First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me.
WERE Greta Garbo alive today, she would be Gore Vidal's neighbour. I know this because in attempting to locate his house I stumbled into hers. For a large part of the year, Vidal lives in the southwest of Italy, in Ravello, in a house called La Rondinaia - "The Swallow's Nest" - which was found for him 30 years ago by Howard Austen, who has been his companion for more than half a century. Built in the 1920s, La Rondinaia is grafted on to a cliff high above the Bay of Salerno.
As well as gravity-defying La Rondinaia, he acquired groves of lemon and olive and the kind of vista usually enjoyed only by eagles. Austen spotted an ad for it in a newspaper in Rome, where he and Vidal were living at the time. "I located it by pure accident," he once said, "having known that Gore wanted a place in the country. He felt constrained in Rome. I don't know why. You move from America to go to Italy and then find that Rome is confining and you want a place in the country. But there it is."
From Ravello's Piazza Duomo to La Rondinaia is about a quarter of a mile. Guided via intercom through a succession of security gates by Austen, I encounter at the final checkpoint two preppy youths who appear out of nowhere from an avenue of cypress trees and are about to be admitted into Vidal's inner sanctum. Who are they? Mormons in civvies? Celebrity stalkers? Brush salesmen? "We're fans of Mr Vidal," says one.
"We're from Ohio," says the other. "We've read all his books."
But when I relay this information to Austen, he manages to contain his enthusiasm. "Tell them," he says tersely, "to go away."
Which is how I find myself alone in a wood with no instructions about the final part of my journey and paths diverging in every direction. I go into the first pile I come across, which - according to a plaque on the wall - turns out to be the Villa Cimbrone, the retreat of the reclusive Garbo and her lover, Leopold Stowkoski. Slipping away before I am arrested for breaking and entering, I eventually find my way to La Rondinaia. "Really?" says Vidal, when I tell him my tale, the upturn of his lips eloquently expressing divine indifference. Garbo's ghost, I guess, must receive many unexpected callers en route to Gore.
Before the cards that one is dealt by life are the cards that fate has dealt. One's family.
IN Palimpsest, a candid memoir, Vidal recalls a television interviewer quoting him as saying: "I seem to have met everyone, but I know no-one." He told her that he had never wanted to meet most of the people that he had met and the fact that he got to know them took dedication and steadfastness. His life, he reflected, has been spent reading other people's books and making sentences for his own. "More to the point," he adds, "if you have known one person you have known them all. Of course, I am not so sure that I have known even one person well, but, as the Greeks sensibly believed, should you get to know yourself, you will have penetrated as much of the human mystery as anyone need ever know."
Vidal's diverse career as a writer may be read as a search for himself. Though he talks in complete sentences, he tends, as he has acknowledged, "to slip away from the personal, the inconvenient". Though he is a great talker and an even greater wit, he is uncomfortable with personal probing. His autobiography is to be found in his novels, plays and essays and, of course, Palimpsest, in which he revealed how he had loved and lost a young man called Jimmy Trimble who was killed in the second world war.
Since then Vidal's consuming passions have been history and politics, not - as a recent biographer insisted - "sex and real estate - two minor activities of mine". For him this interest in writers rather than writing is a symptom of philistine times. In the age of the internet, he discerns the slow death of literature, not for a lack of authors, but for a lack of readers. "I used to to be a famous novelist," he recalls telling someone. When the person reminded him that he was still well-known, Vidal said: "I'm not talking about me specifically. My category has vanished. Saying you're a famous novelist is like saying you're a famous ceramicist - maybe a good ceramicist or a successful ceramicist, but famous?"
Not that there's very much he can do about it. Not, indeed, that there was ever anything he could do about it. "I wanted to be a politician," he says in that voice, sonorous, well-tempered, deceptively weary, every syllable pronounced for maximum just-so. "I just happened to be a writer. And if you are that, that is what you do, even though what I write is simply no use at all. Or could ever be for a politician. Politicians must never give the game away and a writer must try and tell the truth. These are two conflicting impulses."
But he wouldn't have had much difficulty being a politician, he says. "It was just the urge to express myself about what I thought about a subject. I find that when I do not write, I do not think. I suppose I like cerebration rather better than the exquisite sound of the celebration of a political career."
Writing and reading have been his intellectual oxygen from a very early age. He was the only child of an unhappy marriage, whose parents divorced when he was nine years old. His father, Gene, was a pioneer aviator, who allowed Gore to fly a plane on his own when he was just 10 years old, making a footnote in history for the first but not the last time.
His mother, Nina, drank and married intemperately. Asked why she did not remarry on the death of her third husband, she replied: "My first husband had three balls, my second two, my third one. Even I know enough not to press my luck."
For much of the first decade of his life, Vidal was billeted with his grandfather, Senator TP Gore, who bizarrely lost both eyes in accidents in boyhood. "At six," recalls Vidal, "I was reading grown- up books to my grand-father and had his full attention simply because he was blind I lived with him until I was 10 and often stayed with him until I went into the army at 17. I'd been reading to him off and on for the first 17 years and we read everything. A great deal of history, law naturally, the Congressional Record. He loved poetry but not the novel at all. I had such a head start on everybody else. He certainly made me a critic because through this constant reading of different texts - half of them I had to do phonetically, I didn't know what the words meant. I became - I don't know how good a critic I am - but I certainly became a very good reader and a close reader. I can see where things don't fit."
He talks about his illustrious grandfather with a son's pride for a father. Senator Gore was tone deaf, Vidal recalls, and would tap his foot to the playing of the national anthem. "That's a catchy tune," he'd say. He went to see the musical Oklahoma, also the state he represented in Washington, and hated it. "He said it could have been made in Kansas."
When an oil company wanted to appropriate Indian land, Senator Gore sided with the Indians and was accused of raping a woman, a set- up arranged by his enemies. Charges were filed and the scandal was enormous but Vidal's grandfather never wavered and was acquitted. In an age where corruption was taken for granted, he maintained his integrity. "Courage," writes Vidal in Palimpsest, "was Gore's most notable trait." Later, Vidal shows me his library and his bedroom, the walls clothed in books and sepia-tinted photographs, among them one of Senator Gore, sitting in a rocking chair, listening raptly while his secretary reads to him. He died in 1949. His grandson missed his funeral. "I didn't want to go," he said afterwards. "My thanatophobia took over."
On being asked what would have happened in 1963, had Khrushchev and not Kennedy been assassinated: With history one can never be certain, but I think I can safely say that Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev.
WHEN, in 1976, Vidal was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he declined, saying he was already a member of the Diners Club. For a man described by the Boston Globe as "our greatest living man of letters", and generously and sincerely praised by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, Vidal has received absurdly few honours. A bumper collection of his essays, United States, won a National Book Award, but there are no Pulitzers in his trophy cabinet and his name rarely crops up when contenders for the Nobel are mentioned. This is perverse in the extreme, given the depth and extent of Vidal's oeuvre. His magisterial novel Lincoln, part of the Narrative Of Empire cycle, was given the thumbs-up by the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but the general committee refused to endorse Vidal, and the plaudits went elsewhere. It was ever thus.
It is, however, a tangible indication of how deep antipathy to Vidal runs in neo-conservative America, which he rejoices in calling "the United States of Amnesia" or "the land of the dull and the home of the literal". A cynic and a sucker for truth, he has gone out of his way to pick fights with anyone who dares to raise their fists, from fundamentalist Christians to the denizens of bookchat land to so- called scholars determined to cordon off their areas of "expertise". Vidal's ring career has included jousts with Bobby Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote - even, of late, Clive James, with whom he traded punches in the Times Literary Supplement over who is ultimately to blame for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
His feud with the highly influential New York Times, he recalls, which has been running longer than The Mousetrap, started in 1948, with the publication of The City And The Pillar, his third novel. Until then, Vidal recalls, he was, with Mailer, the latest Name:Gore Vidal Born: October 3, 1925 The controversial author and social critic was born in New York and educated at Philips Academy in New Hampshire.
He served in the US Army from 1943-46, after which he began his prolific writing career.
In the 1960s he stood for congress and was an arts adviser to President Kennedy.
