Sunday, October 25, 2009

Curious Emotion: Gore Vidal's Snapshots in History's Glare

Gore Vidal, now sadly declining physically, if his recent appearance on Bill Maher's show is any indication, at roughly the same pace as the American Empire against which he has so wittily railed for decades, has released yet another memoir, of a sort, this being Snapshots in History's Glare, a photographic album with appropriate captions provided by the writer's only remaining subject; himself. For readers of Vidal two previous memoirs, Palimpsest, and Point to Point Navigation, this new book, and the autobiography that connect the pictures, may be all too familiar, but no less a pleasure for that. However much old age has dimmed his strength, Vidal's sharp wit remains acid bright, and perhaps is now best suited to just this kind of exercise in unsentimental nostalgia. The author has always been a perfect talk-show guest; mischievously serious about things usually taken lightly in America, like friendship, politics, history and literature, and hilariously cavalier about the things his countrymen insist on treating seriously, like sex, marriage, politicians, money and celebrity. This style suits him perfectly to such a brisk retelling of his life and times. This book then is less another volume of memoir, than a visual supplement to his earlier efforts, the text more a familiar, running commentary than a renewed consideration. And that's fine. Vidal's is just the point of view one wants, looking at Gore Vidal. Relieved of the necessity of prolonged reflection, he seems just to be having an awfully good time, providing, just here, an anecdote already highly polished by use, and, just there, a judicious modifier to define one of the supporting players in the pictures: the publisher of Screw Magazine, for example, here described as "the moralist Al Goldstein," or the un-named but immediately recognizable Tom Wolfe, caricatured with Vidal in an episode of The Simpsons, and referenced in the text only as "a white suit."

There can be, at this point, very little that Gore Vidal has not already said, at least as regards his life and career, that he seems unwilling to say again. What remains unsaid would seem to be nobody's business but Vidal's, but one can't help hoping. In this book, begun as a record, for the most part, of his life with his partner Howard Austen -- who took many of the photographs included -- and finished by Vidal as a tribute to the friend he lost several years ago, the novelist comes, again, as close as he is ever likely to to admitting anything like love. Not much to his liking, such sentimental stuff. And yet, this album is full of friends and lovers, and it is the glimpses provided of these that make this book a unique contribution to Vidal's published autobiography.

Not to rehearse again the details, but Vidal's childhood, as quickly reviewed here, reminds me of nothing so much as that of Winston Churchill. Like Churchill, Vidal had one revered parent, glamorously famous and largely absent from the son's life at the best of times, and probably not nearly so good a father, or a man, as the son would have him, and a monstrous mother who never expressed the slightest interest in her child until he became "interesting," meaning famous in his own right. Vidal detests this kind of amateur, psychological speculation in biography, so I will drop it quickly, but it does seem to me that, like Churchill, Vidal grew up to see life as a contest; for respect, fame, notoriety, renown, even perhaps affection. And again like Churchill, Vidal seems to have been determined, and assumed himself destined, from his earliest days, to win. In the present volume, however intimate and less rancorous the mood than in much of his other writing, Vidal even now can not resist reviewing many previously recorded slights, often from critics long forgotten, and correcting yet again the record, even as to screen credit for entirely forgettable films. Evidently, in the contest that is Vidal's long life, it is not only not enough that one's enemies lost, or even that one may have outlived not only them, but even their memories; graves must be danced on to the end.

That said, Vidal, unlike Churchill, would seem to have a great gift for genuine and lasting friendships. He has known, and known well, many of the more interesting personalities of his time. More importantly, he has made and kept friends, and this book records many of these, famous and otherwise, and over quite a long and seemingly satisfying life. There is a two page spread near the end of the book, showing Vidal facing his great friend Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward smiling between them. This pose is reproduced in two more photographs, all three together showing a long, lasting and evidently delightful association. At the front of the book, there are stunning pictures of a lovely young Gore, posing with various lovely lovers, including a beautiful ballet dancer, and these speak bravely for happy memories in an unfriendly time for, as Vidal would have us, "homosexualists."

Finally, it is the few photographs and reproduced notes and letters, of Howard Austen, largely in the middle of the book, that left me curiously emotional. Perhaps it is Vidal's notorious reticence on the subject, but for whatever reason, even having read all Vidal's memoirs to date, and Kaplan's biography, Vidal's partner Howard has always remained something of a cipher. Now here he is, handsome, relaxed, ever present. Here at last, I felt the evident affection, indeed, the deep and abiding love, about which Vidal has said so eloquently little. This I was a little surprised, and enormously glad to see.

Bless then the memory of Howard Austen. I'm glad he was there. Gore Vidal, and his readers, are the better for it.

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