Monday, November 06, 2006


Vidal times two

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times Book Review ran my piece on Gore Vidal's Point to Point Navigation. I'm a great fan of Vidal's earlier memoir, Palimpsest, so I had high hopes for this concluding volume. Alas, despite some beautiful passages and armor-piercing anecdotes, the whole thing falls to pieces at the end, and it includes some of the sloppiest sentences I've read in ages--not something I've ever associated with Vidal. I began this way:
In an era when droves of American writers have deserted the novel for the cozier pleasures of the confessional--and when pouring your heart out, preferably on television, has become a national sport--Gore Vidal remains an unlikely memoirist. Long ago, he pronounced himself "the least autobiographical of novelists." And despite Vidal's deep affinity for Montaigne, who spent his final decades contemplating the face (and the soul) he saw daily in his shaving mirror, our greatest essayist has never had much of an appetite for introspection.

Instead, Vidal's fine-toothed and ferocious scrutiny has been directed outward, at the great arenas of public life, including politics, theater and the movies--"three worlds," he has noted, "where no one is ever on oath." No other writer has peered so intently under the hood of American society. None can match his uncanny gift for (as he wrote of Roman historian Suetonius in 1993) "telling us what we want to know." But the author invariably kept one subject under wraps: himself. All we got was a million or so words of unbeatable prose and that tantalizing Cheshire grin. It was only with the 1995 publication of Palimpsest: A Memoir that Vidal finally took the witness stand.
You can read the rest here. In the meantime, here's something of a codicil: an interview I conducted with Vidal for in 1999. It's no longer accessible at Amazon--or anywhere else, for that matter--and I thought it was worth sharing. At the time we spoke, the author had just published The Golden Age, which wrapped up his (fictional) chronicle of American history, and we began by discussing his cameo appearance in that valedictory novel.

James Marcus: You've called yourself "the least autobiographical of novelists." Yet The Golden Age not only introduces you as a character but comes to a metafictional climax in your living room. What caused you to violate your cardinal rule?

Gore Vidal: Well, I am the least important character in the book. I have the smallest part, and make only three brief appearances.

JM: But what about the ending?

GV: At that point I enter as Author: as the creator of these imaginary characters and interpreter of their history. So it's really a device to come to terms with certain questions. What is history? Who are these people? What is life but energy, and what is energy going to do next? It's about metamorphosis, I suppose, and I guess I'm metamorphosing there as well. An autobiographical novelist, on the other hand, is somebody like Philip Roth, who writes only about himself, his marriages, his father, his operations, and the agony and joy of being the greatest living author.

JM: Although he loves to deny that he's writing about himself.

GV: Of course he does--because he's ever so subtle.

JM: Most of your previous "narratives of empire" relied upon prodigious amounts of research, but you were very much alive and kicking between 1939 and 1954. Did your role as a firsthand witness affect how you wrote The Golden Age?

GV: There's a prodigious amount of research in this book, too. Yet I did live through the period and knew many of the figures fairly well, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Longworth. I have bits of information and shards of memory which are useful in constructing the characters. At the same time, you feel a little embarrassed speculating about what these people were up to when you saw them only as official people, old people, distant people.

JM: When Lincoln was published, you spent quite a while trading the scholarly equivalent of Minié balls with various historians. Have the other books provoked that sort of scholarly contention?

GV: Very little. After the Lincoln dustup, I think the historians are quite wary of me, because I hit back hard and catch them out. For example, I had Henry James complaining about the Spanish American War in one book--pointing out that although empire had been the making of the British, it would be the ruin of the Americans. A reviewer in the Washington Times denied that Henry James could ever have said such a thing. And of course I was quoting from one of his letters! That's the way I work.

JM: In your fiction, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood seem to be the twin capitals of the American imagination.

GV: I suppose they are the twin capitals. I first wrote about the subject in Hollywood, which is only a bit about the silent-movie days--it's mostly about politics. In order to get Americans in a warlike mood, Woodrow Wilson had sent a publicist named George Creel to make sure that anti-Hun propaganda films were made. Wilson himself appeared in a couple of them, explaining the great danger posed to us by the Kaiser. Now, I have my character Caroline Sanford wonder what it would be like to reverse the process--to have Hollywood influence the people at large, who would then influence Washington.

JM: And did that happen?

GV: Louis B. Mayer did it, however unconsciously, when he made the Andy Hardy series. Those films were hugely popular, and convinced the entire world that we were nothing but an animated Norman Rockwell painting. So Hollywood in the end did shape America's view of itself, and therefore its politics.

JM: That process may have reached its pinnacle with Ronald Reagan's election.

Vidal: Highly symbolic, yes. And he thought he was in a movie the entire time he was in Washington! He had no clear idea of what he was supposed to do, other than seem sincere.