Vidal has lived with his companion Howard Austen for more than three decades in the United States and Italy.>bright young thing on the literary scene, his first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946, receiving a rapturous reception. All that changed though with The City And The Pillar, one of the first mainstream American novels to deal overtly with homosexual love which took for granted that men have sex with men. Moral outrage turned the book into a bestseller and Orville Prescott, the NYT's main reviewer, who until then had championed him, told the author's publisher that he would never read, much less review, another book by Vidal. "I published seven books and never got a daily review in the Times," recalls Vidal, "or in Time or in Newsweek. It stopped me in my tracks, such was his [Prescott's] power and that of the Times. Mutual loathing has been the condition between us ever since - with them, ironically, every season trying to get me to write for them."
In frustration he turned to Broadway and Hollywood, where he learned how to be a playwright and stage-manage the set pieces which are central to the seven-volume Narratives Of Empire, in which he orchestrates America's stumbling progress from an idealistic new nation forged in a febrile atmosphere of deals and untidy compromises to a belligerent, arrogant, imperial power-broker. It is a Tolstoyan study in human fallibility in the context of global history, the like of which nobody on this side of the pond has come close to emulating. But while his essays are rightly complimented, his novels remain undervalued, sniped at by academics and denigrated by the reactionaries who see any attempt to knock America's heroes down to size as an act of treachery.
"Ronald Reagan claimed to have read Lincoln," says Vidal, "and found many errors in it, he said He's a historian as well as history personified." Apparently, Reagan disputed the authenticity of a scene in which Lincoln watches the dawn rise from the Oval Office. When a journalist relayed this to him, Vidal told him to tell the President: "The scene doesn't exist. You might also tell the President that Lincoln died in 1865 and the Oval Office was not built until 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt."
For those who haven't read the books, I am best known for myhair preparations.
THE blistering sun is going down over the Bay of Salerno. Vidal, his back to the fading light, is lounging on a sofa, sipping Glenfiddich. He is wearing a loose-fitting black shirt, light trousers, and slippers. Come October he will be 76 years old, given which, he concedes when I say how well he is looking, he is "not bad". Age, he says, does not come unaccompanied to the ball, however. His short-term memory is poor. Gone are the days when he could read five books and file away their contents in his brain. With the publication last year of The Golden Age, the final part of Narratives Of Empire, he completed a project which he has been nursing for the past 30 years. With its fusion of fact and fiction and its location in the hothouse of Washington politics, it is the work he was born and bred to write, his own family connections, from the unseeing Senator Gore to John F Kennedy to Al Gore, giving him access at the highest level to America's power brokers.
Vidal's fascination with politics is undiminished. Blair, he says, is "what the situation requires". Covering the election in 1997 for the BBC, he was struck by how his answer to every question was: "Trust me. To which the only response of a good journalist is, Why?" He also noticed that Blair had a deviated septum, a mild respiratory complaint from which he also suffers. "Unfortunately, party managers thought he smiled too much. So he didn't smile at all and wasn't getting enough air in," he laughs.
Vis--vis Scotland, which he will visit for a week next month when he appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, he says: "I was always a devolutionist." Even dumb politicians who were brought up in the city of David Hume, he says, can't fail to have imbibed some of the intellectual spirit of the place. In fairness to Vidal, he has not yet seen the parliament in action or read the collected thoughts of Henry McLeish. His main preoccupation of late is a long article he has been writing for Vanity Fair about Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber. He was invited to the execution and was ready to go. Then it was postponed and he wasn't able to make it on the new date. McVeigh, he claims, didn't know there were children in the federal building. Vidal corresponded with him because they thought alike about many things including the Gulf War, in which McVeigh fought and was "against for all the right reasons". He liked "the kid" and thought him highly intelligent.
No doubt when his piece appears Vidal will confirm his position as his country's controversial conscience and public enemy, uttering the unutterable, answerable to nobody. Rooted on a clifftop in the midst of the ancient world, he is free to comment on the new world, like a seer crying in the wilderness. In such a mythical setting it would be easy to lose touch with reality, but there's fat chance of that when out at sea the tourist boats putter past, a guide explaining in half a dozen languages: "There, in Ravello, in his villa, lives the famous American writer, Gore Vidal."
Gore Vidal appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16 and 19.
Both events are sold out.
lEdinburgh Festival preview: Magazine
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