I grew up watching Gore Vidal on TV and enjoying his wit. He was a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.: witty, insanely well-read, cosmopolitan, and delightfully snide. But like Buckley, he oozed privilege and contempt, and his act could wear thin.
I think that’s why he’s never been a favorite author of mine. Though I’ve read a handful of his novels over the years and his memoir Palimpsest, none of his books made that great an impression on me. I do remember him wafting through Anais Nin’s Diaries where he seemed fascinating and somewhat creepy, a young man on the make. Nin’s take on him was almost more interesting than Vidal himself.
A writer friend recently recommended that I read Jay Parini’s new Vidal biography just as I’d finished reading a review essay about it in the New Yorker. That piece offered me an insight into Vidal I’d never expected. In the late 70s, Vidal told the novelist Martin Amis that he’d been reading D. H. Lawrence and this is what he thought about Lawrence:
“Every page I think, Jesus, what a fag. Jesus, what a faggot this guy sounds.”
Where do you start to unpack lines like that? Despite his attempts to blur the question, Vidal was gay, lived with a man and only had sex with men. And here he was, using “faggot” as invective. But putting that aside, what did he find in Lawrence’s work that evoked so much contempt? Vidal comes across in that bizarre outburst as an anti-intellectual boob, a yahoo–or a bigot.
Unless he was simply jealous. Because Lawrence reached artistic heights Vidal couldn’t even approach. Lawrence is one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Can Vidal even compare? Has he written anything as profound or beautiful as Women in Love?
I’ve been reading and re-reading Lawrence for years. He can definitely be excessive and melodramatic, but his soaring prose always moves me, and so does his grasp of human psychology and his understanding of how passion can shipwreck us. Lawrence’s depth of feeling, his imagery, and his rhapsodic voice always blow me away when I return to his fiction.
I’ve never revisited any book of Vidal’s and I’ve never wanted to. The New Yorker piece quotes some of Vidal’s work but it left me as cold as the anecdotes of his studied hauteur. I’d happily read a new biography of Lawrence, though. And it’s probably time for me to go back to Women in Love, which I’ve read a handful of times. Or perhaps some of his wonderful short fiction. Or his pungent, quirky Studies in American Literature. Or The Fox. So many terrific choices….