JM: Speaking of which, you refer to FDR as "the master in the White House whose vast depths of benign insincerity could never be entirely plumbed by any mere mortal." Who finally wins the insincerity sweepstakes?

GV: I would say that insincerity is a presidential necessity. You can't be sincere about all the things you have to do and say in the course of a day. Jefferson was easily the most insincere--but I think he tricked himself, he would get into a certain mode of sententiousness and believe exactly what he was saying. That's a presidential trick.

Now, FDR was truly astonishing, in that he provoked the Japanese into attacking us so that we could then go to war against Hitler. That took a lot of planning. He was terrified that he might be impeached, which is why everything pertaining to the Pearl Harbor attack was deep-sixed until 1995--you couldn't get at it. But we had broken all of the Japanese naval codes, and knew exactly where their ships were. Of course our court historians have to pretend FDR knew nothing about it, which means ignoring all the evidence, which they do superbly well.

JM: And what about the current presidential contenders?

GV: Well, Gore's going to win. And of the two, he is after all prepared to be president--he's been trained, he's quite intelligent, and so forth. I don't see that he can do much of anything, but that's the system (as Clinton discovered when he tried to give us a national health service, something that every civilized country has and we will never have, thanks to the insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and elements of the AMA). And Bush? Catastrophic. I mean, he shouldn't be allowed to run for office. It is plainly something so stupid that we've never seen its like before in a presidential election.

Look, America is run from the boardrooms, and I think we may just have to give up presidential elections. It was Richard Nixon who said that, domestically, this country doesn't need a president, that it runs itself. What he meant (and he was much misunderstood) was that the great corporations decide everything, including the economy. In his opinion the president was really only necessary for foreign affairs: he could start the odd war and have fun.

JM: It's a pity you haven't written a Nixonian novel. But generally speaking, your view of history seems very personality driven, which brings us to a question: Was FDR or Harry Truman or Woodrow Wilson truly making history, or riding on its coattails?

GV: That depends on whether you're a Carlyle man or a Hegelian. Carlyle believed in the Great Man theory of history, and Hegel believed in historic forces.

JM: Which are you?

GV: I'm both. I'm balanced. I appeal to another great thinker: Johann Gottfried Herder, the German 18th-century philosophe. He coined a word, einfühlen, for which there's no proper word in English. Empathy is about as close as you can come. But he was referring to the ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people that you know dressed up in funny clothes. It truly is another country, another world. And the capacity to feel your way into it, to give a sense of it, is a gift that requires einfühlen, and not many people have it.

JM: Obviously you do.

GVl: I believe so, otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing all those books. I do see that the past is not us, and that it's useful to know about. But it doesn't repeat itself. It's reachable, but there isn't much to be done with it, except gaze upon it and see how others managed things.

JM: But wouldn't you say the past is also there to be perpetually rearranged?

GV: Well, each generation does it in its own way, of course, and has its own obsessions. Figures come into fashion, go out of fashion, and in the United States of Amnesia, are generally forgotten altogether.

JM: In The Golden Age you call the United States "the brave pompous invention of the Enlightenment ... set in a wilderness forever dreaming itself Athens reborn, even as it crudely, doggedly, recreated Rome." This description seems to encapsulate your entire American chronicle. But which imperial period are we currently enjoying? Augustan? Or Neronic?

GV: We never had a proper republic such as the Romans did, not that they had much of a franchise. I would say that with the global empire on our hands, our imperial days are numbered. It's going to be too expensive to maintain all this. You know, 51 percent of the budget still goes for war, and the Pentagon has asked for another $60 billion a year for the next decade. That's what they should be talking about in this campaign, and that's the one thing that will never be mentioned. The military budget is sacred, along with the corporations that make those extraordinary weapons, like the bomber that can't fly in the rain.

JM: That would be a fair-weather weapon.

GV: Exactly. And while the candidates talk about debates and private life and little Lord Jesus and Moses, the presidency itself becomes increasingly irrelevant. At one point during the Gingrich coup d'état, Bill Clinton actually said, "The president is not irrelevant." Well, the very fact that it had crossed his mind meant that some serious seismic change had occurred in the land.

JM: Speaking of irrelevance, you've produced a witty and ironic and even semi-charismatic Herbert Hoover in The Golden Age. Were you just being contrarian?

GV: Wasn't that nice? All this country needs, he said, is a great poem. Hoover was a very interesting man, and much abler than people depicted him. Much of the New Deal he was already cooking up--public works and so forth. He was moving too slowly, though, and didn't realize the depth of the mess, and by the time he got cracking, Roosevelt was on the scene. He certainly hated Roosevelt.

JM: You have your own fictional stand-in poke fun at the idea of an American golden age. But is there any sense in which you take the title seriously? Was there a brief shining moment, or are we kidding ourselves?

