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NBooth

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

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NBooth   

The Gore Vidal facebook page is announcing that he has died. He was 86.

I've not read Vidal's novels--I have several on docket, including one of his pseudonymous mystery novels--but I recently devoured a good chunk of The Selected Essays. Like him or loathe him, the man had a wicked way with words. His interviews are pretty entertaining, too...and his confrontation with William Buckley is the kind of thing legends are made of:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYymnxoQnf8

Unfortunately, not many of his essays seem to be available online. "Tarzan Revisited" (1963) is a good sampling, though. Better examples,I think--certainly more provocative--would be "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star" (1981) or--especially--his take-down of the Kennedys in "The Holy Family" (1967)--neither of which are available online, afaik.

EDIT: Here's the official announcement at Vidal's website. Nothing more than a date, at this point.

EDIT EDIT: Here's an interview with Vidal from last year:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJSSwU1m42k

EDIT X3: LA Times has an obit. So does SeattlePI:

Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6:45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, Burr Steers said. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while," he said.

Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities — fixtures on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn't read their books knew who they were.


[i found both of these via BoingBoing, which also links to a Gore Vidal fansite]

Here's our thread on Ben Hur, a movie for which Vidal was one of the screenwriters. Edited by NBooth

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I enjoyed his Burr series of historical novels. Read Myra Breckenridge, but was neither impressed or disappointed.

I may take a look through Netflix to see if any of his golden age of TV stuff is around.

Edit: Nope, can't find any of the TV stuff. All that good stuff never quite got saved.

Edited by Darrel Manson

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NBooth   

Slate pushes back against the Vidal love:

Vidal was a paradigmatic, almost stereotypical representative of the traditional American elite—WASP lineage, prep schools, money, connections. Fashioning himself a latter-day Henry Adams, a valiant upholder of a civilization under siege—he compared America to Rome in its decadence—he repeatedly denigrated those arriviste groups he considered less than fully American.

Of course, as other bloggers have pointed out, it's a bit more complicated than the Slate piece implies.

Meanwhile, Salon suggests that Vidal and Buckley weren't so different. This article's also critical of Vidal, but it strikes me as far more fair-minded than theSlate piece:

Vidal would have been appalled by the suggestion, but he and Buckley had more in common than being celebrity intellectuals with snarky styles, cult followings and failed campaigns for public office that were successful as publicity stunts (Bill for Mayor of New York, Vidal for a New York congressional seat and the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat from California). Both Vidal and Buckley came from rich arriviste families with deep roots in the American South. Both inherited their political worldviews — Vidal from his grandfather the Oklahoma senator, and Buckley from his father, the South Texas oil man Will Buckley. Both had audiences on the fringes of the political consensus — Vidal among the leftist readers of the Nation, Buckley among the right-wing readers of the magazine he founded and edited, National Review.

Most important of all, both Vidal and Buckley represented strains of the Jeffersonian reaction against mid-century liberalism that was gathering force in the U.S. in the middle and late 20th century.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova shares some thoughts on Vidal from the journals of Anaïs Nin, recorded after she met Vidal at a lecture and struck up a friendship. Vidal was twenty:

We slide easily into a sincere, warm talk. He dropped his armor, his defenses. ‘I don’t like women. They are either silly, giggly, like the girls in my set I’m expected to marry, or they are harsh and strident masculine intellectuals. You are neither.’ Intellectually he knows everything. Psychologically he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children. The insecurity which followed the second break he made, at nineteen, after a quarrel with his mother. His admiration, attachment, hatred, and criticalness. Nor is it pity, he says. He is proud that she is beautiful and loved, yet he condemns her possessiveness, her chaos, her willfulness, and revolts against it. He knows this. But he does not know why he cannot love.

[…]

He moves among men and women of achievement. He was cheated of a carefree childhood, of a happy adolescence. He was rushed into sophistication and into experience with the surface of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely. ‘My demon is pride and arrogance,’ he said. ‘One you will never see.’ I receive from him gentleness and trust. He first asked me not to write down what he would say. He carries his father’s diplomatic brief case with his own poems and novel in it. He carries his responsibilities seriously, is careful not to let his one-night encounters know his name, his family. As future president of the United States, he protects his reputation, entrusts me with state secrets to lighten his solitude. Later he wants to write it all down, as we want to explore his secret labyrinth together, to find the secret of his ambivalence. To explore. Yet life has taken charge to alter the situation again. He, the lonely one, has trusted woman for the first time, and we start the journey of our friendship, as badly loved children who raised themselves, both stronger and weaker by it.

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NBooth   

NY Times: For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist

 

Spoiler: he left his money to Harvard.

 

Of course, even for remote observers of Vidal (like me, for instance), the twist isn't that unexpected. Vidal--like the Roosevelts and the Kennedys--was a patrician liberal, and it's apparent from his essays that he at once despised and adored the ruling class from which he sprang. So the idea that he would leave his money to an institution that embodies the academic/elite world he spent so much time bashing is not at all shocking.

 

The story also includes (sadly, predictable) details of Vidal's last days:

 

In his uncle’s final months, Mr. Steers said, Mr. Vidal’s “brain had gone. He had all this fluid that was filling up inside him. They’d drain him every day. He had congestive heart failure. It was really miserable. The only thing he reacted to was pain. His eyes were open but he was struggling to breathe. But his body didn’t give up. The doctors said it was as strong as an ox, considering he was so sedentary.”

Mr. Vidal had dementia and “wet brain,” said Mr. Steers: its proper name is Wernicke-Korsakoff, a syndrome characterized by a number of symptoms, including confusion and hallucination.

“Gore was on a planet all his own,” Mr. Parini said. “In the last five years he was not at his full hilt, full strength. He had been in a state of decline, highly diminished, sad and depressed. I feel very sad about the case. He felt very close to Burr, loved him and liked Nina very much.”

 

Edited by NBooth

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Kinch   

I do have an interest in Vidal, since Myra Breckenridge sounds so wicked in its satire. (What I've heard of it almost reminds me of something Zappa would make a concept album about.) Also, though I've never seen it (and do not intend to), I use Caligula as a sort of punchline and in-joke to certain friends. (I have seen clips of Malcolm McDowell hamming it up, to be honest.) Cannot help but wonder how the screenplay he wrote differed from the finished...err, product. I think I'll stick to Camus' take on the emperor for now, though.

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NBooth   

The Paris Review just tweeted its "Art of Fiction" interview with Vidal. I found his thoughts on The City and the Pillar particularly interesting. Spoilers, of course, but come on--the book's ancient:

 

 

INTERVIEWER

What about your first “successful” novel, The City and the Pillar?

VIDAL

A strange book because it was, as they say, the first of its kind, without going into any great detail as to what its kind is. To tell such a story then was an act of considerable moral courage. Unfortunately, it was not an act of very great artistic courage, since I chose deliberately to write in the flat, gray, naturalistic style of James T. Farrell. Tactically, if not aesthetically, this was for a good reason. Up until then homosexuality in literature was always exotic: Firbank, on the one hand; green carnations, on the other. I wanted to deal with an absolutely ordinary, all-American, lower-middle-class young man and his world. To show the dead-on “normality” of the homosexual experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t know too many lower-middle-class, all-American young men—except for those years in the army when I spent a good deal of time blocking out my fellow soldiers. So I made it all up. But the result must have had a certain authenticity. Tennessee Williams read it in 1948 and said of the family scenes, “Our fathers were very much alike.” He was surprised when I told him that Jim Willard and his family were all invented. Tennessee also said, “I don’t like the ending. I don’t think you realized what a good book you had written.” At the time, of course, I thought the ending “powerful.”

INTERVIEWER

Now you’ve changed the ending to have the young man—Bob—not killed by Jim, as he was originally.

VIDAL

Yes. Twenty years ago it was thought that I had written a tragic ending because the publishers felt that the public would not accept a happy resolution for my tale of Sodom, my Romeo and his Mercutio. But this wasn’t true. The theme of the book, which, as far as I know, no critic has ever noticed, is revealed in the title, The City and the Pillar. Essentially, I was writing about the romantic temperament. Jim Willard is so overwhelmed by a first love affair that he finds all other lovers wanting. He can only live in the past, as he imagined the past, or in the future as he hopes it will be when he finds Bob again. He has no present. So whether the first love object is a boy or girl is not really all that important. The novel was not about the city so much as about the pillar of salt, the looking back that destroys. Nabokov handled this same theme with infinitely greater elegance in Lolita. But I was only twenty when I made my attempt, while he was half as old as time. Anyway, my story could only have had a disastrous ending. Obviously, killing Bob was a bit much even though the original narrative was carefully vague on that point. Did he or didn’t he kill him? Actually, what was being killed was the idea of perfect love that had existed only in the romantic’s mind. The other person—the beloved object—had forgotten all about it.

