“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” So wrote Gore Vidal, who died last week at the age of 86 after one friend’s success too many. Since I’ve been forced lately to bear impotent witness to the various successes and downright triumphs of several friends and acquaintances, that quote of Vidal’s has been much on my mind. (My cholesterol’s kind of high, but my blood pressure is downright subterranean, in case you were wondering.) But, ironically fitting though it would be to make an essay on Gore Vidal all about its author, enough about me.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was brilliant, witty, talented, arrogant, snobbish, pompous, narcissistic, paranoid, petulant, and, with the passing decades, increasingly bitter. Does that pretty much cover it? ‘Fraid not. Gay Talese attests in this week’s Time that Vidal was capable of immense kindness, and if that’s not anecdotal enough for you, he was very nice to me when I asked him a question at a 92nd Street Y literary breakfast back in 1999.
But occasional instances of Vidal’s niceness seem to have been exceptions proving the rule. He himself even admitted that “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” If your familiarity with Gore Vidal is mainly through the writer or the public figure, your credulity can withstand that admission just fine. His fiction, essays, plays, pronouncements, and public appearances share a common thread of urbane, aristocratic, coldly intellectual contempt for just about everyone and everything.
Not that that’s always a bad thing. Vidal’s cool, sophisticated, skeptical tone is perfectly suited to outstanding novels like Burr, Lincoln, and Empire, which are a bracing corrective to the sanitized, diabetes-inducing brand of patriotism some Americans seem to think ought to be the only kind in stock. Julian provides a similar relief from religious pieties. Myra Breckinridge, on the other hand, is an uncharacteristically exuberant satire about sexuality, gender identity, and masculine vs. feminine ideals. I’ll have to double-check my Ovid, Petronius, and Rabelais, but I suspect it’s also the greatest work of literature to depict anal rape with a strap-on dildo.
There’s an established consensus that Vidal’s essays are better than his fiction. Yes, many of them are models of polemical and aesthetic semi-perfection, but I think that Vidal the man is often too strong a presence. The arrogant, snobbish, narcissistic, paranoid, petulant, bitter man. That guy. He is offhandedly dismissive of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Waugh, and other giants. He resents such “miniaturists” as Updike, Bellow, and Roth for writing about less epic, sweeping subjects than his own and getting more acclaim for it. I’d rather not get into his thoughts on Capote and Mailer.
Yes, it was a common theme in Vidal’s essays that he just wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved. He variously attributed this neglect to homophobia, reverse-snobbery, and just plain bad taste on the part of the public, the critics, and the academy. Vidal’s contempt for virtually every American political leader of his lifetime (and most of the ones before) almost certainly owed something to his ambitions being thwarted in that quarter as well. Vidal’s maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and his father was director of the bureau of Air Commerce under F.D.R. (and also, apparently, the proud possessor of three testicles). He was related by marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy. He was a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter, and possibly of Al Gore. The spawn of America’s political ruling class, Vidal clearly felt political greatness was his birthright.
‘Twas not to be. Vidal ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York in 1960, and failed to win the Democratic Senate nomination when he ran in California in 1982. Needless to say, he did not consider either defeat to be his own fault.
Disappointed in literature and politics, Vidal spent a considerable amount of his long life’s latter years as a kind of cultural Jeremiah; in his essays and TV appearances he weighed in on the decline of American democracy, of western letters, of civilization, of… well, you name it. His persona, public and literary, while never exactly cuddly, became increasingly haughty and snide. Resentments old and new were never very far from the surface, and an ugly anti-Semitism (is there any other kind?) arguably manifested itself in Vidal’s writings about Israel and contemporary literature. (Vidal speculated that his work would have been held in higher esteem had he been ugly, lower-middle class, and Jewish.)
Vidal also became noticeably smitten with conspiracy theory. His belief in the old right-wing chestnut that F.D.R. had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack was tolerable in a historical novel like The Golden Age, but idiotic as the line of serious historical inquiry he attempted to make it. Much more sinister was his claim that the Bush administration had similar advance knowledge of 9/11. Some have defended Vidal’s particular strain of 9/11-Trutherism as “soft-core” in that it stopped short of the common Truther canard that the White House actually planned and engineered the attacks. Well, the Penthouse-financed 1980 costume porno “Caligula,” for which Vidal wrote the screenplay, might also be technically “soft-core,” but it’s still gross.
It’s no great insight that the brilliant and talented are often deeply flawed human beings who leave behind imperfect bodies of work. Gore Vidal was a great writer (though not as great as he thought he was-Shakespeare wasn’t that good) who left what I think will prove to be an indelible mark on American letters. As a public personality, he could be precious, infuriating, and even cruel, but he was almost always entertaining and often fascinating. The parenthetically mentioned Shakespeare had Mark Antony observe that the evil that men do lives after them, while the good is interred with their bones. I hope, and think, that the opposite will prove to be true for Vidal.