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July 2016: Biography Memoir > Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal--Jay Parini, 5 stars

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments A balanced, entertaining, and well researched biography written by a friend, writing peer, and neighbor of Vidal during the decades of his residence in Italy. Having loved Vidal’s “Burr” and “Lincoln”, I became curious about their origins from the man projected to us over the decades in the media as a witty public persona and outspoken political commentator. Many see these two works, along with “Julian” from his Roman Empire set, as his most significant accomplishments. Others appreciate more his fiction that explored homosexuality and gender issues, “The City and the Pillar” and “Myron Breckinridge” (unread by me). Still others say his essays are his biggest legacy, which I only occasionally intersected in newspaper or magazines over the years.

With this book you get the context of Vidal’s life for all these projects and some sense of the creative efforts he put into them. As always, I don’t see a clue as to the origins of his brilliance, just the interesting ingredients and the triumphs and tragedies along his life’s way. He grew up mostly in Washington DC, where his father worked in the fledgling airline industry and later in a precursor to the federal aviation bureaucracy. As a grandson of Thomas Gore, the Democrat Senator of Oklahoma, he spent a lot of time in his household, especially during his parents’ times of conflict preceding their divorce. Parini identifies a major influence of the Senator’s strange combination liberal populism and reactionary isolationism in the development of Gore’s political outlook. Because his grandfather was blind, Gore got a frequent chance to serve as an assistant to him and thereby gain an education on the workings of the legislature and imbibe his patrician, stentorial elocution as a model. He attended a local prep school, then one in New Mexico, and ended at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. He wasn’t a great student, preferring to read on his own agenda.

He was on a class trip to Europe just at the time World War 2 was about to begin. Upon enlisting, he served a combat-free tour with the Navy aboard small ships in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska and then an attack of rheumatoid arthritis put him on desk duty for the rest of the war. He skipped college in favor of making a living from writing. Living in New York, he struggled to write a major novel about the war, but the result was mediocre and publication was slow in coming. He took up journalism and essays to make money. In later years he could support his extravagant lifestyle by expanding his efforts to the more lucrative work of play production, movie script writing, and talk show performances. His peak in public fame came through his debate on live TV with conservative pundit William Buckley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The vigorous and sardonic cat-and-mouse exchanges of views startled the nation when civility broke down and Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and his opponent countered with: Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered. …Go back to your pornography.

Though his sexuality was bisexual in scope, Parini finds that his propensity for the lifestyle of cruising for anonymous sex with men aligns better with the common categorization of being gay. Yet from early on, he refused to be pigeonholed, which I admire:
There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.

Vidal’s life-long promiscuity was balanced by a domestic non-sexual partnership with Howard Austen which lasted 53 years. In their travels in Europe, they soon fell in love with Rome and began mostly living there in the early 60s. In other periods they had an estate on the Hudson River and a couple of decades in an ancient villa on the Amalfi Coast. Vidal’s last ten years were spent in Los Angeles. All these sites were a cultural magnet for visits from a growing circle of prominent friends and acquaintances. Special friends included Tennessee Williams, Calvino, Moravia, the journalist George Armstrong, Princess Mary, Jackie Kennedy, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Claire Bloom, and Susan Sarandon.

A lot of his many novels and the few plays he wrote come in for criticism that their plot and characters are mainly vehicles for the ideas behind their stories and thereby lack human depth and heart. But at least for the two I mention above that doesn’t hold true for me. Regardless, it was healthy and refreshing for him to cast a bit of a jaundiced eye over the idealistic versions of our historical heroes and come to understand how much the founding principles in the Constitution have long been compromised by economic greed, class elitism, and power politics. A pervasive theme in his novels and essays is of the dangers of American imperialist leanings and rampant militarism, the insidious impact of all monotheistic religions, and the widespread hypocrisy and corruption associated with corporate entanglement with politics. All relevant for the long haul. He was brilliant in compressing his ideas into delicious and potent quotes:

--We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth, when we're not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic.
--The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven't seen them since.
--America has but one party, the Property Party, which has two wings, Democrat and Republican.
--Happily for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.


Parini’s love for Vidal as a friend makes for an effective insider perspective on his endearing personal strengths. Such as his loyalty and generosity with his many friends. For perpetually having the courage to speak in defense of his beliefs and principles in hope of inspiring us toward doing right for the world and the oppressed. Instead of focusing on the victims, his method overall is to write about and expose those who exercise power. But friendship doesn’t keep Parini from covering the more baffling and distasteful aspects of Vidal’s personality. Such as being perpetually vain and egocentric mixed in with a lot of insecurity and hypersensitivity to slight and insult. Being someone driven to win all arguments and keep face in conflicts against a competitor. And one quick to resort to sarcasm and character assassination, a veritable Jackson Pollock of invective. It’s not surprising that he could bait Mailer enough to get punched or pile on enough public criticism of Capote to garner lawsuits. Parini sums up his reaction to these tendencies:
I took his rampant egotism with a grain of salt. It was part of him, but only part. The narcissim was, at times an exhausting and debilitating thing for Gore, as it proved impossible to get enough satisfying responses. He required a hall of mirrors for adequate reflection, and there was never enough. The nature of the narcissistic hole is such that it can’t be filled.

The book made me grateful for the contributions Vidal made to literature and intellectual debate and made me regret the loss of his form of humor in public discourse. It inspires me to seek out more of his novels and essays and perhaps his 1995 autobiography, “The Palimpsest”. I close by sharing more example of revelatory truth wrapped in piquant irony:
-- I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm loveable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.
--You hear all this whining going on, "Where are our great writers?" The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?
--I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.
--It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
--A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.
--Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.
--The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.



message 2: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6671 comments I have never read Gore Vidal though I think I have a paperback copy of Lincoln somewhere. Sounds like I should! Sounds like an interesting man, and since you like his work, I'm sure it is excellent.

This quote amuses me:

--You hear all this whining going on, "Where are our great writers?" The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?

We are all right here!!!


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Thanks, Anita. Historical fiction was mostly a refuge for romantic entertainment before Vidal garnered some respect for the genre as an approach to bring a theory of the life of real figures. I am aware in reading Lincoln how much he is not trying to portray the "real" person, but to craft a version that carries significant ideas filtered through a contemporary lens. Sometimes the result is caricature. Maybe his wife Mary was close to that as portrayed in her nuttiness, but Lincoln was cast human enough for me to cry over the pain of the death of his son while president.


message 4: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6671 comments Michael wrote: "Thanks, Anita. Historical fiction was mostly a refuge for romantic entertainment before Vidal garnered some respect for the genre as an approach to bring a theory of the life of real figures. I am ..."

Oh wow, that sounds really interesting . . .and if it made you cry, I'm sure the author did a great job with it. I need to see if I can dig this out of my pile! Sounds like a good long one for when the weather is bad.


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