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NBooth   

Just watched Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. It's fair, and it's worth it to see all of the interviews with Vidal. Worth it, too, to get the whole sweep of Vidal's life into a manageable dose. There's not really anything here that can't be picked up from the various write-ups that have been posted here and elsewhere. But the really fun stuff is the interview material; Vidal was a marvelously smarmy interviewee and public speaker--born of a political family, a politician through and through even if he never succeeded in getting any elected office. His sister says otherwise--she says that he was always a writer and not cut out for political work. And that's fair; I don't mean the work, I mean the demagoguery (at one point he calls himself a demagogue). 

 

It also chronicles his shift from politically savage to politically pessimistic. His response to Obama's election is in line with his earlier comments, but there's a weariness to it: "I want to think he's not corrupt. I suspect he is." [Or words to that effect].

 

The doc ends on a strange note--an old quote from Vidal about the people "rising up" and then old Vidal staring into the camera and saying "I told you so." Given that the movie was released in 2013, a year after Vidal's death, I wonder what sort of political subtext the filmmaker is trying to insert there. All the same, it's certainly a documentary worth checking out.

 

 

EDIT: How did we not already have a link in this thread to Best of Enemies?

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

Jay Parini's Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal is now available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released October 13.

 

The blurb:

 

An intimate yet frank biography of Gore Vidal, one of the most accomplished, visible and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century. The product of thirty years of friendship and conversation, Jay Parini's biography probes behind the glittering surface of Vidal's colorful life to reveal the complex emotional and sexual truth underlying his celebrity-strewn life. But there is plenty of glittering surface as well—a virtual Who's Who of the American Century, from Eleanor Roosevelt on down.

     The life of Gore Vidal was an amazingly full one; a life of colorful incident, famous people, and lasting achievements that calls out for careful evocation and examination. Through Jay Parini's eyes and words comes an accessible, entertaining story that puts the life and times of one of the great American figures of the postwar era into context, that introduces the author to a generation who didn't know him and that looks behind-the-scenes at the man and his work in frank ways never possible before his death. Parini, provided with unique access to Vidal's life and his papers, excavates all buried skeletons yet never loses sight of his deep respect for Vidal and his astounding gifts.

 

By "sexual truth," I suppose they mean that the biography will try to answer the question posed by the Daily Beast in 2013: "How Gay was Gore Vidal?"

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NBooth   

By "sexual truth," I suppose they mean that the biography will try to answer the question posed by the Daily Beast in 2013: "How Gay was Gore Vidal?"

The answer is: mostly gay, though there where a couple of affairs with women early in his life. The question of sexuality pops up a lot in the book and Parini makes some feints toward suggesting that Vidal struggled with and then eventually resolved his own sexuality--but the neat resolution is hampered by the fact that a major reason Vidal gave up sex entirely was because he was an alcoholic. The book does address some of the nastier rumors about Vidal's sex life--that he was attracted to, and had sex with, underaged boys. By Parini's account, the rumors are flatly untrue.

I got this book the other day and blazed through it; it's a very quick read--particularly if you're already familiar (as I was) with the shape of GV's life from various articles and documentaries like Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. It's a good thing the subtitle is A Life of Gore Vidal, because I doubt it will go down as the definitive biography by any means. Nothing shocking here--I was surprised to discover that Vidal's much-ballyhooed romance with Jimmie Trimble was in all likelihood fabricated by Vidal himself (though, again, anyone familiar with the shape of Gore's life would be surprised but not too surprised). So it's a good, basic biography (I've not read the Kaplan bio, which Vidal hated, so I can't compare the two). Certainly of interest to anyone who has followed Vidal or who is interested in politics or culture of mid-century America.

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NBooth   

Leo Robson at The New Yorker doesn't credit Parini with enough nuance in his account of Vidal, but he makes some good points:

The book’s use of Anaïs Nin is particularly disappointing. Parini quotes Nin’s initial description of Vidal (“clear and bright” and “luminous and manly”) but little else, and his account of their relationship reveals limited acquaintance with what she wrote. Parini says that Vidal tried to interest Dutton in Nin’s fiction but failed, because Dutton—“a manly house”—“shied away from anyone like Nin, who exuded both femininity and exoticism.” But any reader of Nin’s diaries would know that, in December of 1945, Vidal offered her a thousand-dollar advance for her novels, and that Dutton published “Ladders to Fire” the following year.

