The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.
– Gore Vidal
Most people mellow in the autumn of their years; assertions that were once held with an iron grip usually being reassessed and relaxed, as one comes to accept the natural imperfections of life and one’s fellow human beings. If anything, Gore Vidal became angrier about the state of the world as he, in his own words, began ‘moving towards the door marked “exit.”’ Thundering in his last decade against the perceived ignorance, folly and greed of the post-9/11 world via articles, pamphlets and interviews, he refused to go quietly. We hear a lot about angry young men, but Vidal, in his later years, raged not only against the dying of the light, but against almost any moving target in his eye-line.
A master of the epigram, Gore Vidal claimed that ‘[a]nyone stupid enough to worry about how he’ll be remembered deserves to be forgotten.’ Yet now, six years after he died at the age of 86, he shows no sign of being forgotten, nor even becoming irrelevant. Along with an estimated $37-million-dollar fortune, Vidal left behind one of the most prolific legacies in recent American literature: over thirty novels and 200 essays, as well as plays, screenplays and assorted works of non-fiction. Across the many big books that earned him such big bucks, his oeuvre covers a range of subjects, from the ancient past to contemporary politics, involving a variety of genres, from traditional historical fiction to experimental postmodern satire.
Truly, ‘Renaissance man’ is the only term that could encompass Vidal and his long career, which began at twenty with his first novel, Williwaw (1946), and ended with his last memoir, Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009). In the six decades between, he built a reputation as one of the most incisive and outspoken American public intellectuals, as at home on the couch of The Tonight Show as at the podium of Harvard University. In this time, he managed to become not only one of the bestselling novelists in the world, but also a successful screenwriter for television and film, a Broadway playwright, a candidate for Congress and the Senate, and even an occasional Hollywood actor. Not a bad run by anyone’s standards.
As its self-declared unofficial biographer, Vidal was unafraid to be controversial in his criticism of the United States, and especially the forces that he believed were retarding the course of progress in his country. Focussing his attacks upon the conservative right,
he felt that its alleged ideological blend of Christian fundamentalism, corporate greed and militaristic imperialism was damaging the American state and its reputation around the world. Having served in the Second World War, Vidal understood the cost of war and felt that the United States had transformed itself for the worse in the aftermath of its victory in 1945 from a republic to an empire – just like ancient Rome before it. Consequently, he foresaw only decline ahead for America, if it maintained that trajectory.
My own introduction to Vidal came among the stacks of my local public library when I was about fourteen. If I’m not mistaken I read his novels The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge and Live from Golgotha in quick succession, though I can’t recall in which order. Alternatively controversial, funny and sacrilegious, these works revealed to me a Vidalian universe in which power and self-interest represent the primary animators of human behaviour. Yet, compensating for such a pessimistic vision, his waspish wit is directed in genuinely clever, amusing and shocking ways at his favourite targets of hypocrisy and ineptitude in society. Afterwards, I moved on to his American-history novels and his essays – for which he will be perhaps best remembered –, which are no less provocative in their own way and just as entertaining.
Because he was so deeply bound up with contemporary issues of culture and politics, some of his works have dated and become less relevant over the years – a novel like Kalki (1978), for instance; a dark satire covering biological warfare, drug smuggling, ecological disaster, feminism, mysticism and the end of the world. For the most part, however, I think that most of Vidal’s body of work still stands up and retains something to say to us today. Wildly entertaining, yet deeply confrontational, Vidal presents a cold, but clear-eyed vision of life that leaves no room for idle sentiment or woolly thinking. Although guilty at times of generalising and simplifying for the purposes of his rhetoric, he still seems to me overall more right than wrong in his assertions.
Indeed, reading Gore Vidal is a lot like signing a Faustian pact: in exchange for giving up your worldview for the duration that it takes to read his book, he presents you with an alternative perspective that often challenges your dearly-held beliefs and tempts you to see things his way. As an atheist and a realist, he had little sentimental belief in either God or Man, so his focus was always on explaining how the past became the present, and telling the truth about the world in which we live. In an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ politics, we need more than ever a voice and a vision like Vidal’s to cut through the fabrications that dominate so much of today’s political spectrum. After all, to change the world, we first need to see it properly.
If advising someone where they might start reading Gore Vidal, I might suggest Julian (1964) or Lincoln (1984), each good introductions to his brand of historical fiction; the first portraying the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate; the second presenting a fictionalised rendering of the American Civil War centred on Abraham Lincoln. For those with a sterner stomach, Myra Breckinridge (1968), a novel about an outrageous, Hollywood-obsessed transsexual, gives a flavour of the biting, postmodern satire of which he was capable. More generally, The essential Gore Vidal (1999), provides a great taster, excerpting a range of his works and providing an overview of his style and themes. Jay Parini’s Empire of self: the life of Gore Vidal (2015) is an excellent piece of biography and represents the only comprehensive panorama of Vidal’s whole life. The recent documentary films, The United States of Amnesia (2013) and Best of Enemies: Vidal versus Buckley (2015) also making excellent, supplementary starting points.