GV: It's obviously ironic. But I do show the beginning of a golden age, which lasted from 1945 to 1950. Those were the only five years since Pearl Harbor that we haven't been at war. Until very recently, that is--and we're about to be at war again in Colombia, unless we already are and they haven't told us yet. Charles Beard had that great line: "Perpetual war for perpetual peace." That's American policy, and it's never ceased to be that way.

JM: But your golden age also had an artistic component, didn't it?

GV: Very much. That's why I introduce Tennessee Williams, Lenny Bernstein, Paul Bowles, Dawn Powell... and myself. For those five years, there was such an explosion in the arts! America, which had never even known about ballet, was suddenly No. 1 in the world, thanks to Tudor and Robbins and later Balanchine. No. 1 in the musical comedy, an art form we've now forgotten how to produce. We had A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman on Broadway at the same time. And people read novels! In 1948, the top book on the bestseller list was Orwell's 1984, followed by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. It was an extremely exciting time. And then Harry Truman replaced the republic with a national security state, which brought on the Korean War and loyalty oaths and the blacklist, and it died. It began, and then it went away.

JM: Did it die at Truman's hands in a deliberate manner, or was it the Zeitgeist?

GV: One can argue that the Zeitgeist created him, but I believe that it was very conscious stuff. Truman and Dean Acheson were two right-wing, rather limited men, who believed in force--and force had come their way with the atom bomb.

JM: Yet your portrait of Truman is itself quite complicated.

GV: That is ever my intention.

JM: Then you have succeeded again.

GV: Einfühlen!

JM: One of your characters is writing an essay on "those political dynasties that had decorated or degraded the American republic from the splendid Adams family down to the merry Roosevelts." You, of course, very nearly participated in such a dynasty. At this point are you relieved or regretful that the voters of the 29th District thought otherwise?

GV: It was my decision not to go to Congress. I nearly won it in 1960--I ran 20,000 votes ahead of Jack Kennedy, who pulled down the whole ticket. There was a great anti-Catholic backlash in the district, which none of us were prepared for. But four years later, in 1964, the seat was mine if I wanted it. I had just finished Julian, however, and decided that I didn't want to go to Congress. Simple as that.

JM: Did you give the idea serious consideration?

GV: Oh, in 1960 I wanted to win.

JM: And in 1964?

GV: No. I'd got a place in Rome by then, Julian had come out, and I was a novelist once more. Also: you can't do both. A writer's job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away. So you have two opposing forces in you, and you can't function that way.

JM: Can you think of a single example of somebody who's done both things decently?

GV: I can't. Clare Luce had her plays written for her. Winston Churchill was a windy self-promoter, writing stories about himself and his family. There have been very good writers who have been president, of course. Wilson was a very good writer, Roosevelt wasn't too bad, but again, it was all self-promotion.

JM: What about Lincoln as a stylist?

GV: Lincoln, I've always said, was probably the greatest American writer. And a close second was Ulysses S. Grant. But they're not creative writers.

JM: One last question. The past, according to one of your characters, is "the only place where you can get a good meal." Is there anything else to be said for it?

GV: Well, it's over with. We don't have to live through that again!

Very interesting Vidal interview. I've never had the inclination (or enough of a threat levied at me) to read more than a chapter or three from a GV novel, but I've gobbled his essays like vitamin pills (read all of 'United States', a biblical quantity of ink). He must be the only 'living' writer whose work I enjoy while having not a mol of desire to meet the man. And it's not just the fact that he called Ralph Ellison a 'jungle bunny' once. Sort of a 'non-ephebes unwelcome' aura about him...
Many thanks, Steve. I return to the essays constantly, less often to the novels--and yes, United States is Vidal's real monument. Never heard about that "jungle bunny" comment before: not his finest moment, to say the least. But when he's good...
J! I can soften that with this: Anais Nin wrote, in her fourth Diary, "Gore has a prejudice against Negroes." To which GV responded (in a review of the book from 1971), "Oh dear. Well, I was brought up by my grandfather, a Mississippi-born senator. I have since matured. I now have a prejudice against whites."
Oh, what a heavenly interview! Thank you....
Vidal actually ALLEGEDLY called James Baldwin a "jungle bunny," not Ralph Ellison. Though I find no documentation of this anywhere except Baldwin's own assertion.
Listen, that story about Gore Vidal is apocryphal. Supposedly, at a party at Vidal's house, Ted and Renee Weiss heard Vidal ask Ralph Ellison, "What's a jungle bunny doing around these parts?" If you believe Gore Vidal is capable of that type of sentence (like a stereotype of a southern racist), go ahead and believe it. In reality, the two biographies that this story comes from both infer that it wasn't true. The Ralph Ellison biography used it to show that some people found Ellison pompous and arrogant.
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