Books

THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO GORE VIDAL

No one inside his famous circle is too sacred for words, except the writer himself.

"PALIMPSEST: A MEMOIR" By Gore Vidal, Random House. $27.50.

Reviewed by Harry Kloman

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte, Sunday, Oct. 29, 1995

For at least a quarter of a century now -- half of his 50 years as a novelist, essayist, playwright and public figure -- Gore Vidal has always sworn that he would never write a memoir.

He has claimed to be "the least autobiographical of writers," a claim less true that he would have us believe. He has always lived life on his own terms, even in childhood, and always without a dash of regret, an emotion for which he had repeatedly said he has no time.

And lately, he has taken to declaring that university English departments cannot possibly teach the development of the post-World War II American novel without teaching his work.

"They've been doing 'Hamlet' without the prince," Vidal said a few years ago during a visit to Pittsburgh. "They can't go on doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern forever."

If Vidal were not such a provocative essayist or such an entertaining storyteller, his ego would certainly have overshadowed his career long ago. But the Vidalian canon has something for everyone: vivid historical novels, like "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln"; outrageously sexual ones, like ''Myra Breckinridge" or "Duluth"; even tales of the future, like ''Kalki" and "Messiah."

His friendships and feuds have become famously public over the decades. He was banished from Camelot -- that is, the Kennedy White House -- after a nasty spat with Bobby.

He almost went to fisticuffs with William F. Buckley Jr. on live TV. He has sued and countersued his old pal and rival, Norman Mailer, over one silly thing or another. PG
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All of those figures and dozens more -- from presidents to forgotten and beloved casualties of war -- make up the breezy and, in many ways for Vidal, subdued pages of "Palimpsest: A Memoir." And it all comes from a writer who never kept a journal and who swore he would never look back.

"Palimpsest" is a reflection on a variety of histories -- political, literary, personal -- and the intersections of the three. It's often fond and gentle, yet sometimes almost pathologically cruel and bitter.

To people unfamiliar with Vidal's life and work, his memoir will probably read like a brash rumination on the political figures and literati of the 20th-century American Empire. To his followers, it fills in a few (but only a few) of the intriguing emotio nal gaps of a man who says he fell in love once at 14 and has never felt the need to do so again.

Vidal opens "Palimpsest' with a refrain he's sung before. "I was a novelist," he writes, "in an era when the line between fiction and fact pretty much broke down as, in coldest blood, the 'novelist' felt free to make things up for actual people to do on t he page."

His reference to the work of his late "friend," Truman Capote, has long been a bug in his bed; Vidal loathes "nonfiction novels" that probe the minds of real people with fabricated introspection. He considers Capote's "In Cold Blood" to be literary sacril ege.

So in "Palimpsest," he draws heavily, whenever possible, upon the letters and diaries of the people he introduces, as if to reassure us he's not concocting a single word of the things he has them say.

The result is a narrative wherein nothing anyone has ever said about Vidal is even remotely true if it contradicts his own precise memory of events. Yet ''Palimpsest" contains enough errors and inconsistencies to make us question just how precise Vidal's memory is and to wonder if his only capacity more acute than his memory is his ego.

Vidal arranges "Palimpsest" in loose chronological order. Each chapter revolves around a person, place or period in his life, skipping back and forth in time, from before his birth in 1925 up to his 39th year, which marked his resurrection as a novelist a fter a decade as a playwright.

He opens "Palimpsest" in 1957 at his stepsister's wedding, a society gathering replete with closets and their skeletons. It's a good way for him to launch a reminiscence about his childhood home -- and to trash the milieu of the monied elite and ambitious politicians he has known since the 1930s.

It's also a sly way to seduce readers who aren't familiar with his life and work. For among the wedding guests are U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy and his lovely wife Jackie, whose mother had been married to the second ex-husband of Vidal's mother, and about wh om Vidal has a few scandalous secrets to reveal.

What follows are recollections of -- and gossip about -- the most famous people of Vidal's lifetime, some of whom he met only briefly in their old age, but many of whom filled his social circle and, in some cases, even became his friends.

He shows great affection for Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood, and even greater contempt for Capote and Anais Nin (both liars, in his opinion, though of different sorts). He likes E.M. Forster's writing but not the man himself. He shares with Jack Kennedy a passion for sex, albeit with partners of different genders.

Fond of his maternal grandfather, the blind U.S. Sen. Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma, his chapter on the senator is a tour of early 20th-century American politics, as well as an affectionate homage to the misanthropic populist.

He's equally kind to his own father, an aviator and political figure who taught Vidal to fly an airplane at 10.

It has long been known that Vidal hated his mother, Nina Gore, an alcoholic would-be socialite who married, always unsuccessfully, for money and status. The stories he tells of her selfishness and abandonment are enough to help us understand why Vidal bec ame the figure the world has come to know.

"The only advantage for a child in having an alcoholic parent," Vidal reflects, "is that you acquire, prematurely, quite a bit of valuable data." His mother was candid during his childhood about her sexual exploits, which no doubt provoked a similar candi dness in her son.

So it's politics in the 1940s, the European literary scene in the early 1950s, and then back to American culture and government, including Vidal's run for Congress in 1960. The memories flow back and forth, from past to present, with phone calls or letter s or reunions triggering many digressions and reflections.

Still, there's something missing in "Palimpsest," and Vidal himself seems to know it: His book is most absorbing when he writes about other people, and most frustrating when he avoids writing about himself.

He wants us to believe that he has never had a jealous moment, never felt a serious rivalry with a peer, never had a regret that's lasted for more than a day. What, then, he forces us to ask, has been the emotional landscape of his life?

His joy in "Palimpsest" seems to be setting the record straight and telling the "truth." But if this book had a musical score, it might sound a little like whistling in the dark.

Vidal admits to being a selfish lover because he likes to receive pleasure rather than give it. So he concluded long ago that sex is an urge, that love is an impossibility, and that you should never have sex with someone you might actually like, which led him to literally thousands of anonymous trysts throughout the years.

The sole exception was Jim Trimble, his boyhood friend and lover, who died at Iwo Jima in 1945, and whose death Vidal has never gotten over. The image of Jimmie recurs throughout this memoir, stirring Vidal's most passionate prose. ''For years," he writes , half a century after the young soldier's death, ''I would address the night: 'Jimmie, are you anywhere?' and almost always the wind would rise. I am neither a believer in the afterlife nor a mystic. Yet I still want Jimmie to be, somewhere, if only on t his page."

Then, his most startling and intimate confession: Although he has lived 44 years with the same companion, Howard Austen, he reveals in "Palimpsest" that their relationship has never been sexual.

Vidal says he loses concentration when he makes eye contact with someone. Paul Newman, his friend since the 1950s, once told him, "I've never understood how you loners do it." It's a compelling question, but alas, ''Palimpsest" provides no answer, for it' s noticeably scant on those introspective passages that might have told us what it feels like to live such a life.

For that, Vidal has left his novels, especially "Washington, D.C.," "The Season of Comfort," "The Judgment of Paris"' and "Two Sisters," his most autobiographical fictions. And now, for the "true" stories of the people who have filled his famous life, if not for the inner truth of the life itself, there is "Palimpsest.

ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu