I had since Alexander Cockburn died a week and a half ago been thinking how nice it was that some people are still with us, chief among them Gore Vidal, also Chomsky, the others escape me at the moment. But it was Vidal towering above the rest. When would that ominous day come when he was here no more? I must, I thought, appreciate him more now, while he’s still alive. Alas, it’s too late; the inevitable day is here—Gore Vidal is now a memory. Only yesterday (hours before his death) I stumbled into Brighton’s only not-secondhand bookstore to try to cheer myself up a bit. I hadn’t been there in about a year—this kind of little fact, looking back, seems an amazing coincidence. I thought I’d try to find a biography of Sartre written by another person who died this week and who is fascinating himself—Tito Gerassi—and when they didn’t have that thought I’d see what Gore Vidal was in stock. (It was only three novels out of his vast body of work, depressing in itself.) Just looking up his section in a bookstore was often an uplifting thing to do. His words were like sunlight. He gave a glimmer of hope in a most horrific world.
To think of him he appears as something like magical, otherworldly. Did he really exist? Yet he was totally of this world, just of a different era. But with him I often felt a sort of link not only with his (compared to now) glamorous era of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, but to the things that he himself felt a spiritual connection with, whether early America (‘the Republic’), or even classical Rome and Greece, all of which he made seem so fresh and alive and present.
What to do now? No Gore Vidal walking the earth! He was inimitable, towering, authoritative, original, above everyone and yet on the level, and even humble in his way. What an interesting perspective he had, in his love of the pagan world, his disdain for Christianity and its ‘Christers’, his love of movies and Hollywood, his inside view of politics, his gayness, his humor high and low, his outspokenness and courage—the list goes on.
He was a presence on my parents’ bookshelf growing up, but I never read him then. His first book I read was Burr, while teaching in Korea. It was fascinating. Still, I forgot about it quickly enough. When I left Korea in 1998 I came across a book of interviews with him in a bookstore in Brookside, Kansas City. It seemed to speak to me personally at the time–I had just spent almost three grueling, difficult, confusing years in Korea and had mixed feelings about being back in the U.S.A. Before I moved there, many people had insisted that all I needed was to go abroad for a while to find out what a great country America was. I was uncomfortable with this patriotic American outlook, and my time in Korea, though difficult, didn’t persuade me they were right. Very suddenly, in the car in fact, which I’d driven to a parking lot hastily so I could continue reading what I couldn’t put down in the shop, here was someone using biting irony and wit to challenge anything and everything that I had always been told was sacred about America. He was lively, funny, interesting, and said what he really felt and thought, as opposed to the deathly boring clichés, solemnness and unreadability of most American writers, the officially sanctioned ones anyway. Forget about foreign writers, I didn’t know any. Suddenly I found some affirmation for something I had only begun to realize, that a world outside of America existed, and was in many ways more interesting, not to mention cultured, than America. [But to get ahead of myself, Vidal paradoxically also used the United States as his main subject matter. That was one thing that over the years I couldn’t figure out about him, this erudite man of letters who seemed so European in outlook. But that too I am beginning to appreciate after so much time abroad—America really is interesting, and as much as he made fun of it, calling it the United States of Amnesia and repeatedly reminding us that it was in fact not the greatest country that ever was or will be, he thought so too.]
I also read in my six weeks in K.C. Myra Breckenridge and Myron, I remember. Then I moved to Europe, first stop London, where I bought his collected essays United States. I soaked that book up, literally it sometimes felt, over the following nine months, often lying on the beach, in Marbella, Spain, no doubt pausing at times to look across the blue sea at the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. A very dreamy year, my first in Europe. I’ve since then read many of his novels—though I’ve missed some of the big ones (I’ve tried a few times to read Lincoln but have never got more than a hundred or so pages into it)—Kalki; Creation; Washington, D.C.; 1876; A Search for the King; Dark Green, Bright Red. I’ve also read various books of essays by him, a booklet on the Presidents, and Screening History. Most recently, a few months back, I read The City and the Pillar, one of his first and most infamous books, for the first time. But his essays have had the greatest impact on me. I look to that time, 1998/99, and see a dividing line in my life—pre-Vidal, post-Vidal. So much changed for me then. So that’s what the New York Times bestseller list is all about. So that was what was really going on—so much of it was so crude, and I was shocked. Shocked by the banality of our rulers, not to mention their brutality. I would I imagine hold my hand to my mouth in utter surprise like a virtuous middle class housewife at some of the things I read, about the Caesars for example. On the other hand, to discover all the great humanity Vidal revealed was most pleasing. He introduced great writers I’d never heard of in all my English classes, sensitive writers—exquisite. Almost everything I read for about five years either came directly or indirectly from his essays. The only person he wrote about that I remember reading almost everything by before Vidal suggested it was W. Somerset Maugham—and his loving essay on Maugham re-affirmed some of my own thoughts about him. Some of the excellent writers I first heard about through Vidal are Christopher Isherwood, Paul Bowles, H.L. Mencken, Anthony Burgess, George Meredith, Montaigne, Suetonius, and other classical writers.
He wrote on French literary theory. He took on the Academy—a term I think I first heard through him. He took on the New York Times, and crushed them—one thing he liked to say was that it seemed the writers there spoke German as a first language. He hated that filthy paper the way it deserves to be hated. He was honest about sacred cows like Hemingway, in whose thrall he admitted to being for many years but who at the end of the day was just ‘the Great Pretender’. He generated in me for the first time an interest in world history, the classics, general literature, American history. I looked back through him on all my years of serious, solemn schooling. It had been a waste of time. I could begin to breathe again. I could dream. I could unlearn what I’d been taught, and learn things anew, on my terms. I wanted to devour everything. He made me aware of the upper class, something I didn’t really know existed before that, and have had a healthy obsession with since. His anecdotes about JFK and Jackie O were astonishing. He was at war with the likes of Reagan. He put cultural icons like Bobby Kennedy and Truman Capote and Harry S. Truman (‘S. for nothing’) in their place. He was a snob sometimes, but also showed real feeling for average people. He took their problems seriously, and usually stood up for the underdog. He has since that time been sort of ever-present in my head. Sometimes I find I resent him–maybe I think he’s too full of himself, for example—but any time I’ve re-read him, I’ve been freshly re-impressed.
Well, let me leave it there. I place him somewhere in the vicinity of Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre as one of the most humane—and one of my favorite—writers of the 20th Century. A man to be missed, but still and forever to be read. As long as we can read him, we can stave off the darkness descending on us.
Daniel Trompeter is an American living in Brighton, England.