The Good and Bad of Gore Vidal

From Paradigms Lost, by John Simon

Where, figuratively, does Gore Vidal live? Is he, as many claim, an essayist of distinction who has wasted his time writing undistinguished novels, plays, screenplays and, formerly, even teleplays? Or is he a novelist of distinction who can toss off a clever essay or write for the stage and movies merely to support himself in the style to which he has become accustomed? But, then, as John W. Aldridge reminds us in The Devil in the Fire, “Vidal . . . rather dramatically announced . . . that he had finally discovered the novel form to be unworthy of his talents.” And where does Vidal live literally? One has heard glowing descriptions of his fabulous Roman apartment. But what, then, is American television to him, which he also seems to inhabit, not only appearing on every conceivable talk and interview show but also on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”? A home away from Rome?

Is he perhaps more interested in politics than in belles lettres? Many of his novels, plays, and essays deal with politics. He is descended from Senator Gore of Oklahoma, has hung around the White House, and has even run for political office, without success. In an interview in American Film, in April 1978, the interviewer remarked, “It’s been said on more than one occasion that you should be President.” To which Vidal responded: “I think you’re quite right.” Was he serious, or was it a put-on meant to dazzle the public? Yet, for all his television exposure, he has not really made much of an impression. Philip Roth once asked a student of his, “Who is Gore Vidal?” and was told, “A society hairdresser who has written a book or two.” This despite the fact that Vidal has debated most of the great minds of his day on television, including Norman Mailer (successfully) and William F. Buckley (unsuccessfully).

As Ned Rorem, the composer, diarist, and essayist, has noted in Critical Affairs: “Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, for example, are certainly more famous than their works, while Myra Breckenridge [sic] is surely more famous than Gore Vidal. [Not famous enough to resist misspelling.] But where Albee and Williams have peaked, as the saying goes, Vidal remains stable, he being also a mind, an idea mind.” (If you are going to be a mind, that, I would say, is the best kind to be.) Accordingly, Vidal’s new collection of essays, Matters of Fact and of Fiction (Random House, 1977), has received many glowing reviews, even though Vidal condemns the purveyors of “book-chat,” as he calls them–the very people who have made him famous. So, too, have a few lawsuits and his self-confessed bisexuality, which some still consider scandalous. Indeed, when I glanced at the entertainment page of the Times the other day and saw the headline WARHOL’S DESCENT INTO GORE, I thought for one uneasy moment that our most venerable middlebrow publication had sunk to a gossip sheet–but it turned out to be merely a review of Andy Warhol’s Bad, a rather gory movie. At this point, you may ask yourself what all this has to do with The Language. I was just coming to that.

I think that Gore Vidal’s greatest service to this society could be the proper packaging of his style and language. I do not see fiction as his true medium. As I wrote in a review of his Burr: A Novel in the New Leader, Vidal’s characters “are all intelligently conceived and observed, but they lack that racy, idiosyncratic, autonomous selfhood that severs the umbilical cord between a character and the mind that gave birth to him.” Of course, if Vidal were an experimenter or innovator–or what he calls, somewhat scornfully, “an R. and D. (research and development) writer”–this would not matter. But Vidal is pleased to consider himself what he is, an old-fashioned R. and R. (rest and recuperation) writer, and that requires full, three-dimensional characters.

Vidal is not really a playwright, either. In fact, it is for some unfavorable reviews of his plays that I earned my place in his sottisier in an essay entitled “Literary Gangsters,” which appeared in his penultimate collection. Apropos his play Weekend, I wrote in Commonweal: “Like his characters, [Vidal] seems to care only in a narrow way about achieving his aims–in this case, to write a successful Broadway play–and there is no sense of feelings, intellectual passion, human concern beyond the basic requirements.” And I spoke of “a basic coldness in the author.” So, in “Literary Gangsters,” I became–along with Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman, and the aforementioned John W. Aldridge, all of whom had given some Vidal product a less than ecstatic review–an outlaw: “There is nothing he cannot find to hate. Yet in his way, Mr. Simon is pure; a compulsive rogue criminal, more sadistic Gilles de Rais than neighborhood thug. Robert Brustein . . . is not pure; he has ambitions above his station. Mr. Simon knows that he is only an Illyrian gangster [a reference to my origin, or, as Vidal put it a few lines earlier, "a Yugoslav with a proud if somewhat incoherent Serbian style] and is blessedly free of side; he simply wants to torture and kill in order to be as good an American as Mr. Charles Manson, say, or Lyndon Johnson.”

