A week in books

Gore Vidal almost bought me once, in a manner of speaking. A few years back, amid one of the New Statesman's periodic cash-flow emergencies, a rumour swept the staff that the Prince of Put-downs had gazed out from his eyrie on the Amalfi coast, spotted the magazine's distress and decided to put his hand down into his pocket to bail it out.

Things turned out otherwise, but the story sounded credible. Age (72 this year) has not withered Vidal's huge appetite for making mischief in both literature and politics. In a coda to his latest batch of essays and reviews, Virgin Islands (Andre Deutsch, pounds 17.99), he recounts a night spent with the British party machines during this spring's election campaign. As the evening wears on, he spots that "the mood of the Labourites was paranoid, particularly the handsome blonde girls in black suits with curled lips and flashing eyes". How come I missed them? Meanwhile, the man reputed to be "Blair's Rasputin" exudes "the insolent manner of one born to the top rung but three". Yes, Gore's back in town: lefter than left, but posher than posh as well. Call him a Bollinger Bolshevik, and he would probably send the insult back unless it specified a vintage.

In a summer that has stripped American letters of two great Romantic rebels - Allen Ginsberg and now William S Burroughs - it's heartening to see a purely Classical troublemaker in good, if not quite top, form. (Vidal called his wonderful collected essays United States; so Virgin Islands counts as a sort of minor dependency.) In fact, the gifted US generation that found its voice in the first postwar decade has thrived for half a century on novelty and notoriety. Among the other survivors, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow both have new work out within the next few weeks, while the slightly younger John Updike has just invited Net-heads to collaborate on a whodunit. Always cattily conscious of his peers' merits and defects, Vidal upends a vat of spite over Updike's sleek head halfway through this book. In a venomous attack reprinted from the TLS, he spits that "there is no received opinion that our good rabbit does not hold with passion".

The causus belli here is no mere literary rivalry, but Updike's culpable refusal to oppose the Vietnam War. "Updike is for the president, any president, right or wrong". Unpatriotic Gore, in contrast, takes his seditious side as seriously (and as playfully) as ever. It keeps his prose aloft and mind alert even when the name-dropping, back-biting Hot Gossip act begins to bore him as well as us.

One moment, he will tell us for the umpteenth time that he once ran 20,000 votes ahead of his old chum Jack Kennedy on the Democratic ticket in a Congressional election in upstate New York; the next, he employs the Freedom of Information Act to detail the exact amount spent by the US military to maintain its 31,351 personnel as a friendly occupation force in the "not-so-virginal" British Isles. As always, the change of masks is weirdly effective - as if Peter Ustinov sporadically mutated into Noam Chomsky (or vice versa).

On this evidence, Vidal will carry on on bitching and teasing well past the looming millennium. (In a neat aside about European integration during the last one, he points out that "if Charlemagne was the Jean Monnet of the 800s, Otto III was the Jacques Delors of the 900s".)

His long-time British publisher, alas, has already pegged out in all but name. In the sort of transatlantic coup that Vidal often mocks, the great name of Andre Deutsch - which now has no connection with its founder - belongs to a US video conglomerate, VCI. The firm plans to publish almost nothing except downmarket sport and showbiz titles. So Virgin Islands may well prove to be the last good book ever to sail under Deutsch's flag. As Gore really ought to say before too long: QED.

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