Monday, 9 May 2011

Gore Vidal - a man never to be overlooked

I picked up for a song at a car-boot sale the other day this hardback edition of Gore Vidal's biography by Fred Kaplan (1999) - and am getting much pleasure from it. This 800+ page tome is every bit as dense on detail as Vidal's own novels, of which I've read about half a dozen, even though I confess that I rarely remember them afterwards. To be honest, I seem to find that his erudition gets in the way of his story.
Vidal is a figure I've been more fascinated by rather than admired outright. For me his talks and participations in discussions have outshone the undoubted literary merit of those works of his which I've read - but, my God, he was such a precocious writer from such an early age!
At the turn of the millenium BBC TV had a 20-part one-hour weekly discussion series about the history of Christianity, covering one century per week. Vidal was a guest on several of them, joining various notable philosophers, not all of them Christians, or even theists, as well as prominent religious clerics of various denominations. He never let the chance go to make a withering comment on religion, especially Christianity of course, and, above all, Roman Catholicism. It was worth watching the entire series just to catch his put-downs.
I've just read on the Internet some of the reviews of this biography. They are by no means all favourable but the majority seem to think it a good or (often) a very good work, which I, reaching now its half-way point, would largely go along with.
Vidal, no matter what you think of him, was never one to suffer fools gladly. His enormous capacity for sexual high jinks right from his teenage years and well into adulthood (mentioned in passing rather than described in detail here) make me quite envious. But even without that aspect he's led such a colourful, eventful life - and the people he's met and known, in the arts and politics in particular, is a name-droppers cornucopia.
Now in his mid-80s he is obviously close to, or even now running, his final lap. It would be impossible to write a critique of American gay culture without mentioning his name several times, though he would be scathing about being included in it as he doesn't recognise that a specifically gay culture has even existed. Be that as it may, for me he remains one of the really significant figures of 20th century America.


  1. Super post - thanks!

    I have only read one of his books but he was marked out for me when my second boyfriend gave me a thorough education in what it meant to be gay and told me all about that our gay culture which Vidal, in uncharacteristically blinkered mode, chooses to deny. But he was, of course, highlighted as a modern-day contributor of some note.

  2. Micky, I first became aware of him in my 30s and ever since then I try to catch every one his commentaries, written or broadcast, on politics, religion or anything else at all. His dry, acerbic observations are jewels in a largely arid world. So it's a shame that I find his novels as impenetrable as I do but maybe it's me who is wanting in intelligence - but I will continue to read them.

  3. Ray he isn't a very approachable writer, so if you are having a hard time with the book don't think it is you. I like hearing what he has to say, because he is often insightful, but he always comes off as very detached and distant. That causes a disconnect in me.

  4. Ray, just though I should mention I'm talking about Vidal, not Kaplan, though i think you would figure that out.

  5. Yes, Kyle, that is whom I thought you meant. ;-)
    It's re-assuring to hear that you agree with me. I've now finished the hefty biography volume. I am a BIT wiser now, but not that much. I had no idea of the monumental negative effect of his mother - and I actually feel considerable sympathy for having been brought up by suvch a self-centred person as that.
    Of his half-dozen novels which I have read (the most recent one being 'Creation' which I lugubriously managed earlier this year) they always leave me with a feeling of "Why can't I get INSIDE them?" - and when I read their adulatory reviews I feel the lack must be in ME.
    In his talks and discussions he does connect with me more than in his fiction, and he's a fiercely formidable opponent in any debate.
    I really doubt if he'll be remembered for his writing, but I may be wrong. In the meantime, though, I do feel it a privilege to be living in his time.