I quote this at such length in order to show that, proud or not, Vidal’s style is rather incoherent: if I am a Gilles de Rais, who among criminals had the kind of preeminence Vidal would arrogate to himself among writers, how can I also be, as Vidal remarked at the end of his essay, a common mugger “who still prowls the criminal night, switch knife at the ready”? Inconsistency is only part of it, however; disingenuousness is the rest. For Vidal writes that “though no [journal] holds [Simon] for long, the flow of venom has proved inexhaustible.” Well, in 1970, when he wrote this, I had already put in ten years as the drama critic of the Hudson Review and eight years as the film critic of the New Leader. A reputable essayist ought to get his facts straight no matter how intense his antipathy to his subject.

Here let me quote the beginning of the biographical notice attached to the manuscript of a famous twelfth-century troubadour: “Peire Vidal was of Toulouse, the son of a furrier, and he sang better than any man in the world, and he was one of the most foolish men that ever lived, for he believed that all things that pleased him, or that he wished, were true. And song making came more easily to him than to any man in the world, and it was he who made the richest melodies and talked the greatest nonsense about war and love and slandering of others.” Gore Vidal likes to play verbal games with his name and find significance in them perhaps he can find some parallels between himself and his Provençal namesake.

Still, Vidal is an essayist of talent. I am not sure that I would bestow on him the mantle of Matthew Arnold or Edmund Wilson, as Stephen Spender does in his notice of Matters of Fact and of Fiction in the New York Times Book Review; nor am I quite convinced that Vidal’s “paradoxes at their best rival Oscar Wilde’s best,” as Edmund White asserts in his review of the book in Harper’s. But the new collection contains some very good pieces, as weighty as anything in Oscar Wilde and easily as witty as the best of Matthew Arnold. The learning may not be as encyclopedic as Edmund Wilson’s – certainly the approach is less lofty-but it is considerable all the same. Vidal, who prides himself on not having gone to college (which makes his hatred of academe rather excessive, considering that he was never its victim), is the best kind of autodidact: neither a stilted show-off like Edward Dahlberg or Kenneth Rexroth, nor a geyser of garrulity like Henry Miller. I guess Rome, now that the mephitic exhalations from the Colosseum have been checked, is no longer as perilous as it was in Daisy Miller’s day; and it is certainly provincial and uneventful enough to allow Vidal plenty of time to read and cultivate his idea mind. At least three essays in Matters of Fact and of Fiction are extremely diverting and useful. There is “The Top Ten Best Sellers,” in which Vidal, who must be as much of a speed-reader as he is a speed-writer, analyzes the ten best-selling books of 1973, all of which he has actually read. Since very few people of Vidal’s intelligence have the acumen and celerity required for this task, we get a rare, fascinating, and rewarding evaluation of America’s favorite reading in a given year. Characteristically, however, though Vidal makes some very good observations along the way, he does not quite manage to come up with a conclusion that goes beyond the fact that most of these novels were spawned by the kinds of movies their authors grew up on.

“The Hacks of Academe” is a review of The Theory of the Novel: New Essays, edited by John Halperin, and provides Vidal with a fine platform from which to inveigh against academic writing and rail at the teaching of literature in the universities. There are several brilliant paragraphs here, too long to quote, but I can reproduce two pregnant and pertinent sallies: “The efforts of the teachers now under review add up to at least a half millennium of academic tenure.” And this, about Donald Barthelme’s latest novel, which “is written in a kind of numbing baby talk reminiscent of the ’see Jane run’ primary-school textbooks. Of course Mr. Barthelme means to be ironic.” And now the sentence that kills: “Of course he knows his book is not very interesting to read, but then life is not very interesting to live either.” This is a kind of reductio ad absurdum in reverse: inflation ad absurdum, and it makes Barthelme (whether deservedly or not I don’t know, not having read The Dead Father) sound like a pretentious ass.

