Not really sure what I can add to the general hubbub about Gore Vidal: larger than life, massive and capacious of intellect; the man who said he’d met everyone but knew no one; opinionated to the point of not always making sense, but somehow always right even when he was wrong. Thoroughly elegant; rich, well-connected, a polymath of the kind you can barely be now, a product of the times, and of money; a thorough-going American who lived in Italy for 30 years, the buzzing conscience of American politics during my childhood; a challenge; the man who told Norman Mailer where to get off (though here’s a YouTube that shows he was far from the only person to do that); homosexual before it was cool, before it was ‘gay’, before it was legal, his literary career never recovered from the furore caused by his ‘homosexual novel’ in the 50s; and he was successful anyway – you can do that if you’re rich, well-connected, and a massive intellect. Movies. More novels. Political attempts (‘You’ll get more with Gore’, that much must always have been true). He always seemed as annoying as he was intriguing: necessary, bracing, efficacious, interesting. Funny. And mean. Certainly no one else like him.
And ‘Gore Vidal’ – one of those names that are two last names.
Gay-pin-up-handsome when young, a little undistinguished for a while when older, he settled into his caustic craggy handsomeness as he aged, like a sort of moral mountain of facial expressions… Being properly old did his image no harm at all. That red and gold damask chair he was so often photographed in… the expressiveness of the hand holding the walking stick…
You picture him talking, talking, the hand, those eyes – like my dad, really. The barbs, the quick retorts. Vidal was born three years earlier than my dad, two products of the same world in some remote way – as remote as the difference between Vidal’s life of wealth and expectation and my dad’s struggle up from the factory village of Sidney, New York. But some near misses, a generation, ambition, a war in common, a persistent alter ego, a goad. Anyway, suffice to say Gore Vidal even looked a bit like the Monsieur of Baroque.
I remember Vidal after 9/11, a long, long article in which he delineated his hatred of the Bush ‘junta’ and the ways in which he thought they had used the catastrophe as an excuse for what they were going to do anyway. Did he stop just short of the conspiracy theory? I can’t remember; I’ve looked for years for that piece and can’t find it anywhere. My fundamentalist Muslim deskmate got very excited when I told him about that, before I realised quite what his politics were; he was desperate for it to have been conspiracy-theory central. (There’s a point about the unpleasant bedfellows of the 00′s. It put me off Gore Vidal for a time, but I now think his argument has to have been more sophisticated than that.)
I had another article, an Observer supplement piece that I found moving, and I kept the magazine for several years. I only threw it out a few months ago, ragged and dusty; wish now I hadn’t.
Here, from the Guardian’s obituary today, is characteristic quote:
Asked by Robert Chalmers in 2008 if he had any regrets, he claimed to have nothing that he deeply regretted in life, but rejected the suggestion that this made him lucky.
“Maybe,” he suggested, “I just played the game harder.”
Now, that’s a rather testosterone-laden remark, and there are a whole raft of things I think it means – or can mean. Once you tease them out, though, it does sound a bit like one kind of a rule for living…
Editing in, the as-always brilliant Madame Arcati has written a wonderful blog post about Gore Vidal and the horoscope Anaïs Nin cast for him when he was a slip of a thing. Uncannily accurate, as Mme A points out:
So, what of Anaïs Nin and her horoscope? To discover her and it, seek out The Journals of Anaïs Nin (Volume Four 1944-1947) and head for pp 132-133. In her non-astrological character sketch of GV, then just in his early 20s and already a writer-celebrity, she describes a man largely unchanged 60 years later: ‘He mocks his world,’ she wrote, ‘but draws strength from being in the Social Register, from his friends’ high position…. I was saddened by his vanity, his display of position. He was partly dependent on worldly attributes. Terribly in need of glorification. I saw his persona in the world. It was another Gore.’