Gore Vidal has written an engaging, repellent, lyric, tasteless, irresistible book about his 70-year life. At one point early on in 'Palimpsest: A Memoir' (Random House. 435 pages. $27.50), he describes himself as 'rude but with an awful, studied graciousness.' He's got it.
Throughout, he insists he is writing a memoir, not an autobiography. The latter, he asserts, would require including and checking facts, behaving in a scholarly manner. A memoir, in contrast, may rely mainly on memory. The title expresses his book's process and the effect. His definition of 'palimpsest:' 'writing over half-erased texts."
Within his first nine pages, he has discussed his sister's virginity at her wedding at 19, very clinically, and her receiving pertinent advice from Jackie Auchincloss, their stepsister, destined to be a Kennedy and then an Onassis. The passage brims with wit, but still is tasteless.
In the same tone, there follows a masterful intertwining of gossip and history, of events both monumental and trivial, of musings of reasonably convincing depth and observations of indomitable small-mindedness. Chronology is only a wispy suggestion hovering in the background, time suspended. The form is retrospective consciousness, association of ideas, memories, events, imaginings.
Heart of loneliness
Mr. Vidal early on quotes somebody as saying 'I seem to have met everyone, but I know no one.' Then he disclaims: 'I had never wanted to meet most of the people I had met and the fact that I had never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part.' His heart is impervious to taking prisoners, or being taken hostage.
He writes with richly detailed affection about his grandfather, T.P. Gore, blind U.S. senator from Oklahoma, whom he called 'Dah' and of Dah's wife, his grandmother, Dot, who fed wild birds from her hand and repeatedly removed and protected him from his mother, her own daughter. A sustaining sadness of the book is that there is little if any warmth for any other characters, except a childhood boy love, who died at 19 and is intensely fantasized.
Almost unrelentingly, Mr. Vidal scorns, reviles, flagellates tradition in general. But he makes much of his own blood lines: relation by birth with the Roosevelts, Jimmy Carter, the present vice president of the United States, and by marriage to the Kennedys.
To take a simple example of his treatment of kin and kith, he describes having accepted $10 from an older man after a sex act at the age of 19. 'As a result,' he then insists, 'I, alone in the family, did not condemn Jackie's marriage to Onassis, since I, too, had once been a small player in the commodities' exchange market."
By his own characterization of his childhood and adolescence, he should have been a helpless, hopeless wreck. Instead, he was a boy wonder. By the age of 24, he had published his second book and was something of an international figure, regarded as brilliant, declarative about his homosexuality - he prefers 'homoeroticism' - and physically lovely. Today, at 70, he can look back on 22 published novels, several of them brilliant, five plays, nine volumes of essays and more.
The life he memorializes is a tapestry full of dramatic figures, acute anecdotes, some long-lensed in perspective. But it is a life strangely, and strangely declaratively, innocent of genuine affection, of savored nourishment, of consequence.
But there is substance in his life: his work. From the beginning of his awareness, or the dawn of his recall, Mr. Vidal cast himself as a writer - and writing seems to have redeemed him from being conquered by the crippling characteristics of the lives of his family, immediate and borrowed - alcoholism, drug dependency, indolence, gross self-indulgence, hollow greed and indomitably sustained stupidity.
This is a masterfully wrought book. It is less the product of eye and mind than of hard work, the work of a consummately conscious writer, for whom discipline has become so sustained a practice as to lose its invisibility, and emerge as evident and artful strength, turning upside down the almost immutable insistence that technique should be invisible.
The middle half of the book is less compellingly engaging than either the beginning or the end, which becomes a race for a sort of faux immortality. The central core becomes a fabric of predictable woof, though ornamented by Mr. Vidal's unpredictable warp. No life can be without a hint of central meaning:
Writing about his response to news of the death of Richard Nixon, whom he detested, he observes: 'I have come to believe that our natures are so predetermined that Nixon could do no other than be his uneasy self, committed to mischief, acting and talking like a sleepwalker in a surreal dream: 'American troops have just entered Cambodia. This is not an invasion.' More to the point, the fact that so few Americans ever noted the chasm between his words and deeds was always proof to me that he was, in a curious way, the quintessential American, indifferent to - when aware of - cause and effect, acting only to further his own career, which meant that he was sometimes capable of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons."
The book establishes firmly that Mr. Vidal believes America and Americans to be just that bereft of character and grace. He has no other tribe or culture to favor, beyond the anesthetic life of the expatriate, which has held him in Italy much of his life.
That life, and this book, are overflowing with experience, observation, events - and excruciatingly empty of warmth or humanity. Empty, in sad truth, of life, in its finer and not really extraordinary sense.