ARCHIVE HIGHLIGHT

America's Biographer
An interview with Gore Vidal
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly July 1999

 

Most of his books are bestsellers, and as a public figure his fame extends far beyond even this substantial readership. Even as he predicts (as he has for decades) the death of the novel, Gore Vidal, the novelist, has thrived. For more than fifty years—from the publication of his first novel, Williwaw (1946), through The Smithsonian Institution (1998)—Vidal's "inventions" have shown him to be a novelist not only of great imagination, but also possessing a vast technical range. He is staggeringly prolific: twenty-two novels, at least two hundred essays, various screenplays (including Ben-Hur), five plays, a memoir and numerous short stories.

Now in his seventies, Vidal is working on The Golden Age, the final volume in a series of historical novels that, placed together, make up a biography of the nation that opposes prevailing national myths. If individuals can shape history, Vidal has known those who did and has watched them do it. There are, of course, many good vantage points from which to write about America, but Vidal's must be counted as one of the most unique: he is the grandson of a senator, an intimate of the Kennedys and a relative of the current vice president. Over the course of his life, Vidal has also kept company with the world's political, cultural, artistic and intellectual elite. Often the A-list didn't make a good impression, and Vidal's writing frequently depicts the failings of the self-declared best and brightest.

Vidal has twice run for office himself, but it is hard to imagine—especially if you share Vidal's view of the political process—that a man so given to notoriety and public candor could ever win an election. Imagine a senator who figures prominently in the diary of Anais Nin. Then there's Vidal's willingness to explore taboo subjects and the obvious relish he takes in public feuds. The homosexual relationship depicted in The City and the Pillar (1948) created, as Vidal recalls in this interview, a public "firestorm." That pales next to the time Myra Breckinridge (1968) was attacked by William F. Buckley, Jr., on ABC: Mr. Reserve lost it and called Vidal a "queer" before the national audience. Vidal's feud with Norman Mailer almost turned The Dick Cavett Show into Jerry Springer. Vidal has also developed a small career as an actor with roles in recent films such as With Honors and Gattaca. All of this should make for lively reading in October when Gore Vidal: A Biography, by Fred Kaplan (Doubleday), is published. In addition to the first full biography of Vidal, Kaplan has also edited The Essential Gore Vidal (1999), a good introduction to the work. Gadfly interviewed Vidal by faxing questions to his home in Italy.

Has the pleasure you take in reading, the amount of time you spend reading or the speed at which you read changed significantly over the years?

The recent acquisition of glaucoma—every family should have one—has somewhat slowed me down. I've always been a slow reader; mistrust speed-demons. You cannot become a partner of a writer if you're conducting a one-night stand. On the other hand, there are writers one skims as opposed to reads. Biography is currently disdained largely because this has been a great age for biography and not much for history and literature (Creative Dept).

What are your recent interests and enthusiasms?

Strouse's Morgan—about J. P.—is splendid. Portrait of an age, etc. And how money works in the world. The only two novelists who ever had a sense of this were [Honoré de] Balzac and [Theodore] Dreiser.

Do you use the Internet?

No.

Do you have any sense of what sort of president your cousin Al Gore might make? Will you vote for him?

I haven't voted for president since 1964 when I voted for LBJ, "the peace candidate." Cousin Al is probably not as mediocre as he seems but that is the cross vice presidents must bear. Do anything interesting and the Pres takes credit. I think he lies more than he ought, out of compensation for not being in a position to do anything memorable. Love Story! Good God.

In your memoir, you frequently discuss your own drinking and that of other writers. Has your drinking had any impact on your writing?

My generation drank and so did everyone else in American history, literary and otherwise, until the stoned '60s, the white wine and coke '70s, and so on. Fitzgerald was dead at forty or so, Hemingway non compos, Faulkner incoherent after four good early novels... drink did not serve them well but Prohibition and its pressures contributed to their disintegration, along with a lot of others. Americans like to make laws forbidding people to do what they want to do. This produces lawlessness at every level. Ours is an intrusive and fundamentally evil state now heading for an all-out war against its own people since we had trouble defeating even Panama.

Do you remember a moment during the writing of The City and the Pillar at which you considered or imagined how it would be received?

I knew there would be a firestorm that I would survive, somewhat charred.

Have you forgiven William F. Buckley for his behavior on ABC in 1968?

He sued me for my response to a piece he had written about me in Esquire. Finally, he backed down; dropped the suit. I had to pay lawyers for his madness. One never forgives that.

Do you have any opinion on Norman Podhoretz's recent book on his former friends?

When he wrote Making It, I asked Poddy, sort of a friend, what on earth makes you think you've made it? Editor of Commentary? Come on. I haven't read his book. Runt of the litter complex who wants to be up there with the big guys—Norman [Mailer], Saul [Bellow], Gore.

Did you have any reaction to Mailer's The Time of Our Time and the critical response to it?

I don't read book-chat in general. I didn't read the book because I've read most of the pieces in it already. I gave Advertisements for Myself a good review when it was published.

Harold Bloom writes, in The Western Canon, "Vidal's best fictions... are distinguished historical novels—Lincoln, Burr and several more—and this subgenre is no longer available for canonization... " Do you have any idea what Bloom means by this, and, if so, do you agree?

Bloom's general point is well-taken. Americans hate history, which is why we do so badly in the present. From Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoi, reinterpreted history has been the backbone of the canon; I consider myself in that tradition, and so does Bloom, who includes Lincoln and Myra Breckinridge in his Western Canon. My satiric comedies, like Myra or Duluth, are too unsettling for school teachers, too funny as well, while the re-imagining of American history which they know nothing of falls outside their minute range. B. was thinking of current lit reputations and why I so trouble the mediocre—surely a proof of one's value!

How have the editors with whom you have worked been most helpful? For example, what was it like to work with Jason Epstein?

Jason's unusually intelligent and very interested in history. We parted company over my inventions like Myra, etc. He dislikes invention, satire, comedy. He gave me a ms. to read. Short novel. He didn't like it. I said it's wonderful. Publish it. The Breast by Philip Roth. Then Philip left him for another publisher. Jason was upset. I said, "Writers know what you think of them."

You write in Palimpsest, "Old age is turning out to be like youth." How so?

Wool-gathering.

Is there a reason you chose not to make the selections for The Essential Gore Vidal yourself? Is there anything you felt should have been put in that was left out? Is there anything in it that you would not have collected?

I can't reread myself. I did help Kaplan get the point to some of the historical novels: key scenes that he had eerily missed.

Do you intend to read Fred Kaplan's biography of you?

Yes. For libel.

Has being an actor brought you any benefit as a writer?

I wish I'd done more acting earlier... for my dramatic pieces. Actors from Shakespeare to Noel Coward to Harold Pinter make splendid playwrights and once you've been out there—or up there on the screen—you are in the belly of the beast in a way that no mere novelist can ever be. If nothing else you learn timing; a Pinter pause says more than most novels. But then just turning playwright without success made Henry James an even greater novelist when he came home to prose and wrote Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew, etc.

Did you approach the writing of The Smithsonian Institution differently from your other "inventions"?

I wrote it very slowly, page a day, like a poem, waiting for the inventions to find me. Tom Stoppard said he read it wondering how I was going to get out of all the traps I kept setting for myself, particularly in logic.

Why do you think scholars (and other assorted pointy heads) have been quick to embrace the literary merit of your essays while ignoring your fiction? Considering your views on most critics and reviewers, were you surprised to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism?

Essays are short and even they [scholars] can get through one. Novels take time. Thought. Since I don't write about marriage and/or getting academic tenure, I have cut myself off from the serious world. Did I win a prize?

You've described yourself as the biographer of this country. If you were to write another historical novel set after Washington, D.C., what years or events would you choose?

I am writing the seventh and last volume, The Golden Age. It's 1940 to 1950: how we were got into World War II and then the Cold War; it runs alongside Washington, D.C., with many of the same characters from different angles.