Of course, the elephant in the room in any discussion of Gore today is Donald Trump, a man who makes Vidal’s former bête noires, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, look like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. With his verbal hurricane of unnecessary intensifiers and superlatives – everything ‘so amazing’ ‘really great’, ‘very special’ –, Trump is the antithesis of Vidal, who chose every word carefully to maximise their import and their impact. But Vidal wouldn’t have been entirely surprised by Trump’s election. After all, he had spoken for years about only one political party truly operating in the United States: ‘the Property Party, with two wings, Republican and Democrat.’ As a former Democrat supporter, Trump is hardly a traditional Republican, and may most usefully be described as a fair-weather politician, whose demagoguery blows this way and that without any real party loyalty or policy motivation.
In his last years, Vidal believed that America was entering the Dark Ages, rather than a bright twenty-first century, writing in one of his final essays in 2006: ‘What we are seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state and the apparatus of torture – a troika that was for Voltaire the central horror of the pre-Enlightenment world; as well as, today, the political and economic marginalization of our culture.’ In this light, Vidal would probably have perceived Trump as being a symptom, rather than a cause, of alleged American decline, which he dated back to the immediate post-1945 era anyway.
With his passion for the ancient world, it is likely that Vidal would have looked back to Rome for a parallel, as he does above, though he would perhaps not choose the obvious imperial one. Instead of seeing Trump as a decadent Roman emperor (Nero seems to be the one most regularly invoked in the media), he would have probably taken as his starting point the fact that Donald Trump is the wealthiest president ever to hold office in the United States by some margin. Consequently, he might have drawn a parallel to Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman plutocrat who made a fortune in ruthless property development and bought himself into high office in the First Triumvirate, alongside Pompey and Julius Caesar. Eventually, ambition exceeding sense, Crassus met his end in distant Parthia, which he had invaded in an ill-advised military adventure. According to one account, he was captured and executed by having molten gold poured down his throat – a detail that Vidal would have relished as a gruesome and satisfying repayment for Crassus’s life-long greed.
Winston Churchill once remarked that to know a subject inside-out, one should write a book about it; over the last while, researching Gore Vidal’s connection to the classical world, I feel that I’ve got to know him fairly well. He makes entertaining, but not always easy company. By turns, cantankerous, haughty and vain, he made an art of making enemies and could demolish them with one well-chosen insult. A complex individual, he refused to be recognised as gay, let alone as a ‘gay writer,’ preferring instead to see himself – and the rest of the world – as basically bisexual; viewing sex less in terms of identities as acts. As such, Vidal and his varied writings remain contentious, though, to the end, he was convinced that he was right about everything, commenting that ‘[t]here is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.’
Throughout his career, Vidal was a divisive figure, and remains so today; when I tell people about my project, around half laud (me and) him and the other half disparage (me and) him. But, however you perceive Vidal, I feel that he deserves to be recognised for his contribution to culture, literature and politics. He was a godfather to much that we have come to accept as mainstream in our culture today – alternative models of gender and sexuality, dissatisfaction with ruling political elites, criticism of American ‘imperialism,’ the prevalence of atheist and humanist philosophies over traditional religion. Whether he makes you smile, makes you mad or makes you think, Vidal is never anything less than scintillating. Yes, some of his Cassandra-meets-Cato catastrophizing can weary at times, yet one must take account of how right many of his predictions were. And, no, I do not agree with all of his assertions, but I am always compelled to take account of his ideas and opinions, and accommodate my own beside them.
Over the course of his long life, Gore Vidal seemed to meet everyone worth knowing, do everything worth doing and go everywhere worth going. He was friends with everybody from Tennessee Williams to Leonard Bernstein to Paul Newman, among others, and enemies with everybody from Truman Capote to William F. Buckley to John Updike, among many more. From his first appearance in a Pathé newsreel when he was ten – single-handedly piloting a plane designed by his aviator father, Gene (being apparently the first child to do so) – to his cameo appearance on The Simpsons in 2006 – ‘I don’t need your sycophantic laughter, I have some on tape…’ –, he enjoyed an extraordinary, multi-faceted life that is fascinating from every angle. So, in my experience, you really do get more with Gore: more pages, more books, more commentary, more controversy, more sacrilege, more insight, more polemic, more understanding, more wit. In truth, to enact any real change, we first need a valid sense of discontent; Gore’s reasoned fury and furious reason provides as good a place to start as any.