BOOK REVIEW / White boys deserve their enemies: 'United States: Essays 1952-1992' - Gore Vidal: Andre Deutsch, 25 pounds - Godfrey Hodgson on Gore Vidal's enjoyable, thought-provoking, lively and diverse collection of 114 essays

The highest compliment Gore Vidal can bestow on Robert Caro's biography of the New York politician, Robert Moses, is that he enjoyed all of its 1,200 pages, and never 'riffled glumly through the pages to come'. I cannot quite return the compliment. There were times, as I slogged my way through 1,270 pages, when I reached for my calculator to see what percentage of my duty I had performed.

Even rum truffle chocolates, by the hundredweight, begin to cloy. This is one of the liveliest, most thought-provoking and enjoyable collections of occasional pieces that I have read for a very long time. As writing, it is wonderful, infuriating, enriching, delightful. As publishing, it is bizarre. No one who actually enjoys reading, as opposed to seeing books as ornaments, would push out 114 articles - book reviews, travel pieces, scraps of memoir, invective, profile, interview and cultural essays written for audiences of many kinds in Britain and the United States over four decades - jumbled together in one volume that is exhausting to hold even when one is propped up against the pillows in bed.

The writing is as light as a feather, the book as heavy as a pair of hiking boots with the clay still on them. Why on earth couldn't Random House, or their licencees in the British market, Andre Deutsch, have published these essays in, say, four volumes?

Gore Vidal is a master of invective. Take this, on the political chat on American television: pumped out by 'seedy Washington journalists, sharp-eyed government officials, who could not dispose of a brand-new car in Spokane, think tank employees, etiolated from too long residence 'neath flat rocks, and always, always Henry Kissinger, whose destruction of so many Asians and their oncecharming real estate won him a prize for peace from the ironists of northern Europe'.

Or this, on Lord Longford: 'After the humiliation of (a) bad war, the failed career in politics, the eccentric attempt to regulate England's morals, now comes the halo . . . At God's right hand, forever and ever stands the Seventh Earl of Longford, peering happily into an eternal television monitor. Pray for us, Saint Frank. Intercede for us and teach us to love ourselves as you loved you.'

Vidal calls himself 'at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise'. He is certainly capable of presenting himself as a great hater. His profile of the New York neo-conservative publicists, Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, drips with ferocious intellectual, social and personal contempt.

He is the master, too, of the honed barb. Sometimes he concentrates shrewd historical or political perceptions into a tiny, deadly phrase. 'The white race,' he reminds us, 'is a minority race with many well-deserved enemies.' Social climbing in America, he notes, 'is one of the most exciting games our classless society has to offer'. There is only one way out, he wrote as early as 1986, when Ronald Reagan - the 'Acting President', as Vidal calls him - was still preaching against the Evil Empire, Vidal wrote that 'the time has come for the United States to make common cause with the Soviet Union'.

In his native country, Gore Vidal is widely disliked, even sometimes hated, for his acid attacks on the conventional wisdom and the national religion of Americanism. It is true that he is a 'tiresome nag' on certain subjects. He has a clear and coherent view of American history. He believes that since the early years of this century the US has transformed itself into an empire not morally distinguishable from those of Britian, France or imperial Germany; that this was a consequence of Lincoln's mobilisation of the state to preserve the Union; that it was 'carefully thought out' by men like Theodore Roosevelt.

He is profoundly pessimistic about American culture, and he lives by choice in Rome. The essays suggest autobiographical clues to his hates and his nagging. Gore Vidal's mother, described by Time magazine as 'beauteous', was the daughter of the blind Southern Senator T P Gore, a luminary of the old Washington. Jimmy Carter was a fifth cousin, the current VicePresident even closer kin. His father was a football star at the West Point military academy, a pioneer aviator and a New Deal official. His mother left his father and married an Auchincloss, making him a cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Young Gore adored his father and despised Auchincloss. Show me a human being, it has been said, and I will show you a sense of loss. Gore Vidal has smelted his own banishment from paradise into anger, but also into exceptional intellectual clarity.

Born and brought up in the heart of the American ruling class, he is firmly seized of the dirty secret, so vehemently denied by less well-informed Americans, that there is such a thing. When Roosevelt's political henchman, Jim Farley, complained that he wasn't asked to the White House, Vidal recounts that Mrs Roosevelt explained, 'Franklin is not at ease with people not of his own class.' These essays contain delightful vignettes of personalities from Henry Adams (a little before his time) to Eleanor Roosevelt, and from Edmund Wilson to Tennessee Williams. ('Since Tennessee cannot now die young,' he remarks in a characteristic aside, 'he will probably not die at all.') They include an evocative picture of pre-imperial Washington: 'I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruptiuon of the simpler, saner city of my youth.'

Like other denizens of his beloved classical antiquity, Gore Vidal is bisexual. He also exhibits many of the ambivalent attitudes of someone born close to the purple who has never felt comfortable either inside or outside the ruling circles of the American empire. No doubt these ambiguities explain the barely controlled savagery of his polemical writing, the righteous contempt for the complacent, the conventional, the conformist.

If he is a propagandist, though, it is not clear what he is a propagandist for. In fact, I suspect that at heart he is not a propagandist, at all. Born a patrician without a patrician's wealth, he has had to work for money all his life, and writers who write for money need some courage if they are not to take up the poisoned foils. At heart, I suspect, he would rather understand the world than change it.

Although he does not say so in so many words, he thinks of himself primarily as a novelist, and the bank account of his reputation will have to its credit Julian and the historical series that runs from Burr, through Lincoln, 1876, to Empire, Hollywood and Washington DC. Some would say that Myra Breckinridge and his most recent novel, Live from Golgotha, are debit items.

These essays, by comparison, are small items on the account, but most are worth reading. Where Gore Vidal writes about what he knows from the inside, he is hard to beat. That includes the way it felt to live at the heart of the American empire in its brief but brilliant heyday.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea