January 9, 2007

Gore Vidal: Point to Point Navigation

Posted in Vidal Gore at 12:20 pm by John Self

If ever your life feels a little thin or uneventful, blame Gore Vidal. He’s had enough event and diversion in his life for five or six of us, and he keeps making us feel even worse by not only telling us about them in superbly written memoirs, but looking out of the cover at us all handsome and assured, both in youth and old age:

First there was Palimpsest (1995), dealing with his early life, which Martin Amis called “a tremendous read, down and dirty from start to finish. It is also a proud and serious and truthful book.” Now Vidal gives us Point to Point Navigation, subtitled A Memoir 1964 – 2006.

And it is full of everything we have come to expect. Strange stories of all the great and good of the American twentieth century, from the very very famous to the known-in-certain-circles. Vidal’s life has been not just more eventful than most, but lived at a more rarefied level; he was brought up among the renowned and the ruling classes, and so the line for him between the personal and the political has always been a thin one.

During the next quarter century I re-dreamed the Republic’s history, which I have always regarded as a family affair. But what was I to do with characters that were – are – not only famous but even preposterous? When my mother was asked why, after three famous marriages, she did not try for a fourth, she observed, “My first husband had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck.”

There, he is talking – initially – about his series of novels, Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Hollywood and The Golden Age, ‘factional’ accounts of the USA, which he refers to collectively as ‘Narratives of Empire’ but which his publishers keep insisting on branding as ‘Narratives of a Golden Age.’ Throughout Point to Point Navigation, Vidal is at pains to mention his fictional output at every opportunity, making a vain (in both senses) attempt to mark his patch in literary history as a novelist, rather than wit, essayist and polymath. But he can hardly be dissatisfied by how he is already remembered.

And there is a good reason for his interest in remembrance, and how he will be viewed in retrospect. Vidal is now 81 years old, and the spectre of death shadows most of the book. There will not, we suspect, be a third volume. He is writing in “the awful year 2005,” after his first full year spent without his partner of 53 years, Howard Auster, and making the move for health reasons back to LA and away from his beloved La Rondinaia, the extraordinary home on the cliffs of Ravello on the Amalfi coast in Italy, where he and Auster had lived since 1963.

The memoir is less structured than Palimpsest, taking almost a diaristic form as he reflects both on the things that happen to him during 2005, the events in the world, and the people he knew whose deaths invoke a flurry of anecdotes. If the book had been more orderly, there is no doubt that Vidal would have left the strongest material to the end, instead of one-third in where it now appears. This is his report of the death of his partner Howard Auster in November 2003: the long struggle from illness to illness, the childlike reduction in his life, and most movingly, an extraordinary account of how Vidal looked into Auster’s still-alert eyes after his heart stopped and held his gaze as he watched life ebb away from him. It is worth, as they say, the price of admission alone and if it doesn’t move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a qualified professional.

So strong is the feeling of mortality throughout the book (assisted by the black cover) that it almost feels like a posthumous publication. Vidal is still vital however, and the effortless quality of his prose reminds us that although he is “moving, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked exit,” he is still fully with us.

And I do not want to suggest that the book is overwhelmingly gloomy or morbid. There is plenty of Vidal’s wit in evidence, and his contempt for the current (and most past) American administration, and his country’s cultural mores.

A current pejorative term is narcissistic. Generally, a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are, but lately the adjective is often applied to those “liberals” who prefer to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them. Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the highest altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meaning of words is a very small price to pay for our vast freedom not only to conform but to consume.

Despite the occasional stretches where he mistakes his intimate knowledge of some lesser-known folk with our interest in them, the overall feeling of gratitude and what Martin Amis called “a transfusion from above” when reading Point to Point Navigation, means I can offer it only the highest praise. It is a perfect valediction for Vidal.

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7 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    I got this for Christmas, and I can’t wait to read it. I can imagine it will be some way more enjoyable than the festive period, which was rather good fun. I must say that I find Vidal’s fiction to be a kind of elegant shoehorning exercise; I don’t think his talents stretch quite far enough for him to be considered a great novelist. But as an essayist, he is right up there.

  2. John Self said,

    Lee, you win the prize for the longest delay between my posting a review and a comment being made on it – two years to the day. Let that be sustenance for lonely bloggers everywhere.

    I haven’t read any of Vidal’s fiction, so my comments above were slightly presumptuous.

  3. Ajay said,

    You guys are missing out. Creation, Julian, Burr, Lincoln are some of the finest novels ever written and I recommend them highly to everyone.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Ajay – point noted! As indicated above, I was being purely prejudiced in any dismissal of the novels, though I still think it’s true that he’s unlikely to be generally remembered for them. His essaying, memoiring and all-round waspish epigramming are too strongly linked with him to allow another aspect of him to be at the fore simultaneously. Still, he did write an awful lot of novels, and many of them are very long, so clearly he strongly believes in them. I might just take you up on your recommendations sometime.

  5. AJay said,

    He may not get as much attention for his novels but I suggest that they’re mainly what he’ll be remembered for. Most essayists have a limited shelf life, as society usually moves on from those past concerns. However, we can always enjoy his novels and I think he will be one of the few who will continue to be read.

  6. Lee Monks said,

    Hollywood is very good, but I basically take John’s line here: his essays are quite brilliant and they are his strong suit for me. I feel they will be of great historical import and are beautifully written regardless.

  7. […] Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation. “If it doesn’t move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a […]


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