Bryan Appleyard

Further Prattling from Old Subversive Smartyboots

United States: Essays 1952–1992


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Gore Vidal is approaching seventy and fat books of essays like this one seem to sound the right note of elderly solidity. Equally, he might, at his age, be forgiven for the touch of complacent paranoia in the title. The United States in question are not the nation but the three categories into which he divides his essays – literature, politics and personal responses. ‘So, herewith’ , he writes, ‘my three states – united.’

But, of course, they are the nation because Vidal, the product of two distinguished American families, has always seen himself as both the chronicler and the slightly subversive embodiment of the history of the Republic. ‘There is’, he writes with dandy wistfulness, ‘some evidence that by fits and starts the United States is achieving a civilization.’ It is a sentence that could only be written by a man who sees himself as a pretty significant part of that civilization, perhaps only by one who ‘divides his time between Los Angeles, California, and Ravello, Italy’.

When in the States and appearing on television, an activity he enjoys, this dividing of his time provides easy ammunition for his enemies. Who the hell, they invariably ask, does he think he is, attacking the good old US of A while living in Italy? The question is, of course, crass. A jaundiced view of his homeland is not really a political posture for Vidal, but rather a stylistic necessity. The long, dandyishly balanced yet almost chatty sentences would simply have nowhere to go if they could not arrive at a certain disdainful weariness with America’s low-life politicos, bad writers and barbaric moralising. The Vidal effect has to be de haut en bas or it would not be an effect at all.

The problem with his particular version of the haut posture is that it often seems a little too thin to sustain this amount of reflection. Vidal is emphatically not an intellectual, though I suspect he thinks he is. His notion of an intellectual appears merely to be somebody with a certain taste. ‘After all,’ he writes of the bureaucrats who suppressed Frank Baum’s Oz books, ‘since most American English teachers, librarians and literary historians are not intellectuals, how would any of them know whether or not a book was well or ill written?’

This implies an odd definition of the word. In most people’s minds intellectualism involves a specific fascination with ideas, but to Vidal ideas in themselves are of little interest. He prefers to see everything in terms of character or through the lens of his straightforwardly leftish views. The result is a persistent lack of depth and perspective as well as a few obvious and rather glaring inconsistencies. Periodically, for example, he has some fun at the expense of America’s Puritan roots. Yet, when confronted with Eleanor Roosevelt, a lady he adored, he can only find immense virtue in her puritanism. He is too much of a dandy writer, not enough of a thinker, to allow such insights to modify his prejudices, to see, in fact, that puritan instincts may have been the most valuable asset America ever had. The low point of this unthinking tendency is his witless and ill-read attack on monotheism as ‘the greatest disaster to befall the human race’. This is like hearing an ‘important’ television debate from the Fifties – pointless and dull.

Probably it is the homosexuality that inspired his libertarianism. Certainly it is one of the dominant themes in this book. His one theory on the subject, repeated again and again, is that there is no such thing as a homosexual, the word is an adjective not a noun, there are only homosexual acts. Once this must have been a radical posture with its accompanying assertions, later apparently endorsed by Kinsey, that the acts were natural and commonplace. Now, of course, it would enrage Gay Libbers with their insistence on a distinct homosexual identity. The old libertarian has been outmanoeuvred by history and finds himself transformed into a conservative. ‘Gay’, he muses sniffily, is ‘a ridiculous word’ to describe Frederick the Great. In the later essays this reluctant transformation happens again and again as he sees the fruits of radicalism rotting into political correctness. But still he clings to the old dandy liberalism.

This, however, is unfairly to ignore Vidal the writer. These essays are never less than smoothly readable and, at their best, as when he writes of H L Mencken, they are rounded, relaxed and satisfying. When he is really at home with a subject his unintellectual manner becomes a virtue since he is not hampered by considerations of exact truth. ‘I am generalising hugely’, he writes at one point, ‘but life is short’ and, he might have added, what really counts is the performance, the tightrope act of style.

The values his words embody most convincingly are not political or social, they are literary. His literary essays are full of intense, close reading and sane judgements. He knows the best, whether it is Nabokov, Updike or James, and, perhaps more interestingly, he knows when the good has been overlooked – Frederic Prokosch or Paul Bowles. Before Tennessee Williams he is simply lost in admiration. As criticism this may lack direction in that he can seldom express the foundations of his sense of the good, but as eulogy – or, indeed, diatribe – it is fine, solid and convincing.

The political essays are less consistent and too often clotted with names and anecdotes whose precise significance is not clear. He is good on the .strange, scarcely human types so regularly produced by the American system – ‘Of all my literary inventions, Richard Nixon is the most nearly autonomous’ – but less good at making any kind of sense of the spectacle. Perhaps it is wrong to expect such a thing. Kennedy he initially got badly wrong and he adds a small disclaimer to an embarrassing eulogy from the Sunday Telegraph in 1961 – ‘Secretly’, he admits later, ‘I think he thought war was fun.’

The personal material is patchy with its long stories of Vidals and Gores. In truth, I pity any contemporary American writer trying this stuff since Updike and Nabokov have ·both written such exquisite fragments of autobiography that the form feels almost terminated. Vidal is okay but overshadowed. And, overall, we need more jokes, for he executes and picks them well. There is the dumb starlet who, confronted with matzoh balls, asks what they do with the rest of the matzoh, and there are a handful of others; 1295 pages, however, need many more.

Yet this is a likeable, workable book. It is replete with anecdotes and period detail from the two centuries of the Republic; as a record of literary feuds, enthusiasms and follies, it is excellent, though fans of Fitzgerald and Hemingway will nor think so. It lacks thought, but what it is really about is Vidal’s compulsion to spin out his prose as if for ever – he probably has, he boasts, the ‘largest oeuvre of any contemporary American writer’. He hides in these mountains of words, seeking revenge and consolation, flaying the Republic for all he is worth, which is, on balance, a good deal more than most.

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