1 March, 2007Issue 6.2LiteratureNorth AmericaPolitics & SocietyWriters

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At the Helm with Gore Vidal

Andrew Hay

Gore Vidal
Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir
Little, Brown, 2006
288 pages
ISBN 0316027278

The first thing that will catch the eye of most readers who pick up Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir is the striking jacket photo of the author himself. Here we see the 82-year- old Vidal in black and white, his face still handsome, with eyes that express a mixture of experience and intelligence. If it seems strange to open a review by pondering the image on the book, rather than what lies inside it, then it has to be remembered that image has always been integral to Gore Vidal’s place in the pantheon of great American literary celebrities.

Of course, to be a celebrity is, by definition, to have an image in public consciousness. But Vidal, like any brilliant stylist, exerts a scrupulous control over his self-presentation whether in print or photo. At times this self-presentation can seem a bit recherché: any author who surmises his own life as ‘a banquet of sex, wealth and beauty’ might stand justly accused of being a little too conscious of image.

In interview, too, Vidal has a gift for the grandiose. With a keen sense of irony, he famously remarked that ‘there is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.’ Consequently, charges of vanity, narcissism and egotism abound in the context of both Gore Vidal as a man and his literary work, which is so inextricable from his glamorous life amongst the great and the good of Anglo-American and European high society. As his celebrated earlier memoir, Palimpsest (1995), records, Vidal’s birth into America’s political and social elite might have helped with the glitz, but the grist of his literary mill has been a sprawling historical, political, and cultural knowledge, unflinching humanity in the face of American political ignobility and sheer hard literary graft.

From the publication of Williwaw (1946) at the age of just twenty-one followed by the infamous tale of homosexuality, The City and the Pillar (1948), to his imaginings of political life, ancient and modern, (Julian (1964), Creation (1981), the 1987 Narratives of Empire series) alongside a prodigious amount of journalistic, essayistic and critical writings, screenplay writing, acting, and political participation, then if ever the title Renaissance Man were to be applied, Vidal would be the ideal candidate.

The tale is all the more astonishing because Vidal’s prodigious output did not interfere in any way with his existence as a brilliant social entity who seems to have known everyone of any significance from birth. If the reader were to explicate all the name dropping that permeates Point to Point Navigation it would surely comprise a book in itself. A few brief examples:

I used to chat with Prince Philip of Hesse, the only person I ever knew who knew Hitler. … I must get dressed for lunch with Crown Princess Chumbhot. … It was a small lift lined with mirrors. Halfway down it stopped to admit another passenger. … Our eyes met in mutual shock: it was Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Furthermore, the inside-flap of Point to Point Navigation provides yet another striking image: a fresco where all the painted heads have been replaced by photos of the myriad characters that surface in the narrative of this book: Jackie Onassis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bette Davis, John F. Kennedy and Greta Garbo being a mere smattering of the powerful figures Vidal counted as friends and acquaintances.

The lack of humility in this panorama of glitz—perhaps unsurprisingly—irritates some critics. When reviewing Point to Point Navigation under the title ‘Too Much Gore,’ Allen Barra writes that ‘the personal note in Vidal’s work, whether he was ostensibly writing about politics, literature, aviation, or anything else, was never “occasional.” The “geography” of his own life has been virtually his only subject’.

This seems to miss the point. The world of Vidal’s fiction has always attempted to marry the delineation of character, the depiction of society and le mot juste. In this memoir, as in his essays, style is (almost) all. And since Vidal is so stylish a writer and this text is a memoir, to beat up the author for too much self suggests that Point to Point Navigation is nothing more than an ego trip. Thus, Barra glosses over its many subtleties and varieties.

An attentive reader of Montaigne’s essays, Vidal understands all too well the many ways in which authors can confront memory and the self in writing. In Palimpsest he asserted that ‘a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.’ In this respect it is fitting that, of the few famous people Vidal mentions he failed to meet, Vladimir Nabokov was one such luminary. In his great text Speak Memory (1951), Nabokov writes of ‘depopulating bit by bit our own past.’ In one sense, this is exactly what Vidal is doing. But his depopulating manifests itself in glamorous, comic, tragic and formally interesting ways.

The memoir itself is structured through the interspersing of past and present, rather than chronologically. Indeed, even if there were nothing more than socialising with the crème de la crème in Point to Point Navigation, Vidal is such an accomplished raconteur that the reader can take genuine pleasure in the finely sketched world of political power and celebrity glamour in which he is ensconced when not writing and researching in Italy. He writes that:

Although I have never enjoyed large parties, when Howard arrived in Rome we went to quite a few, largely to see the interiors of a number of palaces. … Grace [Kelly] and I chatted about distant romantic Hollywood.

Distant glamour notwithstanding, it would be a grave mistake to reduce Point to Point Navigation to a catalogue of opulent party-going. The tonal range of the memoir is infinitely more varied than that. The title of the memoir, for example, is a case in point. On one level it refers to the process of ‘charting’ life but it also pertains to a particularly dangerous process of navigation, without the aid of a compass, which Vidal carried out while serving on a freight ship during World War Two. Aside from Vidal’s life in the War and his political apprenticeship, there are passages of superlative poignancy, as exemplified in his depiction of the death of Howard Auster, the author’s partner of 53 years. Vidal writes of how:

Leto shouted ‘Mr Auster has stopped breathing!’ … He was still in the armchair, facing the window … Montaigne requires that I describe more how he looked—rather than how I felt. The eyes were open and very clear. I’d forgotten what a beautiful grey they were—illness and medicine had regularly glazed them over; now they were bright and attentive and he was watching me, consciously, through long lashes. Lungs, heart may have stopped but the optic nerves were still sending messages to a brain which, those who should know tell us, does not immediately shut down. So we stared at each other at the end.

This gradual falling away of those who comprise the centre and periphery of Vidal’s life is the recurring theme of Point to Point Navigation. Yet, without a compass or the familiar points that constitute his life as ‘most of my contemporaries are vanishing,’ Vidal remains perspicacious and stylish. For all the poignancy involved in assessing one’s life as it ‘goes out’—as his hero Montaigne puts it—he is rational: but he is a stylish rationalist. Thus, when he examines ‘a new cancer on my forearm, all the while waiting for diabetes to do its gaudy final thing,’ we are reminded of Montaigne, who is quoted slightly earlier, asserting that death is simply ‘part of life.’ As Point to Point Navigation conveys, it has been quite a life for Gore Vidal. It would be gratifying to read more from him and one can only hope his prognostication that this will be his final memoir is wrong. But if Point to Point Navigation wereVidal’s ‘final thing,’ the emotional poise and the variety of its recollections alongside the dignity of the life it presents go a long way to proving that underpinning all Vidal’s style is an ocean of substance.

Andrew Hay is a DPhil student in English literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He works on issues of modernity in literary Modernism, and ideas of postmodern phenomenal and aesthetic experience.