Sunday, 29 May 2016

A life in feuds: how Gore Vidal gripped a nation

I came to know Gore Vidal in the mid 1980s, when I was living in southern Italy, virtually a neighbour, and our friendship lasted until his death in 2012. Needless to say he was a complicated and often combative man. It took an effort, strenuous at times, to remain a close friend; but it seemed to me worth putting in the time, allowing him to relax into his deeper self, which was actually quite shy, even solitary. The public mask didn’t fit the private man very well, and I was always much relieved when he took it off.

Vidal would dwell at length on his feuds and fixed on the idea, which he took from Goethe, that talent is formed in stillness but character “in the stream of the world”. He entered that stream and swam vigorously, often against the current. And his wide knowledge of the world informed his work – the brilliant historical novels, especially Burr (about Aaron Burr, a founding father) and Julian, about the fourth-century Roman emperor. His seven novels about American history form an elegant and entertaining interlocking series that runs from the Jeffersonian years through the mid-20th century, and which puts his vast erudition on display in palatable ways. His essays, as gathered in United States: Essays 1952-1992, make up more than 1,000 pages of vivid writing about books and ideas – perhaps his main contribution to the republic of letters. His perspective is always that of the lofty intellectual. As John Lahr once said, Vidal “pisses from an enormous height”.

A brilliant writer and public intellectual who could take on the world when he felt it necessary, Vidal was a brave figure on the political scene who would stand up for things that meant a lot to him, and he made his case eloquently before a wide audience. He was that nearly extinct variety of human being: a famous writer whose fame extended far beyond the realms of literature: a wit, a political pundit, a sought-after TV guest, a scold and much more. As he put it himself: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” That he was also a brilliant novelist and essayist was often beside the point.

From the start of his career in the late 1940s, he looked around to see who else was getting attention, and it irked him when others seemed to outflank him. Truman Capote certainly annoyed him, and he honed his talent for feuding with this feline young novelist from the American south whose first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, swept the bestseller lists in 1948. That same year, Vidal’s first major novel, The City and the Pillar, arrived noisily on the scene; one of the first American novels with an explicitly gay theme, it turned Vidal into something of a pariah in the literary establishment.

Vidal lived in New York after the war, as did Capote, and they moved in the same social circle, over which Tennessee Williams presided. “I first met Truman at Anaïs Nin’s apartment,” Vidal recalled. “My first impression – as I wasn’t wearing my glasses – was that it was a colourful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

It annoyed Vidal horribly that when Life magazine ran an article on the new generation of writers it featured a large picture of Capote and a small one of Vidal. The two men quarrelled endlessly in those days, exchanging punches in the press over each other’s styles. Vidal accused Capote of imitating the prose of Carson McCullers with “a bit of Eudora Welty” thrown in for good measure. Capote suggested that Vidal’s main literary influence was the New York Daily News. Overhearing this particular exchange, Williams rolled his eyes in mock horror: “Please! You are making your mother ill.”

In 1948, Vidal travelled to Paris, where he met up with Williams and Christopher Isherwood, and, the purpose of his visit, saw the elder statesman of world literature, André Gide, who had won the Nobel prize in literature the year before. Gide was at the peak of his fame, a public intellectual who represented, for Vidal, an ideal of sorts. Like Vidal, he considered homosexuality utterly natural, noting that it could be found in most of the advanced cultural moments in history. That Gide was also gay intrigued Vidal, and he gratefully accepted from the 79-year-old writer an inscribed copy of Corydon, a volume of four dialogues on homosexuality.

The young writer admired Gide’s severe manner, recalling his large bald head with a dent above the brow, skin like rice paper and eyes that glistened with a combination of “lust and intelligence”. Gide smoked, talking in mandarin French about Oscar Wilde and Henry James as if he were giving a lecture. When Vidal heard that Capote had been there only a couple of days previously, he nervously asked the old master how he found him. “Who?” asked Gide. Then he remembered that there was a young American author by that name and found on his desk the article from Life that featured Capote. Unsurprisingly, the young Vidal winced.

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