Gore Vidal by Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal pictured around 1945 by Carl Van Vechten.
From Literary Review:
Vidal defined his more outré work as ‘inventions’, but though Parini admits to admiring Myra Breckinridgehe shares the common wisdom that Vidal’s legacy takes two principal forms. The first is his ‘contribution to the biographical novel’. He was hardly unique in putting world historical figures at the centre of his fiction. Walter Scott may have kept the actual personages of the past off to one side, but, as Parini notes, there was, at the very least, the precedent of Robert Graves and I, Claudius. Yet Vidal did it consistently well and for a great many years, evoking late antiquity in Julian (1964) and America’s greatest political actors in Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984). Of those last two, the latter is better history and the former a better novel; still, Burr lacks the formal interest of E L Doctorow, news of whose death has arrived as I write.
Vidal’s second achievement lies in his essays. Parini suggests that the writer’s voice, ‘irreverent … knowing, urbane, and wryly bemused … was a gift to the late twentieth century and beyond’. The easiest place to find that voice is in the 1,200 pages of United States (1993), which collects his pieces from 1952 until 1992; other volumes followed in the years before his death. Vidal is wonderfully appreciative of William Dean Howells, for his political courage as much as for his fiction; brilliantly funny on the bestsellers of the 1970s; utterly savage and probably right about John Updike. Those literary pieces will last, and yet his many political essays quickly grow repetitive, however witty, however quotably polished. The same anecdotes are brought out, endlessly, the same phrases reappear, and for all their attention to what Parini calls ‘the daily injustices at work on this great stage of human folly’, the essays also ooze a sense of resentment. I might have been president. Henry Adams thought the same thing; Vidal made him a character in Empire (1987) and would have enjoyed the comparison. Doubtless he thought of it first.
No, Vidal’s greatest creation comes not in his fiction or even, precisely, in his essays, though Parini gets close in describing his voice. It can be found instead in such bons mots as the one in this book’s title, and in his propagation of an ‘empire of self’. His greatest creation was simply Gore Vidal. With the years he became less a person than a character, a character even for many of those who actually knew him, one best displayed not on the page but in television interviews and talk-show appearances.