Foolishly, I swore off fiction by the time I was sixteen. My reason: Idol Worship.
Several years of nothing but a healthy diet of Jeeves, Blandings and Psmith made other writers pale in comparison. No point, I thought, as the novelists would never hold a candle to the prose and wit of P.G. Wodehouse. My devotion to one author led me to other genres like history, of which I am still an avid student.
A few years later, I was handed a well-thumbed copy of Gore Vidal’s Burr, a fictional account of the flamboyant politician best remembered for murdering former U.S. Vice-President Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I was not aware of the concept of historical novel, and so the thought that history could be presented in fictional form intrigued me. Four pages in, Vidal’s flair and wit had me trapped. My shame at forsaking P.G. Wodehouse was overcome by the discovery of Gore Vidal.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born in 1925 in West Point, New York. Schooled at the ultra-exclusive Phillips-Exeter Academy, his privileged background (his grand-father was a U.S. Senator, former Vice-President Al Gore is a cousin; and his mother was married to Jackie Kennedy’s step-father) and glamorous career as writer, essayist, scriptwriter, play-write and politician has seen him interact with some of the most famous characters of the 20th century. Who else but Gore Vidal could be in the middle of earth-shaking literary events.
Like his brawl with Norman Mailer at a cocktail party in Manhattan, his affair with beatnik novelist Jack Kerouac, or his altercation with right-wing pundit William F. Buckley on live television. Once Vidal had to literally pull an enamoured Glorious Bird (the nickname he had for Tennessee Williams) off President John F. Kennedy (“Bird, you don’t go cruising the White House!”). He even co-wrote the script of the Hollywood classic Ben-Hur (unbeknownst to Charlton Heston, Vidal convinced the actor who played the part of Messalah to play the role of spurned lover as a means of justifying the endless rage Ben-Hur was subjected to).
Being witness to the familial relations which drive power at its highest levels, Vidal understood the minds of the great men who have governed America. His descriptions of the American “experiment” with republican constitutionalism from its early days to its modern form as imperial monolith set out in Burr,1876, Lincoln, Empire and The Golden Age can inspire only awe. Not only do great men and great events unfold before you, Vidal’s grasp of history and his powerful imagination bring the dead back to life. Vidal’s iconoclasm and, I believe, deeper understanding of what drove those man and women, brings to attention a version of history radically different from its received form. Indeed, Gore Vidal rivals Noam Chomsky as one of America’s few voices of political conscience.
After Burr, I turned to Live From Golgotha, Vidal’s farcical look at the origins of Christian Dogma. Then to Kalki, Duluth and Myron Brekenbridge, all Gore Vidal “creations” that mix time and narrative to spread a story over several eras and allow him to pursue familiar themes of sex, gender and American popular culture. In all, I was impressed with Vidal’s ability to hold nothing in false reverence, to connect the problems of the present with the mistakes of the past, and to prove as false and frivolous some beliefs which we assume to be true. But most of all, I was impressed with how smart, bitchy and funny Vidal could be. For instance, he was once told his writing was meretricious. “Meretricious to you,” he replied, “and a Happy New Year to me.”
It is in his incarnation as an essayist, however, that I believe Vidal truly shines. His experiences make his witness to the some of the events that have shaped our lives. But his connections have meant that he saw those events as an insider. And it is here that Vidal, almost as the serialist of 20th century American politics and culture, betrays the soul of a tragic libertarian idealist. All men are flawed because, just like the men and women we all are, they are human. Vidal as essayist, in ever elegant prose, explains the contradictions of American life in terms so vivid that you could imagine them to have been written for you. Gore Vidal towers over his contemporaries. His great range of subjects, his intimate knowledge of the past and his piercing wit have no less than changed the way we think and live.
That is why I love Gore Vidal.