Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said by telephone.
Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.
Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office — in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate — and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Mr. Vidal was an occasional actor, appearing, for example, in animated form on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” in the movie version of his own play “The Best Man,” and in the Tim Robbins movie “Bob Roberts,” in which he played an aging, epicene version of himself. He was a more than occasional guest on TV talk shows, where his poise, wit, looks and charm made him such a regular that Johnny Carson offered him a spot as a guest host of “The Tonight Show.”
Television was a natural medium for Mr. Vidal, who in person was often as cool and detached as he was in his prose. “Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Mr. Vidal loved conspiracy theories of all sorts, especially the ones he imagined himself at the center of, and he was a famous feuder; he engaged in celebrated on-screen wrangles with Mailer, Capote and William F. Buckley Jr. Mr. Vidal did not lightly suffer fools — a category that for him comprised a vast swath of humanity, elected officials especially — and he was not a sentimentalist or a romantic. “Love is not my bag,” he said.
By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir “Palimpsest.” Mr. Vidal tended toward what he called “same-sex sex,” but frequently declared that human beings were inherently bisexual, and that labels like gay (a term he particularly disliked) or straight were arbitrary and unhelpful. For 53 years, he had a live-in companion, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, but the secret of their relationship, he often said, was that they did not sleep together.
Mr. Vidal sometimes claimed to be a populist — in theory, anyway — but he was not convincing as one. Both by temperament and by birth he was an aristocrat.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. was born on Oct. 3, 1925, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father, Eugene, had been an All-American football player and a track star and had returned as a flying instructor and assistant football coach. An aviation pioneer, Eugene Vidal Sr. went on to found three airlines, including one that became T.W.A. He was director of the Bureau of Air Commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Vidal’s mother, Nina, was an actress and socialite and the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, the Democratic senator from Oklahoma.
Mr. Vidal, who once said he had grown up in “the House of Atreus,” detested his mother, whom he frequently described as a bullying, self-pitying alcoholic. She and Mr. Vidal’s father divorced in 1935, and she married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — a connection that Mr. Vidal never tired of bringing up. After her remarriage, Mr. Vidal lived with his mother at Merrywood, the Auchincloss family estate in Virginia, but his fondest memories were of the years the family spent at his maternal grandfather’s sprawling home in the Rock Creek Park neighborhood of Washington. He loved to read to his grandfather, who was blind, and sometimes accompanied him onto the Senate floor. Mr. Vidal’s lifelong interest in politics began to stir back then, and from his grandfather, an America Firster, he probably also inherited his unwavering isolationist beliefs.
Mr. Vidal attended St. Albans School in Washington, where he lopped off his Christian names and became simply Gore Vidal, which he considered more literary-sounding. Though he shunned sports himself, he formed an intense romantic and sexual friendship — the most important of his life, he later said — with Jimmie Trimble, one of the school’s best athletes. Trimble was his “ideal brother,” his “other half,” Mr. Vidal said, the only person with whom he ever felt wholeness. Jimmie’s premature death at Iwo Jima in World War II at once sealed off their relationship in a glow of A. E. Housman-like early perfection, and seemingly made it impossible for Mr. Vidal ever to feel the same way about anyone else.
After leaving St. Albans in 1939, Mr. Vidal spent a year at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico before enrolling at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He published stories and poems in the Exeter literary magazine, but he was an indifferent student who excelled mostly at debating. A classmate, the writer John Knowles, later used him as the model for Brinker Hadley, the know-it-all conspiracy theorist in “A Separate Peace,” his Exeter-based novel.
Mr. Vidal graduated from Exeter at 17 — only by cheating, he later admitted, on virtually every math exam — and enlisted in the Army, where he became first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. He began work on “Williwaw,” a novel set on a troopship and published in 1946 while Mr. Vidal was an associate editor at the publishing company E. P. Dutton, a job he soon gave up. Written in a pared-down, Hemingway-like style, “Williwaw” (the title is a meteorological term for a sudden wind out of the mountains) won some admiring reviews but gave little clue to the kind of writer Mr. Vidal would become. Neither did his second book, “In a Yellow Wood” (1947), about a brokerage clerk and his wartime Italian mistress, which Mr. Vidal later said was so bad, he couldn’t bear to reread it. He nevertheless became a glamorous young literary figure, pursued by Anaïs Nin and courted by Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams.
In 1948 Mr. Vidal published “The City and the Pillar,” which was dedicated to J. T. (Jimmie Trimble). It is what we would now call a coming-out story, about a handsome, athletic young Virginia man who gradually discovers that he is homosexual. By today’s standards it is tame and discreet, but at the time it caused a scandal and was denounced as corrupt and pornographic. Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right. He had such trouble getting subsequent novels reviewed that he turned to writing mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and then, for a time, gave up novel-writing altogether. To make a living he concentrated on writing for television, then for the stage and the movies.
Work was plentiful. He wrote for most of the shows that presented hourlong original dramas in the 1950s, including “Studio One,” “Philco Television Playhouse” and “Goodyear Playhouse.” He became so adept, he could knock off an adaptation in a weekend and an original play in a week or two. He turned “Visit to a Small Planet,” his 1955 television drama about an alien who comes to earth to study the art of war, into a successful Broadway play. His most successful play was “The Best Man,” about two contenders for the presidential nomination. It ran for 520 performances on Broadway before it, too, became a successful film, in 1964, with a cast headed by Henry Fonda and a screenplay by Mr. Vidal. It was revived on Broadway in 2000 and is now being revived there again as “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.” Mr. Vidal’s reputation as a script doctor was such that in 1956 MGM hired him as a contract writer; among other projects he helped rewrite the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” though he was denied an official credit. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of his friend Tennessee Williams’s play “Suddenly, Last Summer.”
By the end of the ’50s, though, Mr. Vidal, at last financially secure, had wearied of Hollywood and turned to politics. He had purchased Edgewater, a Greek Revival mansion in Dutchess County, N.Y., and it became his headquarters for his 1960 run for Congress. He was encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become a friend and adviser.
The 29th Congressional District was a Republican stronghold, and though Mr. Vidal, running as Eugene Gore on a platform that included taxing the wealthy, lost, he received more votes in running for the seat than any Democrat in 50 years. And he never tired of pointing out he did better in the district than the Democratic presidential candidate that year, John F. Kennedy.
In the ’60s Mr. Vidal also returned to writing novels and published three books in fairly quick succession: “Julian” (1964), “Washington, D.C.” (1967) and “Myra Breckinridge” (1968). “Julian,” which some critics still consider Mr. Vidal’s best, was a painstakingly researched historical novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism. (Mr. Vidal himself never had much use for religion, Christianity especially, which he once called “intrinsically funny.”) “Washington, D.C.” was a political novel set in the ’40s. “Myra Breckinridge,” Mr. Vidal’s own favorite among his books, was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery.
Perhaps without intending it, Mr. Vidal had set a pattern. In the years to come his greatest successes came with historical novels, especially what became known as his American Chronicles sextet: “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr” (1973), “1876” (1976), “Lincoln” (1984), “Hollywood” (1990) and “The Golden Age” (2000). He turned out to have a particular gift for this kind of writing. These novels were learned and scrupulously based on fact, but also witty and contemporary-feeling, full of gossip and shrewd asides. Harold Bloom wrote that Mr. Vidal’s imagination of American politics “is so powerful as to compel awe.” Writing in The Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said, “Mr. Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with.”
But Mr. Vidal also persisted in writing books like “Myron” (1974), a sequel to “Myra,” and “Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal” (1992), which were clearly meant as provocations. “Live From Golgotha,” for example, rewrites the Gospels, with Saint Paul as a huckster and pederast and Jesus a buffoon. John Rechy said of it in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If God exists and Jesus is His son, then Gore Vidal is going to Hell.”
In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”
Mr. Vidal’s essays were literary, resurrecting the works of forgotten writers like Dawn Powell and William Dean Howells, and also political, taking on issues like sexuality and cultural mores. The form suited him ideally: he could be learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once. Even Jason Epstein, Mr. Vidal’s longtime editor at Random House, once admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, calling Mr. Vidal “an American version of Montaigne.”
“I always thought about Gore that he was not really a novelist,” Mr. Epstein wrote, “that he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.”
Success did not mellow Mr. Vidal. In 1968, while covering the Democratic National Convention on television, he called William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley responded by calling Mr. Vidal a “queer,” and the two were in court for years. In a 1971 essay he compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson, and a few months later Mailer head-butted him in the green room while the two were waiting to appear on the Dick Cavett show. They then took their quarrel on the air in a memorable exchange that ended with Mr. Cavett’s telling Mailer to take a piece of paper on the table in front of them and “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.” In 1975 Mr. Vidal sued Truman Capote for libel after Capote wrote that Mr. Vidal had been thrown out of the Kennedy White House. Mr. Vidal won a grudging apology.
Some of his political positions were similarly quarrelsome and provocative. Mr. Vidal was an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and once called Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, and his wife, the journalist Midge Decter, “Israeli Fifth Columnists.” In the 1990s he wrote sympathetically about Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he wrote an essay for Vanity Fair arguing that America had brought the attacks upon itself by maintaining imperialist foreign policies. In another essay, for The Independent, he compared the attacks to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, arguing that both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush knew of them in advance and exploited them to advance their agendas.
