‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ So Jay Parini quotes from TS Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ at the end of this clear-eyed book, and while he suggests that the question ‘haunts every biographer’, it seems especially apposite here. What can be said about Gore Vidal, for or against him, that he hasn’t already said himself, and better than any of us can hope to? How should we see this thin-skinned litigious charmer, this predatory and all too talented monstre of ego, who neither forgot nor forgave anything? The indictment is long; against it lie some enduring friendships and a talent to amuse. And the books, though it’s too early to tell if they will earn time’s pardon.
Parini first met Vidal in the mid-1980s when, as a young writer on sabbatical, he found himself in an Italian village just below La Rondinaia, Vidal’s massive cliff-top villa on the Amalfi coast. He quickly became a confidant and over the following years saw the older man often and at length in Italy, America and Britain, witnessing moments of bad behaviour and kindness alike, along with his subject’s ever-growing infirmity before his death in 2012 at the age of eighty-six. Not long into their friendship Vidal asked him to take on his biography, which he wanted to appear in his lifetime. But Parini resisted the suggestion, recognising that Vidal ‘would try to control what I wrote’, and instead helped to arrange the authoritative life-in-progress that Fred Kaplan published in 1999. Nevertheless, he always intended to write ‘a frank yet fond look at a man I admired’, a book that could only be published after his subject’s death. Vidal encouraged him in this ‘Boswellian vein’ and over the years Parini spent many hours interviewing both him and his partner, Howard Austen, while also working on his own novels and publishing substantial lives of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, among others.
Kaplan’s Gore Vidal offers a massive version of the novelist’s early life, with over five hundred pages on his first forty years. They cover his childhood in Washington, DC, where his grandfather was a senator, his early novels and his work as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Parini is generous in acknowledging the help of its factual armature, and the two books are in fact complementary. Kaplan has more to say not only about Vidal’s fiction but also on the genesis of his ideas about American history and politics, and on his idiosyncratic mandarin populism. Yet its chronicle of Vidal’s life in Italy, his base from the mid-1960s on, seems foreshortened, and that’s the point at which Parini’s own work begins to flower, evoking both the glitter and the quotidian detail of Vidal’s expatriate world. Parini also provides more information about Vidal’s sexual life. He lived with Austen for fifty years but they very soon stopped sleeping together. Vidal insisted on a strict separation between sex and love, and often paid for the excitement he needed; the two men went almost annually to Thailand for the brothels.
Kaplan does more with the deals Vidal made with his publishers; Parini covers the shrewd investments in real estate that were the true source of what was, ultimately, a substantial fortune. And, of course, he captures the end of Vidal’s life, the writer in his wheelchair, suffering from both alcoholism and diabetes, and not catching the joke when visited by Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G. Parini himself rarely figures as a character in the main body of the narrative; this isn’t a memoir of their friendship, like Michael Mewshaw’s recent Sympathy for the Devil. He does, however, provide a series of tersely written interchapters that record moments at which he was present. Some catch Vidal in the full force of his imperious charm, including an occasion on which he manages to condescend to Susan Sontag. Another shows him at Oxford, frankly cowed by Isaiah Berlin. There’s a sour aside about Leonard Bernstein’s income, a visit from an AIDS-stricken Nureyev, a moment when Parini overhears Vidal telling himself that he ‘might have been president’, and, at the end, Vidal’s own tears as he listens to a tape of the dead Austen singing.
Vidal defined his more outré work as ‘inventions’, but though Parini admits to admiring Myra Breckinridge he 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. Nicholas Wrathall’s 2013 documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, offers something like the greatest hits of Vidal’s performance as himself and in time will become canonical. The figure it shows us is half Cheshire Cat and half cobra, though the film does join Parini in its affecting look at an old man who knows he has outlived his times.
This must have been a hard book for Jay Parini to write, not because of their friendship but because Vidal so completely defined the terms of his own myth that its narrative cannot help but appear over-determined. Once the facts are right, there appears, at this moment, very little left to say. Parini ends by claiming that ‘a biographer is not a judge’, and at first those words seem at odds with his quotation from ‘Gerontion’. They aren’t. Those who met him may feel differently, but I would no more think of judging Gore Vidal, that barbed and fascinating creation, than I would Raskolnikov or M de Charlus.