[snip]

In the opening pages of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mewshaw expresses the hope that the noise around Vidal has died down enough to “allow for” an “alternative assessment.” So far, the evidence seems mixed. In a five-hundred-word “lightning raid” that appeared on the Vanity Fair Web site, James Wolcott—the author of “The Gore Supremacy,” a Kindle Single published after Vidal’s death—objected to the offscreen, life-size figure in Mewshaw’s book, especially his “glassy-eyed, falling-down senior moments.” Vidal shouldn’t be remembered that way, Wolcott said. He was suave and smooth. He amused without effort. He didn’t care what people thought—and he didn’t care who knew that he didn’t care what people thought. Wolcott consoled himself with picking out the “hilarious aperçus and asides” recounted in the book, as when Vidal challenged Mewshaw to name the three saddest words in the English language, and supplied the answer: Joyce Carol Oates. This is the image of Vidal that seems destined to endure: cartoonish, two-dimensional, other than human. But, although Vidal made “harsh critical remarks” about Oates at every opportunity, Parini explains, he once caught him reading a volume of her essays, and—“he admitted”—enjoying them. 

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NBooth   

After watching Best of Enemies today, I downloaded In Bed with Gore Vidal. Halfway through it now, which either tells you something about the book or about my fascination with Vidal himself. The book is everything you would expect--chatty, gossipy, obscene.... But it does have a marvelous chapter on Vidal's long relationship with Howard Austen, which was intensely odd in several ways (actually, no one--including Vidal's family--seems to be able to pinpoint the nature of Vidal and Austen's relationship). And it does a tremendous service, I think, in that--for someone who talked constantly about the sex-lives of others--Vidal was notoriously cagey about his own private life. I don't think Teeman really gets anywhere--again, this is a chatty, gossipy little book--but as a kind of Rashomon compilation of how Vidal's numerous friends, enemies, associates, and family members saw him it's pretty valuable.

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NBooth   

Finished In Bed a few days ago. Nothing more to add, really, except that Teeman mentions that Fabian Bouthillette, one of Vidal's caretakers, was in the process of writing his own book--a book that I stumbled across today on one of my quasi-regular Amazon window-shopping sessions. The title is Gore Vidal's Last Stand and it's the first in a projected trilogy. Here's the book's website.

Once Fabian Bouthillette felt that continuing to serve as a Navy officer in the "War on Terror" was compromising to his integrity, he decided to resign his commission and begin the most difficult journey of his life--becoming a civilian. Fabian's journey reaches epic heights when, at age 27, he is introduced to Gore Vidal and begins two years of service at the 20th century literary giant's side. In Part One, Fabian recalls his first encounters with Vidal and his time as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard one of the most advanced warships ever put to sea. Seasoned Vidal fans, young millennials, political activists, military historians, all stand to learn from this tale that crosses generational boundaries, combines humor with heartache, but ultimately coaxes us all to build a more peaceful world through involvement in our communities

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NBooth   

Over at The (soon-to-be-defunct) ToastThe Gore Vidal Papers: A Love Story

The Gore Vidal collection at Harvard is substantial; it includes 394 cartons of material that take up 367 linear feet. The library also holds a 1-carton archive of James Trimble III, which I requested during my visit along with the Vidal materials. Just a few minutes with the Trimble archive made it clear that it was not complied by Vidal, or by anyone who knew Vidal or Jimmie, but by an outsider, whom I will call Roger. Roger, I surmised as I leafed through documents, read Palimpsest, and then decided to find out everything he could about Jimmie Trimble’s life. Roger was not a professional researcher or an academic, but just a guy who wanted to know more about Vidal’s boyhood love.

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NBooth   

The BafflerBye Bye, Blackbird: An afternoon around Gore Vidal’s least valued stuff

Now that the lawsuits have settled, with Harvard keeping practically everything—Vidal’s entire literary legacy including royalties on his 25 novels, 26 nonfiction books, screenplays, TV scripts. But the stuff Harvard didn’t want was put up for auction this month in a seedy industrial enclave of Los Angeles County—a town called Commerce, to be precise.

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