As for literature, it was more or less over, he declared more than once, and he had reached a point where he no longer much cared. He became a sort of connoisseur of decline, in fact. America is “rotting away at a funereal pace,” he told The Times of London in 2009. “We’ll have a military dictatorship pretty soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together.”
In 2003 Mr. Vidal and his companion, Mr. Austen, who was ill, left their cliffside Italian villa La Rondinaia (the Swallow’s Nest) on the Gulf of Salerno and moved to the Hollywood Hills to be closer to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Mr. Austen died that year, and in “Point to Point Navigation,” his second volume of memoirs, Mr. Vidal recalled that Mr. Austen asked from his deathbed, “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?”
“Of course it had,” Mr. Vidal wrote. “We had been too happy and the gods cannot bear the happiness of mortals.” Mr. Austen was buried in Washington in a plot Mr. Vidal had purchased in Rock Creek Cemetery. The gravestone was already inscribed with their names side by side.
After Mr. Austen’s death, Mr. Vidal lived alone in declining health himself. He was increasingly troubled by a knee injury he suffered in the war, and used a wheelchair to get around. In November 2009 he made a rare public appearance to attend the National Book Awards in New York, where he was given a lifetime achievement award. He evidently had not prepared any remarks, and instead delivered a long, meandering impromptu speech that was sometimes funny and sometimes a little hard to follow. At one point he even seemed to speak fondly of Buckley, his old nemesis. It sounded like a summing up.
“Such fun, such fun,” he said.
"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."
"Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so."
"Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like, Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they're both just aspirin."
"Envy is the central fact of American life."
"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."
"The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven't seen them since."
"Every four years the naive half who vote are encouraged to believe that if we can elect a really nice man or woman President everything will be all right. But it won't be."
"Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60"
"A good deed never goes unpunished."
"All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself."
"Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates."
"Fifty percent of people won't vote, and fifty percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty percent."
"Some writers take to drink, others take to audiences."
"The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return"
"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn."
"The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes."
"The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."
"Congress no longer declares war or makes budgets. So that's the end of the constitution as a working machine."
"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."
"As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not
the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to
be these days."
"Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself."
"Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies, or the virus dies, or both die."
"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."
"There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."
Kevin RothsteinNew York
A great man and a true patriot who understood how the Founders were flawed men and not saints and who also tried to warn the people to beware the liars, hypocrites and scoundrels who profit off fear and ignorance.
He will never be replaced as there is no other writer with the possible exception of Chris Hedges who can articulate in so elegant a fashion the general sense of despair felt by so many on what remains of the left in America at our current decrepit condition, both physical and spiritual.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:53 a.m.RECOMMENDED103
MR BillBlue Ridge GA
A great writer, commenter, and patriot. He believed the NYTimes to be prejudiced against him (mostly over his sexuality) and would be gratified to find his death notice above the fold. (At least, electronically)>
I reread "Lincoln" after reading Keans-Goodwin's "A Team of Rivals", and it was refreshing to have a view of Lincoln as politician and poweruser that was not so reverent.
And somewhere he described the American Conservative movement as an attempt to create massive piles of tax exempt money by creating an plutocracy.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:43 a.m.RECOMMENDED103
samluduwilton, nyNYT Pick
Hitchens gone. Vidal gone.
The world is a lot less fun.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED102
Yes, and I expect Vidal would appreciate it if someone said anything even remotely as witty with regard to his passing. Unfortunately the art of invective on the right has descended to the level of the Coulters, O'Reilly's, Limbaughs, and Hannitys, who are mere schoolyard bullies.
In reply to IanAug. 1, 2012 at 8:28 a.m.RECOMMENDED93
Thomas MischlerCaledonia, MI
I will never forget watching Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. commenting on one of the major political conventions in 1968. I was 16, and although I cannot recall which party's convention it was, I distinctly recall being fascinated with their back and forth banter. I ended up with a deep respect for both men's intellect - and a life long fascination with politics, history, and intellectualism.
Ah, those were the days, weren't they? When two men of opposing ideologies could sit in a room together, present their views in a respectful manner, shake hands at the end and leave the audience enriched, enlightened, and enthralled.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.RECOMMENDED76
One thing that's particularly sad about his death, as well as Christopher Hitchens' and even Bill Buckley's, is the sorry state of public discourse today and the anti-intellectual political and social climate that they've left behind.
Political and societal stupidity has always existed in some form or another, but rarely has it loomed so spectacularly over the broader culture in this country and rarely have the stupid, shallow and ignorant wielded as much power and influence as today.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.RECOMMENDED71
John NewtonSydney Australia
Ave atque vale Gore Vidal, a truly great American. Perhaps my favourite Vidalism was his response to a jejune question from a journalist as to whether he had first slept with a man or a woman. His response "I was too polite to ask" says much for the grace of the man
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:56 a.m.RECOMMENDED68
Quite aside from the subject matter, this piece is an outstanding example of the art of obituary writing. Well done, Mr. McGrath, well done indeed!
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.RECOMMENDED66
Dileep GangolliEvanston, IL
"In a 1971 essay he compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson, and a few months later Mailer head-butted him in the green room while the two were waiting to appear on the Dick Cavett show"
Gone are the days when authors were personalities that appeared on national broadcast talk shows. So sad.
Now we are stuck with Kardashians, Hiltons, and other drivel that is so meaningless.
Perhaps Vidal was correct, American civilization is in decline.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED66
Gore Vidal belonged to a breed, now with his death perhaps gone from American life forever: the gentleman scholar. The "gentleman" determined his elegant style, both its sounds and its wit. The "scholar" pertains not to degrees certifying to formal learning but to a taste for solid research, an inherent sense of fact and past opinion, a similarly inherent talent for turning this material into knowledge—and sometimes even into wisdom.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:43 a.m.RECOMMENDED60
Frank SchaefferSalisbury MANYT Pick
Back in the day in the 70s-80s when I was still living near Buckley in Switzerland he used to come over for tea with my late father (theologian Francis Schaeffer and a founder of the religious right). Buckley was talking to Dad and I about how Vidal and he used to fight on TV only to go have a drink together later. I often recall that conversation in the context of today's right/left divide wherein I don't picture any Fox News host having a drink with any MSNBC host after they've disagreed repeatedly and pointedly in public.
Buckley knew that a large measure of his reputation rested on his ability to at least match some of Vidal's arguments and larger than life personality. They were strangely matched mirror images of each other, privileged, educated, odd, arrogant and decent. And based on opposite presuppositions they both agreed that America was/is in decline.
Buckley seemed to be fond of Vidal and proud to have argued with him. When they argued I learned something. Today when our "pundits" spout all I learn is that they hate each other, or rather pretend to since dudgeon-for-profit sells TV advertising minutes.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:44 a.m.RECOMMENDED58
It's long been clear this was coming, but that doesn't make Gore Vidal's death any easier to take. Growing up gay in the deep south in the 90's, Gore became one of my icons: an incredibly erudite, largely self-taught writer/historian/essayist/wit who also happened to be gay, and unabashedly so. The first book of his I read was "Lincoln," strangely, but I quickly followed it with everything else. Even the weird ones (e.g. "Live From Golgotha") were entertaining, thought provoking reads. It is not overstating things to say that most of the threads of the 20th century are woven into his remarkable life.
I very rarely post comments on the web, either here or elsewhere, but I felt compelled to post this one just to say that although I never knew Gore Vidal, I feel like I did, and I will miss having his increasingly-irascible voice presiding over our noisy national dialogue.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:55 a.m.RECOMMENDED58
Kevin RothsteinNew York
I forgot to mention the time Vidal called William F. Buckley, Jr. a "crypto-fascist after the conservative icon suggested in a debate with him that we should "atomize" the North Vietnamese. Buckley was so flummoxed he could only respond with a gay slur. R.I.P. We will not see the likes of Mr. Vidal again.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.RECOMMENDED58
Donald Dal MasoNYC
When Buckley challenged Gore's claim that Nixon had an irresistable criminal efficiency in politics by noting that Nixon had lost the Gubernatorial race in California, Gore replied without a blink that the reason was "You can't fool all of the people all of the time, except on television."
I always felt there was a profound seriousness inside Gore, and that Bush/Cheney had really violated sense of decency and humanity that Gore ordinarily kept out of sight.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:58 a.m.RECOMMENDED52
A readerBrooklyn, NY
My favorite Vidal story took place during his boyhood in Washington, D.C., when he stayed with his grandfather Thomas Gore, the populist Democratic senator from Oklahoma (and, as Vidal said, the last senator from an oil state who left office without a personal fortune). In the early years of the Great Depression, 17,000 veterans of WWI set up a ramshackle "Hooverville" camp in front of the Capitol and demanded their "bonus." Vidal rode in the back of a car with his grandfather, and one of the protesting veterans threw a rock through the window. The rock landed on the floor between the Senator and the boy. Three years later Social Security was enacted, and Vidal came to believe that the creation of the safety-net was the only thing that kept America from revolution in hard times. Could a bloodbath like the French revolution happen here? Of course it could. "If the rich are too rich and the poor have nothing to support them in bad times," Vidal wrote, "then how is liberty’s tree to be nourished?"
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:25 a.m.RECOMMENDED47
MR BillBlue Ridge GANYT Pick
Try growing up gay in rural Western North Carolina in the 60's. I was 10 or so, a bookish child, who saw Mr. Vidal on the "Today" show (imagine having a public intellectual, much less a serious author on today's "Today"...) and told my mom I'd like to be like him.
I still remember her grim expression and the force with which she said "No, you certainly do not!"
In reply to davwardAug. 1, 2012 at 9:20 a.m.RECOMMENDED46
A cranky eccentric not afraid to speak truth (as he saw it) to power. We need people like Gore Vidal to open the windows on our claustrophobic self-absorption as a nation.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED45
"I'm a born-again atheist." Thanks again Mr. Vidal, me too.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:43 a.m.RECOMMENDED42
His commentary during this season's election will be sorely missed.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED42
William M. ShawShreveport, LA
Gore Vidal was a unique figure in America's politico-literary history, a writer who by virtue of his birth and connections was able to speak his mind freely without having to do obeisance to the sacred cows of our culture's group-speak. He will be sorely missed.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:53 a.m.RECOMMENDED40
WinthropThe flats of e'side Buffalo, NY
G.V. referred to virtually all politicians as 'bankerboys.' Upon reflection, it's hard to refute that assertion, even if you wanted too.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED39
TomLake WoebegoneNYT Pick
My guess is, by now, the brilliant Mr. Vidal has received his Grand Surprise that there is another life, and is being hosted at some elegant, heavenly dinner.
I'd love to hear his quip on how that happened, in spite of his Mensa level intelligence and cocksure judgments.
Lordy, that guy could write. How I miss the exchanges between him and Bill Buckley. It was redolent of Hyde Park and Shaw and Chesterton.
I do hope Bill is at the reception too and they are exchanging elegant barbs again.
I can imagine Buckley telling him, "Welcome, Gore! Now that you're here, the average IQ has gone down on Earth and up in Heaven. The same thing happened when I arrived here....but it was a much larger jump!"
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:27 a.m.RECOMMENDED38
Charles MichenerCleveland, OHNYT Pick
I knew Gore in Rome in the1990s. By then he had become an arrestingly corpulent version of his beautiful younger self whose vanity was distilled in his conversation. He was welcoming, alert and curious - and exhausting. Over dinner in a trattoria he was an unstoppable stream of pronouncements, name-dropping and sexual boasting ("See that waiter over there . . ."). He was outrageous, funny, and, as happens with all supreme narcissists, borderline boring. I loved being with him and couldn't wait to leave him. Underneath the grand performance he was also, I felt, immensely lonely. He may not have valued "love," as this excellent obituary reports, but he certainly needed and cherished friendship.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.RECOMMENDED37
JULIAN BARRYREDDING, CTNYT Pick
Some years ago I happened to find myself sitting next to Gore on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. I introduced myself and he recognized my name and was effusive in his praise of a play I'd had running on Broadway (Lenny). I made up my mind that the best possible way to treat this five hour journey was to keep my mouth shut and just listen to what he had to say, and Gore seemed quite content to go along with that idea. It was a wonderful five hours.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 1:10 p.m.RECOMMENDED36
I think Vidal would have lived another decade had he remained on the Amalfi coast.
Returning to the US was a mistake. This awful country finally killed him, as it is slowly strangling the rest of us.
Robert CoaneOrange County, NY
Wrong. Read the last three paragraphs and final line. I don't think you got there: “Such fun, such fun,” he said.
"Unloved," you say. “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?” is a declaration of love ... from a dying man, none-the-less.
Strong language and fierce opinion are often declared malcontent by the weak and hapless. We can always tear down heros to feel better about ourselves.
In reply to happyktAug. 1, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.RECOMMENDED34
Watch the old TV clips of Vidal & Buckley going at each other with acerbity, intellectual brilliance & debate-team courtesy makes you fully appreciate how thoroughly Fox News and MSNBC have destroyed themeaningful discussion of political issues. We're lucky to still have Bill Moyers in the TV studio.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:49 a.m.RECOMMENDED33
DavidDes Moines, IowaNYT Pick
"Myra Breckinridge" was the first Vidal book I ever read. I knew nothing about it, other than having picked up a cheap pocket-paperback copy and that I thought I was going to be reading an overly-serious piece of literature. But it was nothing like I expected. So many playful scenes. Camp. Weird. Inspiring. Mercurial. Brilliant. Tons of aphorisms. ("Yet nothing human that is great can entirely end" -- using a scene from "Naughty Marietta" -- with actress Jeanette MacDonald as a poignant way to illustrate.) The book was as culturally ping-ponging as a Salman Rushdie book, and as inventive as Jean Genet -- tossing around and mixing sexual pronouns -- as if they were of little consequence. There's an extremely lengthy paragraph at the end that is so complex, so beautifully written, I had to come back to it to continually luxuriate in the words and thoughts. The sensory-overloaded paragraph starts with a hand resting between a woman's legs -- "the charneled lair, the last mystery, the maw of creation." Gorgeous.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED33
David StoneNew York, NYNYT Pick
In 1998 I wrote a novel about a secret society in the Navy. With no literary connections, I was at a loss about what to do next. The writers I most admired were Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Gore Vidal was the only one still alive, so I wrote to him and asked if he would read my novel.
I knew you could write a letter to a writer care of his or her publisher, not that I had ever done that before, but in Vidal’s case I actually knew his address. He lived in a villa in Ravello, Italy. I addressed my request to Gore Vidal, La Rondinaia, Ravello, Italy. I had no real expectation that a letter so vaguely addressed would reach him and, even if it did, that he would agree to read my book. Vidal was at the height of his fame and was, no doubt, constantly asked to review books by real published authors and to give them his imperial approval.
A blue airmail envelope promptly appeared in my mailbox with a very short note inside from Gore Vidal asking me to send the manuscript to him. Amazingly, he read my book as soon as he received it and wrote back to me that it was quite a story, with all sorts of reverberations, but predicted it was too hot for publishers. Just a few months ago, I finally published the novel Gore Vidal read and championed in 1998 (Trial of Honor: A Novel of a Court Martial). I dedicated it to Gore Vidal.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 1:02 p.m.RECOMMENDED32
The term "liberal elite" is a meaningless insult developed by right wingers to slander all progressives and appeal to the poor and less well off to vote against their own economic interests. What is your term for all the billionaires like the Koch brothers who are flooding the political system with their money in order to assure continued dominance of right wing ideologies?
In reply to OneolddudeAug. 1, 2012 at 12:47 p.m.RECOMMENDED32
C'est la blagueNewark
No, because Vidal was right about Buckley.
In reply to IanAug. 1, 2012 at 8:27 a.m.RECOMMENDED32
Maureen MNew YorkNYT Pick
Gore Vidal was a treasure. A neighbor recently left Vidal's memoir "Palimpsest" on the curb in a box of other treasures. It's the cattiest, vainest memoir I've ever had the pleasure of reading and I will treasure it always (regardless of what a NYT reviewer said about it). As mentioned in the obituary, his debates with William Buckley during the explosive 1968 Democratic convention are not to be missed. Thank you, YouTube. How does one judge the 'winner' of such a debate? By the grin on Vidal's face when Buckley explodes after being characterized as a "crypto-Nazi." Vidal was gracious enough to subsequently correct this characterization by saying he meant to say "crypto-fascist" instead. Sublime.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.RECOMMENDED31
I had the the good fortune of being with him at small intimate dinners and in bigger splashy events and in both he made me feel like the "only" person worth talking to once he even saved me from a very painful embarrassing moment (being inappropriately dressed) by calling out my name and silencing the gossips. I owe him big time for that...the last time I saw him he was in pain and cranky and it made me sad but I could still feel the fire in his belly. I am happy we met and I am happier that he is no longer in pain and maybe he is flying through the cosmos with a god at his side, naked!
Aug. 1, 2012 at 11:16 a.m.RECOMMENDED29
Bob BurnsJefferson, Oregon
I seriously doubt Bachmann has the focus to stay with a novel of more than 50 pages.
In reply to Marguerite de ValoisAug. 1, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.RECOMMENDED28
F.X. FeeneySanta Monica, California
"Anyone who thinks my essays are better than my novels hasn't read my novels," he once protested. He was right.
His novels are things of lasting beauty -- icy on the surface and filled with arctic water beneath, yes, much like their maker, but (like the seas under the ice caps) filled with living things. Peter and Caroline Sanford, Myra Breckenridge, Buck Loner -- these characters are as fully brought to life as Julian the Apostate, Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln are in his pages.
If all you know are the essays, read the novels. There are forms of cold that burn. His fiction is proof that passion thrives at every temperature
If his editor Epstein still resisted this even after reading the novels in depth, chalk it up to an aesthetic difference -- which is like a religious dispute; there's no answering it in this life.
Anyway: What a century, what an era dies with this man!
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED27
I was a young woman in Panama learning English when I started reading his work. 50 years later I admire him even more. A great loss to this country which is sorely lacking intellectuals and people capable of connecting dots in politics and history.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.RECOMMENDED27
Vaughn A. CarneyStowe, VT
Correction: Gore Vidal, in his famous on-air blow-up with William F. Buckley, called Mr. Buckley a "crypto-Nazi". This was a reference to an incident in Buckley's youthful past, when Buckley and his siblings desecrated an Episcopalian church in Sharon, Connecticut because the rector of that church sold his home on the Sharon village green to a Jewish family in protest of a restrictive covenant prohibiting ownership by Jews.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.RECOMMENDED25
Hitchens, then Vidal, within a year. I don't believe in a god, but if there were one, I'm sure he'd keep one of them at either elbow to entertain Him and keep Him humble. America needs such provocateurs just as Lear needed his Fool.
His best (by my reckoning), were his novel Julian, the rare novel of ancient history that is both plausible and engaging as well as well researched (though it doesn't wear its learning lightly, as its narrators are pedants); and his essays, especially 'The Holy Family' on the Kennedys, one of the first brave efforts to debunk Camelot, published when the 'Martyred St John of Hyannis' myth was still inviolate and inviolable.
And for those of us in the closet, he was an inspiration. Ave atque vale.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED25
To write that Wm Buckley called Gore Vidal a queer is to pale a great moment of live TV. It was how he called it that was priceless. For probably the only time in his life he was speechless, Buckley drew back his head, eyes bulging, and sputtered "You, you ...........queer"
Aug. 1, 2012 at 8:28 a.m.RECOMMENDED24
Barbara ScottTaos, NMNYT Pick
I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Vidal's historical novels.
When "Lincoln" came out in paperback, I read about a fourth of it, then, having found so many errors, returned to the beginning and marked my editorial revisions right on the pages of the book. I sent it to Random House, they forwarded it on to Vidal, and Vidal sent me a (barely decipherable) letter on fine blue stationery from his villa in Italy. It was a lament over the state of publishing in the 20th century. He even took the time to explain some of his literary and stylistic choices (with which, he noted, others had taken issue).
"I sent your comments on to Random House,” he wrote. “Who knows?" I never heard from Random House, but I treasure the blue letter in its hand-addressed envelope.
I would have read "Lincoln" anyway, because it was, to me, a definitive history of that era, and I’ve never forgotten Vidal’s point of view and his compassion toward his characters.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:47 a.m.RECOMMENDED23
Another great truth-teller leaves us. Alexander Cockburn, and now the irreplaceable Gore Vidal; their coruscating commentary will be greatly missed.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.RECOMMENDED22
Robert CoaneOrange County, NY
I would quote Mark Twain: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”
In reply to IanAug. 1, 2012 at 8:52 a.m.RECOMMENDED22
Thierry CartierIle de la Cite
Vidal was fabulous. He remained a fresh voice much longer than most. His eviseration of Buckley was hilarious. I thought he was a better talker than writer. A unique personality back when people still had personalities.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.RECOMMENDED21
Interesting that he thought all humans are inherently bi-sexual. He had the wisdom to see through labels as just meaningless words conjured up by human brains. The mark of a truly intelligent person. I look forward to reading many of his works.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:41 a.m.RECOMMENDED21
"Burr" is and has been since I first read it, one of my favorite novels. I bought it for my children and gave it to friends and family because it debunks the mythologizing of our history and our founders like no other work.
With "Burr", Vidal taught me to question the "official" version of history on every level, and he could do this while making me laugh at his wit and delight in his erudition. His American history series should be required reading.
I also recently saw the revival of his "Best Man" on Broadway and was amazed at how completely contemporary the issues were. In some ways, I found it comforting to know from Vidal's work that our country has faced similar problems and had a similar mindset since its inception, so, perhaps, we will survive even this time.
Thank you, Gore Vidal, and go in peace.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.RECOMMENDED21
I have read and admired Mr. Vidal's works for 40 years. He was in the best sense an old-fashioned writer. By that I mean that his elegant, witty novels play none of the tedious post-modern literary games of too many writers, whose work seems so internally focused. His focus is on character, story, and on creating a believeable fictional world. Among other things, his novels constitute perhaps the best history every written of America. And one more thing: Vidal was refreshingly and wickedly funny, another quality in short supply at the moment.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.RECOMMENDED20
In 2007 I saw him in Toronto, being interviewed on stage by Adam Gopnick. He was hysterically funny, and full of surprises. Gopnick did ask him if he considered himself an novelist first, or an essayist. "Well, it's too late now, I'm a novelist" he responded, drolly.
Gopnick also asked him about the many bon mots ascribed to him on the Internet. He laughed with deprecation, but did name a quote he didn't think he said but thought was so marvelous that he would cheerfully lay claim to: In response to the pro forma invitation to "Have a nice day" from some shop clerk, he was alleged to have responded "I have other plans." This is the story I remember first when I think of Gore Vidal, and I think it captures his mordant wit wonderfully.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:46 a.m.RECOMMENDED20
Mark ReneauChattanooga, TN
Gore Vidal lavished the same acidic wit on politicians and governments that Dorothy Parker unleashed on bad plays, books and haughty people. Their voices were much needed, and by the end of their days, mostly ignored. We are lucky that they graced the American stage; there are no replacements waiting in the wings.
Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.RECOMMENDED20
Thomas QuinnFort Bragg, CA
the "crypto Nazi" comment was a quick comeback to Buckley's characterization of the protesters in the streets as such. "If there's any crypto-nazi around here, it's you, Bill"
Aug. 1, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.RECOMMENDED19
Did you just skip the parts of this obit regarding his longrunning relationship with the partner beside whom he will be buried, and his first love to whom he dedicated The City and the Pillar? Not to mention the love letters exchanged between him and Anais Nin, which have been published? Or do you just assume that if you didn't like him, no one could?
Gore Vidal lives in a run-down penthouse above Rome’s Largo Argentina: reconstructed temples from the pre-Augustan era are set incongruously in the middle of what looks to be Columbus Circle without the charm. It is August. Rome is deserted. The heat is breathtaking during the day, but at sundown a cool wind starts and the birds swarm in the blue-gold Tiepolo sky. He sits on a large terrace lined with plants in need of watering.
In photographs, or on television, Gore Vidal appears to be dark-haired and somewhat slight. He is neither. He stands six feet; his chest is broad and deep (a legacy of Alpine ancestors); despite constant attendance at a gymnasium, the once flat stomach is now reorganizing itself as a most definite paunch. He regards his own deterioration with fascination: “After all, in fifteen months I shall be fifty,” he declares, apparently pleased and disturbed in equal parts.
His hair is light brown, evenly streaked with white. His teeth are meticulously capped. The agate-yellow eyes are myopic, and when he does not wear glasses he tends to squint. The voice . . . well, everyone knows the voice. He sits now in a broken wicker armchair; the baroque dome of San Andrea della Valle appears to float above his head. He wears a blue shirt, gray trousers, sandals. Although he talks naturally in complete sentences, he is not at ease talking about his own work . . . he prefers that others be the subject of his scrutiny. An accomplished debater, he tends to slip away from the personal, the inconvenient.
When did you first start writing?
I would suppose at five or six, whenever I learned how to read. Actually, I can’t remember when I was not writing. I was taught to read by my grandmother. Central to her method was a tale of unnatural love called “The Duck and the Kangaroo.” Then, because my grandfather, Senator Gore, was blind, I was required early on to read grown-up books to him, mostly constitutional law and, of course, the Congressional Record. The later continence of my style is a miracle, considering those years of piping the additional remarks of Mr. Borah of Idaho.
When did you begin your first novel?
At about seven. A novel closely based on a mystery movie I had seen, something to do with “the blue room” or “hotel” (not Stephen Crane’s). I recall, fondly, that there was one joke. The character based on my grandmother kept interrupting everybody because “she had not been listening.” Merriment in the family during the first reading. It doesn’t take much to launch a wit. Then I wrote a great deal of didactic poetry, all bad. With puberty the poetry came to resemble “Invictus,” the novels Of Human Bondage. Between fourteen and nineteen I must have begun and abandoned six novels.
How far did you get on these novels?
A few chapters, usually. I did get halfway through the one written before Williwaw. All about someone who deserted from the army—no doubt reflecting my state of mind, since I was in the army during the war (from seventeen to twenty). Unfortunately, my protagonist deserted to Mexico. Since I had never been to Mexico, I was obliged to stop.
What were the other five about? School?
No. I began the first really ambitious one when I was fourteen or fifteen. I had gone to Europe in the summer of ‘39 and visited Rome. One night I saw Mussolini in the flesh at the Baths of Caracalla—no, he was not bathing but listening to Turandot. The baths are used for staging operas. I thought him splendid! That jaw, that splendid emptiness. After all, I had been brought up with politicians. He was an exotic variation on something quite familiar to me. So I started a novel about a dictator in Rome, filled with intrigue and passion, Machiavellian combinazione. But that didn’t get finished either, despite my close study of the strategies of E. Phillips Oppenheim.
Finishing Williwaw at nineteen broke the barrier; it was published and you wrote three novels in quick succession.
Yes. Every five minutes it seemed. Contrary to legend, I had no money. Since I lived on publishers’ advances, it was fairly urgent that I keep on publishing every year. But of course I wanted to publish every year. I felt no strain, though looking back over the books I can detect a strain in the writing of them. Much of the thinness of those early novels is simply the pressure that I was under. Anyway, I’ve gone back and rewritten several of them. They are still less than marvelous but better than they were.
What do you feel about going back and rewriting? Don’t you think in a way that you’re changing what another person, the younger Vidal, did?
No. You are stuck with that early self for good or ill, and you can’t do anything about it even if you want to—short of total suppression. For me, revising is mostly a matter of language and selection. I don’t try to change the narrative or the point of view, except perhaps toward the end of The City and the Pillar. I felt obligated to try a new kind of ending. But something like Dark Green, Bright Red needed a paring away of irrelevancies—the fault of all American naturalistic writing from Hawthorne to, well, name almost any American writer today. I noticed recently the same random accretion of details in William Dean Howells—a very good writer, yet since he is unable to select the one detail that will best express his meaning, he gives us everything that occurs to him and the result is often a shapeless daydream. Twain, too, rambles and rambles, hoping that something will turn up. In his best work it does rather often. In the rest—painful logorrhea.
You once said that the test of a good work, or a perfect work, is whether the author can reread it without embarrassment. How did you feel when you reread your early books?
Sometimes less embarrassed than others. Rereading Williwaw, I was struck by the coolness of the prose. There is nothing in excess. I am still impressed by that young writer’s control of his very small material. When I prepared the last edition, I don’t suppose I cut away more than a dozen sentences. The next book, on the other hand, In a Yellow Wood, is in limbo forever. I can’t rewrite it because it’s so bad that I can’t reread it. The effect, I fear, of meeting and being “ensorcelled” by Anaïs Nin. Or Jack London meets Elinor Glyn. Wow!
What about your first “successful” novel, The City and the Pillar?
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.”
Now you’ve changed the ending to have the young man—Bob—not killed by Jim, as he was originally.
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.
What is the procedure once a book is revised? Do publishers accept this with grace? Are the old books recalled from libraries?
Williwaw and Messiah were only slightly altered, The City and the Pillar was much revised. The Judgment of Paris was somewhat cut but otherwise not much altered. Dark Green, Bright Red was entirely rewritten. Except for The City and the Pillar, the new versions first appeared in paperback. Later the revised Messiah and The Judgment of Pariswere also reissued in hardcover. I have no idea what the publishers thought of all this. It is not wise to solicit the opinions of publishers—they become proud if you do. As lovers of the environment, I suspect they were pleased that the new versions were so much shorter than the old, thus saving trees. The original editions can also be found in the libraries, margins filled with lewd commentaries, and the worms busy in the binding.
Has anyone else done such a wholesale revision of his past work?
I shouldn’t imagine that any American writer would want to do anything that reflected on the purity and the spontaneity of his genius at any phase of his sacred story. In the land of the free, one sentence must be as good as another because that is democracy. Only Henry James set out methodically to rewrite his early books for the New York editions. Some works he improved; others not. Tennessee, come to think of it, often rewrites old plays, stories . . . it’s sort of a tic with him. Returning to an earlier time, different mood.
You have said that The Judgment of Paris was your favorite of the early books.
It was the first book I wrote when I settled in on the banks of the Hudson River for what proved to be twenty years of writing, my croisée. . . . Certainly The Judgment of Paris was the novel in which I found my own voice. Up until then I was very much in the American realistic tradition, unadventurous, monochromatic, haphazard in my effects. My subjects were always considerably more interesting than what I was able to do with them. This is somewhat the reverse of most young writers, particularly young writers today.
You mean they’re proficient technically but don’t have much to say?
They appear to rely on improvisation to get them to the end of journeys that tend to be circular.
Which works and which authors are you thinking of?
Well, as I was talking I was thinking of a book—any book—by someone called Brautigan. I can never remember the titles. The last little book I looked at is about a librarian. Written in the see-Jane-run style. Very cheerful. Very dumb. Highly suitable for today’s audience. But he’s not exactly what I had in mind. There is one splendid new—to me—writer. Robert Coover. He, too, is circular, but the circles he draws enclose a genius of suggestion. Particularly that story in Pricksongs and Descants when the narrator creates an island for you on the page. No rude art his. Also Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass. A case of language doing the work of the imagination, but doing it very well.
What is there in writing except language?
In the writing of novels there is the problem of how to shape a narrative. And though the search for new ways of telling goes on—I’ve written about this at terrible length*—I don’t think there are going to be any new discoveries. For one thing, literature is not a science. There is no new formula. Some of us write better than others; and genius is never forced. There are signs that a number of writers—university or U-writers, as I call them—are bored with the narrative, character, prose. In turn they bore the dwindling public for novels. So Beckett stammers into silence, and the rest is cinema. Why not?
But in the forties. . . ?
In the forties I was working in the American tradition of straight narrative, not very different from John P. Marquand or John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway. For me it was like trying to fence in a straitjacket. In fact, my first years as a writer were very difficult because I knew I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, and I didn’t know how to do what I ought to be doing. Even interestingly conceived novels like Dark Green, Bright Red or A Search for the King came out sounding like poor Jim Farrell on a bad day. It was not until I was twenty-five, had moved to my house in the country, was poor but content, and started to write The Judgment of Paris, that suddenly I was all there, writing in my own voice. I had always had a tendency to rhetoric—Senator Borah, remember? But fearing its excess, I was too inhibited to write full voice. I don’t know what happened. The influence of Anaïs Nin? The fact that I had stopped trying to write poetry and so the poetic line fused with the prose? Who knows? Anyway, it was a great release, that book. Then came Messiah. Unfortunately, my reputation in ’54 was rock bottom. The book was ignored for a few years, to be revived in the universities. Dead broke, I had to quit writing novels for ten years—just as I was hitting my stride. I don’t say that with any bitterness because I had a very interesting ten years. But it would have been nice to have gone on developing, uninterruptedly, from Messiah.
What voice are you using now?
My own. But I confess to a gift for mimicry. The plangent cries of Myra are very unlike the studied periods of Aaron Burr, but the same throat, as it were (deep, deep), sings the song of each. I envy writers like Graham Greene who, year in and year out, do the same kind of novel to the delight of the same kind of reader. I couldn’t begin to do that sort of thing. I have thrown away a number of successful careers out of boredom. I could have gone on after The City and the Pillar writing shocking John Rechy novels, but chose not to. My first two Broadway plays were successful, and I could have continued for a time to be a popular year-in, year-out playwright. Chose not to. Chose not to keep on as a television playwright. Then once Julian did well, I could have gone on in that genre. The same with Washington, D.C., when I, inadvertently, captured the mind and heart of the middle-class, middle-aged, middlebrow lady who buys hardcover novels—not to mention the book clubs. But then I letMyra spring from my brow, armed to the teeth, eager to lose me ladies, book clubs, book-chat writers—everything, in fact, except her unique self, the only great “woman” in American literature.
And Burr? You seem to have got them all back again.
Doubtless a misunderstanding. I had assumed that Burr would be unpopular. My view of American history is much too realistic. Happily, Nixon, who made me a popular playwright (the worst man in The Best Man was based on him), again came to the rescue. Watergate so shook the three percent of our population who read books that they accepted Burr, a book that ordinarily they would have burned while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
Is it true that you were thinking of putting out Myra Breckinridge under a pseudonym?
No. Oh, well, yes. I wanted to make an experiment. To publish a book without reviews or advertising or a well-known author’s name. I wanted to prove that a book could do well simply because it was interesting—without the support of book-chat writers. Up to a point, the experiment worked. The book was widely read long before the first reviews appeared. But for the experiment to have been perfect my name shouldn’t have been on the book. I didn’t think of that till later. Curious. Twenty years ago, after Messiah was published, Harvey Breit of The New York Times said, “You know, Gore, anything you write will get a bad press in America. Use another name. Or do something else.” So for ten years I did something else.
Why will you always get a bad press?
That’s more for you to determine than for me. I have my theories, no doubt wrong. I suspect that the range of my activity is unbearable to people who write about books. Lenny Bernstein is not reviewed in The New York Times by an unsuccessful composer or by a student at Julliard. He might be better off if he were, but he isn’t. Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life. Then, of course, I am the enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys—as well as the American empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land. They knew I was wrong, but since they don’t read foreign or old books, they were forced to write things like “Vidal thinks Victor Hugo is better than Faulkner.” Well, Hugo is better than Faulkner, but to the residents of book-chat land Hugo is just a man with a funny name who wrote Les Misérables, a movie on the late show. Finally, I am proud to say that I am most disliked because for twenty-six years I have been in open rebellion against the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see the dictatorship start to collapse. I now hope to live long enough to see a sexual democracy in America. I deserve at least a statue in Dupont Circle—along with Dr. Kinsey.
You often refer to critics.
Reviewers . . . actually newspaper persons who chat about books in the press. They have been with us from the beginning and they will be with us at the end. They are interested in writers, not writing. In good morals, not good art. When they like something of mine, I grow suspicious and wonder.
One of the comments sometimes made is that your real position—your greatest talent—is as an essayist. How would you answer that?
My novels are quite as good as my essays. Unfortunately, to find out if a novel is good or bad you must first read it, and that is not an easy thing to do nowadays. Essays, on the other hand, are short, and people do read them.
You once said the novel is dead.
That was a joke. What I have said repeatedly is that the audience for the novel is demonstrably diminishing with each passing year. That is a fact. It is not the novel that is declining, but the audience for it. It’s like saying poetry has been declining for fifty years. Poetry hasn’t. But the audience has. The serious novel is now almost in the same situation as poetry. Eventually the novel will simply be an academic exercise, written by academics to be used in classrooms in order to test the ingenuity of students. A combination of Rorschach test and anagram. Hence, the popularity of John Barth, a perfect U-novelist whose books are written to be taught, not to be read.
As long as we’re on Barth, let me ask you what you think of your contemporaries, people in your generation, people in their forties?
You must realize that anything I say (as opposed to write) about other novelists is governed by my current mood of jaunty disgust—which is quite impartial, cheerful, even loving. But totally unreliable as criticism—putting me in the great tradition of American journalism, now that I think of it.
Do you read your contemporaries? Do you read their new works as they come out?
I wouldn’t say that I am fanatically attentive. There’s only one living writer in English that I entirely admire, and that’s William Golding. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Italian and French writers. I particularly like Italo Calvino.
Why do you think Golding good?
Well, his work is intensely felt. He holds you completely line by line, image by image. InThe Spire you see the church that is being built, smell the dust. You are present at an event that exists only in his imagination. Very few writers have ever had this power. When the priest reveals his sores, you see them, feel the pain. I don’t know how he does it.
Have you ever met him?
Once, yes. We had dinner together in Rome. Oxford don type. I like his variety: Each book is quite different from the one before it. This confuses critics and readers, but delights me. For that reason I like to read Fowles—though he is not in Golding’s class. Who else do I read for pleasure? I always admire Isherwood. I am not given to mysticism—to understate wildly, but he makes me see something of what he would see. I read P. G. Wodehouse for pleasure. Much of Anthony Burgess. Brigid Brophy. Philip Roth when he is at his most demented. I like comic writers, obviously. I reread Evelyn Waugh. . . .
Were you influenced by Waugh?
Perhaps. I was given Scoop in 1939 and I thought it the funniest book I’d ever read. I used to reread it every year. Of the American writers—well, I read Saul Bellow with admiration. He never quite pulls off a book for me, but he’s interesting—which is more than you can say for so many of the other Jewish Giants, carving their endless Mount Rushmores out of halvah. Calder Willingham I’ve always liked—that frantic heterosexuality. There must be a place for his sort of thing in American literature. I’ve never understood why he was not an enormously popular writer.
You have known a good many writers. Is there anything to be got from knowing other writers personally?
I don’t think so. When I was young I wanted to meet the famous old writers that I admired. So I met Gide, Forster, Cocteau, and Santayana. I sent Thomas Mann a book. He sent me a polite letter with my name misspelled. I never expected to “learn” anything from looking at them. Rather it was a laying on of hands. A connection with the past. I am perhaps more conscious of the past than most American writers, and need the dead for comfort.
Do you enjoy being with other writers? Henry James once said, for example, that Hawthorne was handicapped because he was isolated from other writers.
Yes, I like the company of other writers. Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles have been friends. But I am not so sure James meant that Hawthorne’s isolation had to do with not knowing other writers. I think James meant that the American scene was culturally so thin that it was hard to develop intellectually if you had nobody to talk to. This explains the solipsistic note in the work of so many American writers. They think they are the only ones in the world to doubt the existence of God, say—like Mark Twain, for instance.
Who was the first writer you ever met?
Well, growing up in Washington, a lot of journalists came to the house. Walter Lippmann, Arthur Krock, Drew Pearson . . . but I did not think much of journalists. I was more interested in Michael Arlen, who used to come and play bridge. A splendid, rather ornate, Beerbohmesque dandy. And by no means a bad writer. I was fascinated recently byExiles, his son’s book about him. One summer before the war we were all at the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, where Michael and Atalanta Arlen were much admired by everyone, including my mother and her husband, Hugh Auchincloss. But to my astonishment, I now read that the boy was embarrassed by them—they were too dark, flashy, exotic, not pink and square like the American gentry. Like us, I suppose. Life is odd. Michael’s son wanted for a father a stockbroker named Smith, while I would’ve given anything if his father had been my father—well, stepfather.
But later, on your own, whom did you meet, know. . . .
I was still in uniform when I met Anaïs Nin in 1945. I refer you to the pages of her diary for that historic encounter. I thought she was marvelous but didn’t much like her writing. Years later, reading her journals, I was horrified to discover that she felt the same about me. In ’48 I met Tennessee in Rome, at the height of his fame. We traveled about in an old Jeep. I have never laughed more with anyone, but can’t say that I learned anything from him or anyone else. That process is interior. Paradoxically, in the ten years that I wrote for television, theater, movies, I learned how to write novels. Also, writing three mystery novels in one year taught me that nothing must occur in narrative which is not of use. Ironic that the lesson of Flaubert—which I thought that I had absorbed—I did not really comprehend until I was potboiling.
You have described meeting E. M. Forster at King’s College. . . .
I met him first at a party for Isherwood. London ’48. Forster was very excited at meeting Tennessee and not at all at meeting me—which I considered unfair, since I had read and admired all his books while Tennessee, I fear, thought that he was in the presence of the author of Captain Horatio Hornblower. Part of Tennessee’s wisdom is to read nothing at all. Anyway, Forster, looking like an old river rat, zeroed in on Tennessee and said how much he admired Streetcar. Tennessee gave him a beady look. Forster invited us to King’s for lunch. Tennessee rolled his eyes and looked at me. Yes, I said quickly. The next day I dragged Tennessee to the railroad station. As usual with Tennessee, we missed the first train. The second train would arrive in half an hour. Tennessee refused to wait. “But we have to go,” I said, “He’s sitting on one of the lions in front of the college, waiting for us.” Tennessee was not moved by this poignant tableau. “I can’t,” he said, gulping and clutching his heart—when Tennessee does not spit blood, he has heart spasms. “Besides,” said Tennessee primly, wandering off in the wrong direction for the exit, “I cannot abide old men with urine stains on their trousers.” I went on alone. I have described that grim day in Two Sisters.
You seem to still see this scene vividly. Do you think of the writer as a constant observer and recorder?
Well, I am not a camera, no. I don’t consciously watch anything and I don’t take notes, though I briefly kept a diary. What I remember I remember—by no means the same thing as remembering what you would like to.
How do you see yourself in an age of personality—writers, promoting themselves and their work? For instance, Capote says he is an expert at promoting books and gaining the attention of the media.
Every writer ought to have at least one thing that he does well, and I’ll take Truman’s word that a gift for publicity is the most glittering star in his diadem. I’m pretty good at promoting my views on television but a washout at charming the book-chatters. But then I don’t really try. Years ago Mailer solemnly assured me that to be a “great” writer in America you had to be fairly regularly on the cover of the Sunday New York Times book section. Nothing else mattered. Anyway, he is now what he wanted to be: the patron saint of bad journalism, and I am exactly what I set out to be: a novelist.
Where do you place Nabokov?
I admire him very much. I’m told he returns the compliment. We do exchange stately insults in the press. Shortly after I announced that I was contributing a hundred dollars to the Angela Davis defense fund in Nabokov’s name—to improve his image—he responded by assuring an interviewer from The New York Times that I had become a Roman Catholic. It is curious that Russia’s two greatest writers—Nabokov and Pushkin—should both have had Negro blood.
Have you read Ada?
No one has read Ada. But I very much admired Transparent Things. It is sad that the dumb Swedes gave their merit badge to Solzhenitsyn instead of Nabokov. Perfect example, by the way, of the unimportance of a writer’s books to his career.
How about some of the younger writers? What do you think of John Updike, for example?
He writes so well that I wish he could attract my interest. I like his prose, and disagree with Mailer, who thinks it bad. Mailer said it was the kind of bad writing that people who don’t know much about writing think is good. It is an observation that I understand but don’t think applies to Updike. With me the problem is that he doesn’t write about anything that interests me. I am not concerned with middle-class suburban couples. On the other hand, I’m not concerned with adultery in the French provinces either. Yet Flaubert commands my attention. I don’t know why Updike doesn’t. Perhaps my fault.
Are there others of the younger generation who are perhaps less well known whom you like?
Alison Lurie. Viva’s autobiography . . .
Andy Warhol’s superstar?
Yes. And it’s marvelous. Part fiction, part tape recording, part this, part that, gloriously obscene. Particularly interesting about her Catholic girlhood in upstate New York. Her father beating her up periodically beneath the bleeding heart of Jesus. And those great plaster Virgins that he had all over the lawn, lit up at night with three thousand candles. That kind of thing appeals to me more than stately, careful novels.
You came out of the Second World War. What do you think of the writers of the previous generation—Hemingway, for example?
I detest him, but I was certainly under his spell when I was very young, as we all were. I thought his prose was perfect—until I read Stephen Crane and realized where he got it from. Yet Hemingway is still the master self-publicist, if Capote will forgive me. Hemingway managed to convince everybody that before Hemingway everyone wrote like—who?—Gene Stratton-Porter. But not only was there Mark Twain before him, there was also Stephen Crane, who did everything that Hemingway did and rather better. Certainly The Red Badge of Courage is superior to A Farewell to Arms. But Hemingway did put together an hypnotic style whose rhythm haunted other writers. I liked some of the travel things—Green Hills of Africa. But he never wrote a good novel. I suppose, finally, the thing I most detest in him is the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Madox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.
What are your feelings about the so-called great writers of the twentieth century, Hemingway aside? You didn’t like Faulkner, I take it.
I like mind and fear rhetoric—I suppose because I have a tendency to rhetoric. I also come from a Southern family—back in Mississippi the Gores were friends of the Faulkners, all Snopeses together. In fact, when I read Faulkner I think of my grandfather’s speeches in the Senate, of a floweriness that I have done my best to pluck from my own style—along with the weeds.
How about Fitzgerald?
If you want to find a place for him, he’s somewhere between Maurice Baring and Evelyn Waugh. I like best what he leaves out of The Great Gatsby. A unique book. Incidentally, I think screenwriting taught him a lot. But who cares what he wrote? It is his life that matters. Books will be written about him long after his own work has vanished—again and again we shall be told of the literary harvest god who was devoured at summer’s end in the hollywoods.
You said you thought you had been influenced by Waugh but weren’t quite sure how. Who else has influenced you? Either now or years ago.
Oh, God, it’s so hard to list them. As I said, by the time I got to The Judgment of Paris I was myself. Yet I’m always conscious that literature is, primarily, a chain of connection from the past to the present. It is not reinvented every morning, as some bad writers like to believe. My own chain or literary genealogy would be something like this: Petronius, Juvenal, Apuleius—then Shakespeare—then Peacock, Meredith, James, Proust. Yet the writers I like the most influenced me the least. How can you be influenced by Proust? You can’t. He’s inimitable. At one point Thomas Mann fascinated me; thinking he was imitable, I used to compose Socratic dialogues in what I thought was his manner. One reason for rewriting The City and the Pillar was to get rid of those somber exchanges.
How much do you think college English courses can influence a career? Or teach one about The Novel?
I don’t know. I never went to college. But I have lectured on campuses for a quarter century, and it is my impression that after taking a course in The Novel, it is an unusual student who would ever want to read a novel again. Those English courses are what have killed literature for the public. Books are made a duty. Imagine teaching novels! Novels used to be written simply to be read. It was assumed until recently that there was a direct connection between writer and reader. Now that essential connection is being mediated—bugged?—by English departments. Well, who needs the mediation? Who needs to be taught how to read a contemporary novel? Either you read it because you want to or you don’t. Assuming, of course, that you can read anything at all. But this business of taking novels apart in order to show bored children how they were put together—there’s a madness to it. Only a literary critic would benefit, and there are never more than ten good critics in the United States at any given moment. So what is the point to these desultory autopsies performed according to that little set of instructions at the end of each text? Have you seen one? What symbols to look for? What does the author mean by the word “white”? I look at the notes appended to my own pieces in anthologies and know despair.
How would you “teach” the novel?
I would teach world civilization—East and West—from the beginning to the present. This would occupy the college years—would be the spine to my educational system. Then literature, economics, art, science, philosophy, religion would be dealt with naturally, sequentially, as they occurred. After four years, the student would have at least a glimmering of what our race is all about.
If you were teaching one of those “desultory” courses, how would you describe your style?
As a novelist I have a certain mimetic gift. I can impersonate a number of characters. InMyra Breckinridge there are two different voices. One for Buck Loner, one for Myra—neither mine. On the other hand, when I write an essay, the style is my own—whatever that is, for the subject often imposes its own rhythm on my sentences. Yet I can usually spot my own style, and tell if a word’s been changed.
Two Sisters is hard to categorize and put in any tradition. You call it a memoir in the form of a novel, or a novel in the form of a memoir. What led you to write in that form?
It created its own form as I went along. I didn’t feel that a straightforward memoir would be interesting to do. On the other hand, I don’t like romans à clef. They’re usually a bit of a cheat. You notice I keep talking not about the effect my writing is going to have on others but the effect it has on me. I don’t really care whether I find a form that enchants others as much as I care about finding something that can delight me from day to day as I work it out. I was constantly fascinated and perplexed while writing that book. It’s done with mirrors. One thing reflects another thing. Each of the three sections is exactly the same story, no different, but each section seems to be different. Each section contains exactly the same characters, though not always in the same guise.
It’s typical of your newer novels that you make such use of interjected letters, tape recordings, and diaries. Do you find that technique easier, or better, or preferable to a straight narrative?
It makes for immediacy. I know how difficult it is for the average American to read anything. And I’m speaking of the average “educated” person. It is not easy for him to cope with too dense a text on the page. I think the eye tires easily. After all, everyone under thirty-five was brought up not reading books but staring at television. So I am forced to be ingenious, to hold the reader’s attention. I think I probably made an error using the screenplay form for part of Two Sisters.
I’m told it was hard to read. Poor Anthony Burgess, following me, has just made the same mistake with Clockwork Testament. Also, I kept saying all through the book what a bad screenplay it was. Predictably, the reaction was, well, if he says it’s a bad screenplay, why, it really must be a bad screenplay and so we better not read the bad screenplay. One must never attempt irony this side of the water.
But you do in your work, on television . . .
Yes. And it has done me no good. In America the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you’re a great writer, you must say that you are. Some will disagree, of course, but at least everyone will know that you’re serious about your work. Speak of yourself with the slightest irony, self-deprecation, and you will be thought frivolous—perhaps even a bad person. Anyway, the playing around with letters and tapes and so on is just . . . I keep coming back to the only thing that matters: interesting myself.
What about writing in the third person?
I wonder if it is still possible—in the sense that Henry James used it. Washington, D.C.was my last attempt to write a book like that—and I rather admire Washington, D.C. After all, that was the time I got into the ring with Proust, and I knocked the little fag on his ass in the first round. Then I kneed old Leo T. the Great and on a technical KO got the championship. Funny thing, this being the best. . . . But even the world champ had a tough time licking Washington, D.C. The third person imposed a great strain on me, the constant maneuvering of so many consciousnesses through the various scenes while trying to keep the focus right. It was like directing a film on location with a huge cast in bad weather.
Do you feel more at home with the first-person novel now? Do you think you’ll continue with it?
Since I’ve done it recently in Burr and again in Myron, I’ll probably not do it again, but who knows? The second person certainly holds few charms. Perhaps no pronouns at all!
What sets you apart, do you think, from other American writers?
My interest in Western civilization. Except for Thornton Wilder, I can think of no contemporary American who has any interest in what happened before the long present he lives in, and records. Also, perhaps paradoxically, I value invention highly, and hardly anyone else does. I don’t think I have ever met an American novelist who didn’t, sooner or later, say when discussing his own work, “Well, I really knew someone exactly like that. That was the way it happened, the way I wrote it.” He is terrified that you might think he actually made up a character, that what he writes might not be literally as opposed to imaginatively true. I think part of the bewilderment American book-chat writers have with me is that they realize that there’s something strange going on that ought not to be going on—that Myra Breckinridge might just possibly be a work of the imagination. “You mean you never knew anyone like that? Well, if you didn’t, how could you write it?”
Two Sisters, however, does invite that intense search for clues you abhor. You meant for it to, didn’t you? You wonder who is who and what’s what.
It would be unnatural if people didn’t. After all, it is a memoir as well as a novel. But mainly it is a study in vanity and our attempts to conquer death through construction or through destruction. Herostratus does it in one way, and I do it in another—at least, the self that I use in the book. Eric does it in yet another way. Those girls, each has her own view of how she’s going to evade death and achieve immortality. And it’s all a comedy from the point of view of a stoic writer like myself.
Can you tell me about your work habits? You must be enormously disciplined to turn out so much in such a relatively short time. Do you find writing easy? Do you enjoy it?
Oh, yes, of course I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. Whenever I get up in the morning, I write for about three hours. I write novels in longhand on yellow legal pads, exactly like the First Criminal Nixon. For some reason I write plays and essays on the typewriter. The first draft usually comes rather fast. One oddity: I never reread a text until I have finished the first draft. Otherwise it’s too discouraging. Also, when you have the whole thing in front of you for the first time, you’ve forgotten most of it and see it fresh. Rewriting, however, is a slow, grinding business. For me the main pleasure of having money is being able to afford as many completely retyped drafts as I like. When I was young and poor, I had to do my own typing, so I seldom did more than two drafts. Now I go through four, five, six. The more the better, since my style is very much one of afterthought. My line to Dwight Macdonald, “You have nothing to say, only to add,” really referred to me. Not until somebody did a parody of me did I realize how dependent I am on the parenthetic aside—the comment upon the comment, the ironic gloss upon the straight line, or the straight rendering of a comedic point. It is a style which must seem rather pointless to my contemporaries because they see no need for this kind of elaborateness. But, again, it’s the only thing I find interesting to do.
