by Peter Byrne
A Book Review
Gore Vidal: Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964 to 2006, Doubleday, 2006, ISBN: 978-0-385-52016-4, 277 pages.
(Swans - May 7, 2007) Federico Fellini used to call Gore Vidal "Gorino." He knew him in Rome and gave him a chance to say a few words in his film Roma. How Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr., became Gorino can be observed in his two memoirs. The pungent Palimpsest came out in 1995 and the world-weary and flagging Point to Point Navigation in 2006. To avoid irritation with Point to Point, the reader should return to the first pages of Palimpsest. "A Tissue of Lies?" asks Vidal, "Could there be a more persuasively apt title for a memoir?"
A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. I've taken the memoir route on the ground that even an idling memory is apt to get right what matters most.
What matters most, maybe, but to whom? To Gorino of course, as he goes about sculpting his own statue for our delight. On the first page of Point to Point the author tells us that he's not always sure which of his memories come from life and which from the movies. So we have been warned not to quibble over tall tales, but to be content with elegant entertainment. It's a bargain the reader has no qualms about accepting, once he's got in a word for slighted autobiographers, plenty of whom have managed to combine personal with historical truth. Think of Ben Franklin, Henry Adams, Bertrand Russell, and Malcolm X.
Palimpsest begins in character with talk of Jackie and Jack -- Gorino has honed name-dropping to a fine art -- and then slips into his kind of sentimentality with the story of Jimmie Trimble. Vidal saw Jimmie, a schoolmate at St. Albans prep school, as a "hunter-athlete" and his other half in his quest, as adumbrated by Plato, to be one and whole. Frustration being the name of this sort of game, handsome Jimmie saw matters differently and when he died at nineteen on Iwo Jima left a grieving fiancée at home. It's a good story, but too pat and remote from the adult Vidal to seem more than a good story. Like Citizen Kane's "Rosebud," it has dramatic impact, but is too neat and blanket an explanation. It's a key, but no one's life, least of all Gore Vidal's, is merely a lock to be opened.
Covering the writer's first forty years, Palimpsest had the liveliest scenes of a public life that began at ten when he made the newsreels piloting his father's plane. Moreover, it was written in 1992-4, with the author in his vigorous sixties. By New Year's Day 2006 when he finished Point to Point, he was eighty-one and seriously ill, having given up his Italian home of four decades and buried his lifelong companion, Howard Auster. The memorialist, who has Montaigne's essays, "the ultimate touchstone," on his desk while he writes, does his great predecessor proud in his account of Howard's illness and death. It's a cool, painful piece of writing that's deafening with the unspoken and lets us guess at the quality of a life shared for fifty-three years. Howard's passing is as different from the Jimmie Trimble episode as daydream from reality. Vidal touches the heights when he reports on page 82 a remark that escaped the modest Howard in his delirium: "Why is it always about you?"
Larry McMurty (NY Review of Books, Nov. 30, 2006) thinks that this "chapter could have been printed separately from the gossip and the gab." It could, and probably will be by anthologists of the future. But if a memoir means to reveal a man whole -- warts and all is the cliché -- Gorino's self-portrait isn't complete without the bitchy asides.
Otherwise Point to Point is the book of a tired writer. He's an old pro, needless to say, and goes the route, although some of the very short chapters are so underfed they would have been better put out of their misery and others are scrapings from the bottom of the barrel. The same anecdotes keep coming up as if the Gore Vidal Story were a legend that can be referred to as we do to the feats of Paul Bunyan or King Arthur. In the end we are often less interested in what Vidal says happened than in the way he goes about constructing Gorino. For weary octogenarian though he may be, never does he throw the towel in on that enterprise.
Now Gore Vidal is an impressive novelist. His earlier books, like The City and the Pillar or Julian, were fresh and bold. Whatever deficiencies historians find in his American Chronicle novels, "those narrations of empire," that include Burr, 1876, Empire and The Golden Age, they remain powerful portrayals of people thinking politically in specific historical conjunctures. Fiction like Lincoln, no matter how many other interpretations of the period might contradict it, is a stellar accomplishment that will have a long life. Among the wealth of essays, there are vivid performances that may last even longer.
Given this mastery of his chosen art, you can only wonder why Vidal persists in trying to persuade the readers of his memoir that he's reached the same excellence in other fields. Granted, he wrote film scripts, TV drama, and several plays. But on the strength of a dramatic reading or two in the theatre and a handful of bit parts in movies, Gorino presents himself as a movie star. If you doze a moment, you might miss him altogether in Fellini's Roma, and yet he speaks on page 139 of himself as one of that movie's "four stars," on an equal footing with the luminaries of the Italian cinema, Anna Magnani, Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi.
In the same way, Vidal fancies himself a pioneer as a TV talk show guest and seems chuffed to find confirmation in an academic study by Marcie Frank, How to be an Intellectual in the Age of TV, subtitled, The Lesson of Gore Vidal. In a slack moment towards the end of Point to Point, Vidal, sworn enemy of "the hacks of Academe," devotes a whole chapter to a block quote from this Duke University Press book.
An unsuccessful run for Congress in upstate New York in 1960 and entry, equally unsuccessful, in the primary for the US Senate in California in 1982 make Vidal think he's also something of a political figure. That he became stepbrother to Jackie Kennedy Onassis through one of his mother's marriages convinces him he was a confidant of President Kennedy. It was a delusion cruelly punctured by the Kennedy family and the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The yearning to be more than a writer chimes with one of Vidal's oft-repeated set pieces bemoaning the fact that novelists no longer stand at the center of national cultures as they (supposedly) did in the 19th century. Ours, he assures us, is the age of the movies and he frankly admits that cinema is the only art form that brings him complete satisfaction. Are there hints here that a film of his life would be welcome? It must rankle that his archenemy Truman Capote ("a marvelous liar," page 42) already has had two biopics. Strangely, Vidal's embrace of newness in the movies and TV doesn't extend to the Internet that he judges unalloyed stupidity.
Vidal's social snobbery also has something to do with wanting to be more than a novelist. His maternal grandfather was a longtime US Senator. His father was director of air commerce for FDR and a founder of airlines. His mother married, after several tries, into a great fortune. But the confusion wrought by her divorces, his early entry into the writing life, his failure to attend university, and his apartness as a homosexual, all left him feeling an outsider.
In consequence Vidal has constantly to remind us, and perhaps himself, that he's in fact part of the upper crust. The careful mise-en-scène of his anecdotes concerning people like the British Queen's sister, Princess Margaret, President Kennedy or the Thai Crown Princess Chumbhot aim to show him accepted by these notabilities as an equal. Sadly, in such circumstances his snide subversive wit deserts him and he kowtows like any courtier. The stinging bee has flown in the passage on page 210 beginning, "One bright hot summer PM [Princess Margaret] organized a house party at the Royal Lodge near Windsor."
Point to Point doesn't rekindle controversies that have always accompanied Vidal just as steadily as big bookshop sales and talk show appearances. In the years from 1964 remembered here, the old disputes are left to smolder beneath the embers. In Gordino's practice, administering a therapeutic singe to the Imperial Republic has always been difficult to distinguish from an adroit career move. But in the memoir he seems confident that his reputation as gadfly with an incendiary mandible is secure. He can let himself go in a more elegiac vein.
Vidal does return to review his failed challenge to Jerry Brown in the 1982 California Democratic primary. This led him into another dust-up over homosexuality, the subject on which he has taken his most deeply felt stance. (He has always insisted, in the face of psychiatrists and gene researchers, that there are no homosexuals, but only homosexual acts.) Randy Shilts, "the first openly gay reporter," challenged Vidal to declare himself America's first openly gay Senatorial candidate. Vidal, in response, on page 67, quotes approvingly his defender at the time, the San Francisco journalist, Richard Rapaport: "...although it was no secret, his [Vidal's] sexuality was his own damn business and not a thing gentlemen of his generation comfortably advertised." Princess Margaret would have found the phrasing just right.
Vidal nonetheless had the guts to thrust homosexuality forward as a literary theme as early as 1948 with The City and the Pillar, his third novel. So upset was the most powerful reviewer of the day, Prescott at the daily New York Times, that he refused thereafter to review or even read Vidal's novels. But the young writer's ostracism was far from complete. And it's easy to believe that the astute Vidal, who always had a nose for publicity, made the most of any victimization. Gorino looked cute in martyr's robes.
As for current politics, Vidal probably felt that Point to Point was not the place to air his many views. He does comment briefly, pages 159-161, on the "stolen" election of 2004 and his preface to the Conyers Report. Otherwise the titles of his recent pamphlet-like publications speak for themselves: Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, 2004; Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, 2003; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to be So Hated, 2002. The last contains Vidal's thoughts on Timothy McVeigh. Will he still be spry enough to take up the cause of Seung-Hui Cho?
Gorino's politics come down pretty much to what he said in Palimpsest, page 334:
For me, politics had been the family business and I regarded it more as a process than as a matter of theory, much less ideology. But the radical populist base of the Gores had made me an instinctive noninterventionist, while the personal cost to me of the Second World War had been sharp.
The populist Senator T.P. Gore, Vidal's grandfather, was not only a noninterventionist but an enemy of FDR and government aid. Gore Vidal shares his distrust of corporations and cabals of political insiders. He believes that the country made a fatal wrong turning into the ways of tyranny and imperialism. This happened at least as early as the Civil War thanks to his bugbear Abraham Lincoln. At times Vidal takes it back even farther. His readers are plunged into a fantasy world as he juggles with the idea of a country that would have come out of the 1860s with no Union and that in the next century would have refused to participate in WWI and WWII. As a prime minister of Britain once put it, there are many fine games to play for people who don't have to deal with events.
Vidal knew the one-of-a-kind American expatriate writer Paul Bowles, who like himself came from a patrician family. His portrait of Bowles in Point to Point is sensitive and sharp. On page 112, Vidal contrasts his own attitude to Bowles's avowed hatred of America:
But then I have never thought the idea of a mere country could ever be sufficiently coherent to hate or to love as opposed to simply observe. I suspect Paul found unfathomable my interest in how the American experiment was turning out -- as exotic to him as I found his apparent passion for the primitive world of North Africa and other places to the far south and farther east.
The surprising thing about Vidal's thirty-some years in Italy was how little Italian politics and culture, antiquity apart, absorbed him. His Italian was sketchy. He spent his time on the Amalfi Coast writing about America, whereas Bowles in Africa or elsewhere tried his best to forget America ever existed.
Gorino has been accused of having no friends, and on page 5 of Palimpsest seems to accept the accusation: "...if you have known one person you have known them all." Still, a touching strain of the memoir is the author's account of time spent with Tennessee Williams, whom he affectionately dubbed "Bird." He depicts the twosome as a couple of monstres sacrés on the margins of, but above society, each spinning his particular poetic web.
Vidal always prized Williams's work. He even puts forward, on page 69, an original, and characteristically negative view of Elia Kazan's contribution to the plays as metteur-en-scène. The director would have done damage by "making them into sexy melodramatic commercial hits."
Of course the relationship of the two prickly artists eventually went west. Vidal blamed the playwright's paranoia, and Tennessee Williams the novelist's "frisky antics" in the publishing world.
But all the same, to sum up the summing up that is a memoir, what better picture than that of these two flawed minor deities, spaced-out Bird and sly Gorino, hovering above their tumultuous nation?
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