Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Last Literary Lion: Gore Vidal 1925-2012

"Yesterday the Reagan Library burned to the ground. Both books were destroyed. But the real tragedy is that Ronnie hadn't finished coloring them yet." -- Gore Vidal, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1980s

American literature just lost its last lion. Gore Vidal died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 86. Obituaries are proliferating online, so I'll keep this post more personal.

When I turned on my computer this morning, the news of Vidal's death hit me like a punch in the gut. It was not unexpected; he was old, his body and mind had been fading, and his best work was two decades behind him. But I still hoped that somehow he would be immortal. He was one of those who deserved to quaff the ambrosial nectar and live forever, to be unto eternity an outrageous thorn in everyone's side. Novelist, essayist, playwright, politician, screenwriter, wit, raconteur, cultural critic, political commentator, sexual rebel, WWII veteran, one-percenter, traitor to his class, gossip, bitch, WASPy scion, grandson of a senator, friend of a president (JFK), enemy of a president's brother (RFK), stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy, buttfucker of Jack Kerouac, Vidal was an almost incomprehensibly comprehensive man. He lived his life with such overplus that his prolificity as a writer seems almost impossible: all those novels, all those essays, those plays, those movies... Surely there were two or three 'Gore Vidals' living in that house on the Amalfi coast, a gang of compulsively typing doppelgangers who could be stashed away in a basement trunk whenever outsiders came calling... But no, Gore did it all, and (to paraphrase another of his old friends) he did it his way.

"To be demoralized by the withdrawal of public success (a process as painful in America as the withdrawal of a drug from an addict) is to grant too easy a victory to the society one has attempted to criticize, affect, change, reform. It is clearly unreasonable to expect to be cherished by those one assaults. It is also childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be entirely destroyed by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can very often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one's favor. What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive long in America." -- Gore Vidal, "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements," 1960, collected in United States: Essays 1952-1992.

The only way to mourn a writer is to read him. Of the novels, I recommend the marvelous Julian, the outrageous Myra Breckenridge, the deliriously revisionist Burr, the bestselling Lincoln (it reveals its TV miniseries roots at its weakest moments [it began life as an unproduced TV screenplay, then Vidal novelized it, then it became a TV miniseries several years later], but Mary Todd Lincoln's mad scenes are perhaps the greatest and most affecting scenes in all of Vidal's fiction), the wonderful Hollywood, the deliciously blasphemous Live From Golgotha, and Vidal's stated favorite among his 'serious' novels, Creation. The prose in Vidal's essays is consistently superior to his novelistic prose, so his overall masterpiece is probably the dictionary-sized essay collection United States, virtually every page of which contains at least one example of 'the quotable Vidal.' But of all his works, my personal favorite is the beautifully written and compulsively gossipy memoir Palimpsest.

I distrust the very concept of the 'hero,' but if I had heroes (and I do; we all do), Gore would be one of them.

He will be buried in Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Washington, DC, next to his companion Howard Auster. His grave deserves to be a pilgrimage site, like the tombs on the Appian Way. He was, after all, in many ways, more an antique Roman than an American--and thus the noblest American of them all.

"He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again."

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