Hungover or not, I write every day for three hours after I get up until I’ve finished whatever I’m doing. Although sometimes I take a break in the middle of the book, sometimes a break of several years. I began Julian—I don’t remember—but I think some seven years passed between the beginning of the book and when I picked it up again. The same thing occurred with Washington, D.C. On the other hand, Myra I wrote practically at one sitting—in a few weeks. It wrote itself, as they say. But then it was much rewritten.
Do you block out a story in advance? And do characters ever run away from you?
When I first started writing, I used to plan everything in advance, not only chapter to chapter but page to page. Terribly constricting . . . like doing a film from someone else’s meticulous treatment. About the time of The Judgment of Paris, I started improvising. I began with a mood. A sentence. The first sentence is all-important. Washington, D.C. began with a dream, a summer storm at night in a garden above the Potomac—that was Merrywood, where I grew up. With Julian and with Burr I was held to historical facts. Still, I found places where I could breathe and make up new things. My Burr is not the real Burr any more than Henry Steele Commager’s Jefferson is the real Jefferson. By and large history tends to be rather poor fiction—except at its best. The Peloponnesian War is a great novel about people who actually lived.
In your novel Messiah . . .
I didn’t know the end of the book when I started writing. Yet when I got to the last page I suddenly wrote, “I was he whom the world awaited,” and it was all at once clear to me that the hidden meaning of the story was the true identity of the narrator, which had been hidden from him, too. He was the messiah who might have been. When I saw this coming out upon the page, I shuddered (usually I laugh as I write), knew awe, for I had knocked both Huxley and Orwell out of the ring. Incidentally, ninety percent of your readers will not detect the irony in my boxing metaphors. And there is nothing to be done about it.
Except for me to interject that you are playing off the likes of Hemingway and Mailer in the use of them. Shall I go on? Do you keep notebooks?
I make a few pages of notes for each novel. Phrases. Names. Character descriptions. Then I seldom look again at the notes. At the end of each workday I do make notes on what the next day’s work will be. I’ve a memory like a sieve. Under a pseudonym (Edgar Box) I wrote three mystery books in 1952—I was very broke. Halfway through the last one I forgot who the murderer was and had to find a substitute.
What do you start with? A character, a plot?
Myra began with a first sentence. I was so intrigued by that sentence that I had to go on. Who was she? What did she have to say? A lot, as it turned out. The unconscious mind certainly shaped that book.
Do you find any difficulties in writing about America and Americans when you are out of the country so much?
Well, I think others would notice my lapses before I did. Anyway, I come back quite often and my ears are pretty much attuned to the American . . . scream. But then I’ve been involved in one way or another with every election for nearly twenty years. And I spend at least two months each year lecturing across the country.
Besides the pleasures of living, are there any advantages in terms of perspective for the writer who lives outside the country?
For me, every advantage. If I lived in America, I would be a politician twenty-four hours a day, minding everybody else’s business and getting no work done. Also, there are pleasures to this sort of anonymity one has in a foreign city. And it’s nice to be always coping with a language you don’t speak very well. Occasionally I regret it when I’m with someone like Moravia, who speaks so rapidly and intricately in Italian that I can never follow him.
What do you think generally about the writer engagé? Should a writer be involved in politics, as you are?
It depends on the writer. Most American writers are not much involved, beyond signing petitions. They are usually academics—and cautious. Or full-time literary politicians. Or both. The main line of our literature is quotidian with a vengeance. Yes, many great novels have been written about the everyday—Jane Austen and so on. But you need a superb art to make that sort of thing interesting. So, failing superb art, you’d better have a good mind and you’d better be interested in the world outside yourself. D. H. Lawrence wrote something very interesting about the young Hemingway. Called him a brilliant writer. But he added he’s essentially a photographer and it will be interesting to see how he ages because the photographer can only keep on taking pictures from the outside. One of the reasons that the gifted Hemingway never wrote a good novel was that nothing interested him except a few sensuous experiences, like killing things and fucking—interesting things to do but not all that interesting to write about. This sort of artist runs into trouble very early on because all he can really write about is himself and after youth that self—unengaged in the world—is of declining interest. Admittedly, Hemingway chased after wars, but he never had much of anything to say about war, unlike Tolstoy or even Malraux. I think that the more you know the world and the wider the net you cast in your society, the more interesting your books will be, certainly the more interested you will be.
Do you think of your novels as political novels?
Of course not. I am a politician when I make a speech or write a piece to promote a political idea. In a novel like Burr I’m not composing a polemic about the founding fathers. Rather, I am describing the way men who want power respond to one another, to themselves. The other books, the inventions like Myra, are beyond politics, in the usual sense at least.
Are you interested in the other arts at all? In painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance?
Architecture, for one. I’m fascinated by the ancient Roman Empire among whose ruins I live. I’ve been in every city and town of Italy, and I suppose I’ve been into nearly every Roman church. I particularly like mosaics. I am not musical. This means I very much like opera. And baroque organ music, very loud. I like ballet, but in Rome it’s bad. In painting, I’m happiest with Piero della Francesca. I hate abstract painting. In sculpture, well, the Medici tombs—I had a small talent for sculpture when I was young.
Does it help a writer to be in love? To be rich?
Love is not my bag. I was debagged at twenty-five and turned to sex and art, perfectly acceptable substitutes. Absence of money is a bad thing because you end up writing “The Telltale Clue” on television—which I did. Luckily, I was full of energy in those days. I used to write a seventy-thousand-word mystery novel in ten days. Money gives one time to rewrite books until they are “done”—or abandoned. Money also gave me the leisure to become an essayist. I spend more time on a piece for The New York Review of Books than I ever did on, let us say, a television play. If my essays are good it is because they are entirely voluntary. I write only what I want to . . . except, of course, in those moneymaking days at MGM—composing Ben-Hur.
But how about the movies? You’re still writing for movies, aren’t you?
Yes. I love movies, and I think a lot about movies. Recently I thought I would like to direct. More recently, I have decided it’s too late. I am like the Walter Lippmanns. I saw them a few years ago. They were euphoric. Why? “Because,” she said, “we have decided that we shall never go to Japan. Such a relief!”
Why do you prefer movies to the theater?
I’m embarrassed by live actors. They’re always having a much better time than I am. Also, few plays are very interesting, while almost any movie is interesting—if just to watch the pictures. But then I’m typically American. We weren’t brought up with theater like the English or the Germans. On the other hand, I saw every movie I could in my youth. I once saw four movies in one day when I was fourteen. That was the happiest day of my life.
Have you ever thought of acting, as Norman Mailer does?
Is that what he does? I have always been curious. Well, I appeared briefly in my own The Best Man. I also appeared in Fellini’s Roma, as myself. I made no sense, due to the cutting, but the movie was splendid anyway. I have been offered the lead in Ustinov’s new play for New York. To play an American president. What else? I said no. For one thing, I cannot learn dialogue.
Has your writing been influenced by films?
Every writer of my generation has been influenced by films. I think I’ve written that somewhere. Find out the movies a man saw between ten and fifteen, which ones he liked, disliked, and you would have a pretty good idea of what sort of mind and temperament he has. If he happened to be a writer, you would be able to find a good many influences, though not perhaps as many as Professor B. F. Dick comes up with in his recent study of me*—a brilliant job, all in all. Myra would’ve liked it.
What did you see between ten and fifteen?
I saw everything. But I was most affected by George Arliss. Particularly his Disraeli. I liked all those historical fictions that were done in the thirties. Recently I saw my favorite,Cardinal Richelieu, for the first time in thirty years on the late show. Absolute chloroform.
Well, you seem to have had an enormous knowledge of movies for Myra. Did you have to go back and research any of that?
I saw all those movies of the forties—in the forties. At school and in the army. They’re seared on my memory. There wasn’t anything in the book that I did not see first time around. Also—to help the Ph.D. thesis writers—almost every picture I mentioned can be found in Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies. A work which has to be read to be believed.
Have you ever had any trouble with writer’s block?
When you get up in the morning to write, do you just sit down and start out with your pen? You don’t have any devices you use to . . . ?
First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me.
You don’t sharpen pencils or anything like that?
No. But I often read for an hour or two. Clearing the mind. I’m always reluctant to start work, and reluctant to stop. The most interesting thing about writing is the way that it obliterates time. Three hours seem like three minutes. Then there is the business of surprise. I never know what is coming next. The phrase that sounds in the head changes when it appears on the page. Then I start probing it with a pen, finding new meanings. Sometimes I burst out laughing at what is happening as I twist and turn sentences. Strange business, all in all. One never gets to the end of it. That’s why I go on, I suppose. To see what the next sentences I write will be.
* “French Letters: The Theory of the New Novel,” Encounter (December 1967). Also, collected in Homage to Daniel Shays (Random House, 1972).
* Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. (Random House, 1974).