.

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