American Books Special: 'There is no republic any more'

It's been a great week for American legends. Stephen King, on a rare visit to London, meets massive fan Matt Thorne, while Ben Thompson strains his eyes over the infamous Courtney Love diaries. We extract Charles Frazier's follow-up to 'Cold Mountain', while Tom Rosenthal talks to his old friend Gore Vidal about the state of America and his brilliant new memoir
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Gore Vidal in his 82nd year has just published Point-To-Point Navigation, the second and, one must sadly assume, final volume of his memoirs begun with Palimpsest in 1995. In that wonderful book he gives a fine description of his wartime service, still in his teens, as first mate on an army freight-ship in the Aleutian Islands. He records this in the Author's Note to the new book:

"The weather was so bad that we seldom saw the sun, much less moon and stars; this made it nearly impossible to use the compass to chart a course. Instead, we relied on maps where we had memorised various points or landmarks as guides, a process known as 'point to point navigation', a process with obvious dangers (we had no radar). As I was writing this account of my life and time since Palimpsest, I felt as if I were again dealing with those capes and rocks in the Bering Sea that we had to navigate so often with a compass made inoperable by weather."

Rarely has a memoir title been so aptly chosen. The book darts in a thoroughly sprightly manner from topic to topic, from one period of time to another, from one outrageously drawn, memorable or famous character to another, with the mordant wit we have grown used to but never tire of.

The only compass in the book's narrative is the moral one, in this case of being true to oneself and, luckily for the reader, settling quite a few scores with those who played Vidal false. Nor is he kind to those whose command of our language is less comprehensive than his. He approvingly quotes William Faulkner likening lovers of literature to dog breeders, few in number but passionate to the point of madness on the subject of bloodlines. Yet a few pages further on he notes that Faulkner went to his grave believing that coeval meant "evil at the same time as".

Vidal scorns theories about male homosexuality being caused by over-protective, loving but smothering mothers married to cold, absentee fathers. He had a superb relationship with his father, a heroic aviator, with the ambition to be the Henry Ford of civil aviation, and who was in charge of Air Commerce in the Roosevelt administration. His relationship with his mother was fairly disastrous as she was very clearly the cold one. He does, however, salute her occasional sardonic wit as when he asked her, after her third divorce, whether she would remarry. "My first husband [Gore's father] had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck."

Because Nina's second husband was an Auchincloss, Gore was close to the Kennedys and claims - with justice - to have invented the Peace Corps: "with the help of [Eleanor] Roosevelt I had come up with an alternative to military conscription: voluntary service at home or abroad in such places where help was needed... I passed the proposition to Jack who adopted it."

One of the most affecting passages of the memoir is the description, always both clear-eyed and painful to read if you knew them both, of the decline and death of his partner of 50 years Howard Auster, a New York crooner whose career never quite took off but whose voice, even in his seventies, could mesmerise. Others who are vividly brought to life include Paul Newman, Graham Greene and the blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo. There's a deftly malicious portrait of Barbara Cartland encountered in Thai Royal circles in Bangkok, a wickedly funny sketch of Fellini, a sharp vignette of Carson McCullers and a bizarre cameo of Saul Bellow and Alberto Moravia in Rome: "I took them to a restaurant run by a lay order of beautiful third-world nuns. I fear that the two lecherous old masters ogled these psalm-singing nobilities. All in all, a cheery evening. At one point we spoke of death and what each expected to die of. Saul was very positive. 'I expect to just wear out.' And so he did, a man of Benthamite utility."

If Vidal has a literary icon it is not among his contemporaries, despite his closeness to Tennessee Williams. It is, with perfect logic for a writer of great erudition and a love of the classics, Michel de Montaigne who rates 11 mentions in the index. One quotation I found particularly resonant: "We only know, I believe, what we know now: 'knowing' no more consists in what we once knew than in what we shall know in the future..." It put me irresistibly in mind of the egregious Donald Rumsfeld, the gnomic author of: "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

When I talked to Vidal last week, I asked him if he saw the connection and he replied that when "you remember something you also remember the last time you remembered it. That's why I called my first volume Palimpsest; you remember one thing on top of another."

Inevitably Vidal has views on America's current problems. Ever since his collection of essays, Rocking the Boat, he has been savage about US imperialism. "Well, America's run out of gas. There's no money. It's run out because of so many crooked deals between Congress and the great corporations to give us all those technical advantages, and now the money's run out. Most of the population has no sense of the country at all; that's the poor; they're the ones sent out to Iraq and that's why there are these rapes and murders there. There's no proper army now. Today someone can become President by cheating, via electronic balloting machines which can be reversed. I was the first person, 10 years ago now, to point out that votes were being reversed. I wrote the preface to Congressman George Conyers's book on how he and other Congressmen and staffers went to Ohio in 2004 to investigate and prove conclusively that Bush's people stole the election with collusion between high officials and shadowy executives of electronic voting machine companies."

When I wondered why the book had had so little impact in America, Gore said it was because the principal influential media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post simply did not review it. "There is no Republic and that's why I have this general anger at the whole thing. The Vice-President, via his company Haliburton, is there to make money. It's all happened so quickly and I'm the last person to be prepared for the speed with which all this has happened."

When I asked if James Baker's recent speech, expressing serious doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq War had been cleared by the White House, there was a terse "It's like trying to find out who's going to succeed Stalin," followed by a gust of laughter. He says in this book that Presidents always cheerfully outsource blame. As for George W Bush "Well, he's already positioning himself. He's confessed that the information that he had was not good. Well it wasn't good because he was pressuring the CIA and other intelligence groups to give him totally fantastic views of Saddam Hussein. Whenever you read in the US press that a national leader somewhere is like Hitler, you know the US is about to do something Hitlerian. We project upon others what we have in mind. I say we and I mean the little minds that take over our government from time to time."

On a lighter note I referred him to the passage in the book when he and Tennessee Williams, whom he brings most affectionately to life, "had been prowling together one summer night without success, he said 'Well, I guess that just leaves the two of us' to which he claims I replied 'Don't be macabre.' Where the British - at least Bloomsbury - never cease to have affairs with friends, colleagues, relatives, Americans of the same sort try to separate, wisely I think, sex and friendship". When we spoke he expanded on this: "My line has always been that it's more difficult to have a friend than to have sex. I've always made a kind of division between one's friends and one's sex life. Of course when someone like Freud comes along and everyone said ah well everything is sex, I thought it was all a bit squalid."

Vidal is the only person I know who not only speedily sussed Ali G out but dealt with him while remaining resolutely imperturbable and displaying wit and humour. When Ali G, quite properly, introduced Gore Vidal as a historian, he went on to ask, after Gore had given his definition of history, whether he, Ali G, could also be classified as such on the grounds that - after a row - his girlfriend had said to him "You is history." Gore admitted that Ali almost certainly was. But, in another sense, Gore too is history. That he has never quite had his due as a novelist is partly because of the jealousy of critics who like their subjects to be compartmentalised. Gore has always been, justly, praised as an essayist and polemicist to the detriment of his fiction, particularly his masterly sequence on the history of the United States from Washington DC onwards.

I've always held the view that from the New Testament onwards, sequels are rarely as good as the original volume. But it would be wrong to take that view of these memoirs. Even without their elegiac quality they are, with their psychological frankness and self-awareness and their total engagement with our times, quite as good as Palimpsest and that's very good indeed.

* 'Point to Point Navigation: A memoir' by Gore Vidal is published by Little, Brown at £17.99. To order a copy for £16.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897