In “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction,” the unhappy Barthelme gets it again. This time Vidal surveys not only Barthelme’s own books but also those of the four colleagues Barthelme seems to admire above all others: Gass, Pynchon, Barth, and Grace Paley. Barthelme and Barth come off very badly; Pynchon less than well; Gass with only a flesh wound or two mixed with considerable praise; and Paley very well indeed. Yet Vidal is again inconsistent: in his summation, he writes, “The meager rattling prose of all these writers, excepting Gass, depresses me.” He has by this point clearly forgotten all about Paley. Whether or not one agrees with Vidal’s judgments, there are some trenchant formulations in this essay. Speaking of Pynchon’s prose, Vidal attributes its failings to the “rattle and buzz that were in the air when the author was growing up, an era in which only the television commercial was demonically acquiring energy, leaked to it by a declining Western civilization.” Or, discussing the esoteric French critic Roland Barthes’s book-length analysis of . Balzac’s story Sarrasine, in which, among other things, Barthes distinguishes between “writerly” and “readerly” texts, Vidal observes that his “style seems willfully complicated. I say willfully because the text of itself is a plain and readerly one in no need of this sort of assistance, not that Barthes wants to assist either text or reader.” Note how that last bit, spoken as it were, out of the corner of the mouth in a throwaway manner, causally punctures the hell out of Barthes. (It would seem, incedentally, that the pentagrammaton BARTH makes Vidal see red: Barth, Barthes, and Barthelme all get skewered.)

Better yet is the following: “Like so many of today’s academic critics, Barthes resorts to formulas, diagrams; the result, no doubt, of teaching in classrooms equipped with blackboards and chalk. Envious of the half-erased theorems – the prestigious signs – of the physicists, English teachers now compete by chalking up theorems and theories of their own, words having failed them yet again.” Note how an abstract concept – the English department’s wishing to compete with science – is translated into an image, slightly absurd but very concrete and with some basis in reality, to make a sharply visualized hyperbole that sticks in the reader’s memory.

The essay that is generally considered the best in the book is “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self,” which starts out as a review of Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs but turns into a double portrait: recollections of Williams and Vidal when they were much younger and saw a lot of each other in the heady atmosphere of Rome in the late forties.. Italy was ecstatically bursting into liberation after Fascism; they, no less ecstatically, after the constricting puritanism of America. I find this essay less satisfying, chiefly because it is too discursive and falls finally between the stools of criticism and reminiscence while trying to encompass both. Here, too, certain devices of Vidal’s are too heavily leaned on – the ironic anticlimax, for example: “[Williams] was thirty-seven; but claimed to be thirty-three on the sensible ground that the four years he had spent working for a shoe company did not count.” Or, about Harold Acton’s autobiography: “The ongoing story of a long and marvelously uninteresting life . . . a little volume called More Memoirs of an Aesthete, a work to be cherished for its quite remarkable number of unaesthetic misprints and misspellings.” And, again, about a piece of nonsense in Acton’s book: “Splendid stuff and I wish I had said it. Certainly whoever did was putting Acton on.” In all of these cases, terms of seeming praise – sensible, marvelously, remarkable, splendid –are just setting up the victim for the kill. But his strategy, however overworked, does produce one gem; after quoting some of the young Truman Capote’s sexual braggadocio, Vidal remarks: “1 should note here that the young Capote was no less attractive in his person then than he is today.”

Perhaps even more than as an essayist, we need Vidal as a television personality. I could not disagree more with James Wolcott (the Village Voice, May 9, 1977), who rejects Vidal’s “lecturing his countrymen [on TV] on the folly of their ways.” Vidal’s intelligence, pace Wolcott, does not “curdle” on television and his quick mind-prejudiced in many ways but still quick and clear – buttressed by a delightfully ironic wit, is just what the American public needs, particularly when it is expressed in magisterially cutting, fastidiously cultivated language. Quite rightly, Vidal deplores what he calls the American lack of a sense of humor – really a lack of wit and, above all, irony. Frequent exposure to his manner, consisting in equal measure of a devastating irony, a lucidly applied and expressed culture, and a casual arrogance, might give those in TV land an idea of which way lies civilization, which is where Vidal lives.