American psyche

He is cousin to Al Gore. He shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy. He knows everybody who is anybody. In this exclusive extract from BBC Radio 4's 'In the Psychiatrist's Chair', the celebrated writer Gore Vidal reveals all to Professor Anthony Clare
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The Independent Culture

ANTHONY CLARE Gore Vidal, in your memoir Palimpsest you say, "I may not have known well any of the characters in this drama, but I was certainly more interested in my view of them than I was in my view of myself". But I think you are obviously interested in your view of yourself.

ANTHONY CLARE Gore Vidal, in your memoir Palimpsest you say, "I may not have known well any of the characters in this drama, but I was certainly more interested in my view of them than I was in my view of myself". But I think you are obviously interested in your view of yourself.

GORE VIDAL Anyone who writes a memoir portrays a certain interest, but it's pretty minimal. It was the people that I had met that I thought were more interesting to analyse.

AC One of the most interesting ideas that surfaces from time to time is the one you have of the other half.

GV I am fascinated by duality and by twins. My grandmother was a twin and she lost her twin at birth, and she attached herself to Senator Gore, her husband, who was blind from the age of 10 and really needed her. She was his eyes. So she had her twin and I was brought up by them. And I think there was something about twins that got into me. The idea that one is completed by another person is an attractive notion in youth. I was brought up with a boy in Washington, to whom you are certainly going to allude, called Jimmy Trimble. I was one week older than he was, we were born in the same year and the same month. We both enlisted and on the 1st March 1945 he was killed and I felt as if half of my life had gone.

AC You're very sceptical, no doubt, of the role that psychoanalysis has played in American life. But you never felt any inclination to build a route of self-exploration of that kind?

GV How on earth can a writer, a real writer, need it? What we do all the time we are working is unconscious. There are certain writers for whom there is no dark secret to delve - I have no secrets.

AC You describe yourself as a solitary child, not a lonely child.

GV Well I certainly didn't like the company of other children. I liked the company of adults because they were more interesting.

AC You write quite a bit about dreams, and dreams that you dream.

GV I have what I think of as a birth dream. My mother had a very narrow pelvis and the army surgeon who delivered me made kind of a mess of it. So I came out fairly squashed in the process. I have the dream that I'm trying to manoeuvre my way over rocks and there's nothing viscous about it. And I sort of see a light ahead and I can't get my head through. Well that has got to have something to do with that trauma.

AC What was your mother like when you were a very small boy?

GV According to Freud she was a perfect mother. I was on her nipple for a year. So I was breast fed which according to Freud means you are omnipotent - or you think you are. She began to drink rather heavily when I was about four or five.

AC Do you know why?

GV She was a disappointed woman, very handsome, she was extremely ambitious but without any working energy at all.

AC She was ambitious in what?

GV Just to be famous. But she didn't do anything. She tried acting, she did this, she did that. And my father was a great all American football player, he was in the Olympic Games and at a very young age he was in the cabinet of the president. She died convinced that she had done it all and just carried him along. And then their quarrels got very bad and she married a very rich man whom she didn't care at all for, Mr Auchincloss, and had two children by him. And she had actually believed that he wouldn't have sex - that was to be a condition of the marriage.

AC She didn't want sex because?

GV Because a: he was unattractive; b: he also had orgasm without erection, and had been to many psychiatrists. Perhaps this is the origin of my feeling about your trade. Did him no good at all.

AC Was she an affectionate mother?

GV Not really. The likeable thing about her was that she never treated any of her children as if they were children. The last 20 years of her life I refused to see her. I kicked her out. She got worse and worse. She was staying with me in London and she was drunk the entire time and making scenes. You could say the only lasting effect it had on me was absolute negative feeling about marriage - every member of my family has had terrible marriages.

AC But if you're lucky you find your twin.

GV Yes, but then why get married at all if it's lust you want - that's all I wanted in my youth. People seem to make much of my observation, never have sex with friends. Don't because you'll lose the friend as you lose interest in the sex. Keep the friend and have sex with somebody else - god knows the world is full of that.

AC You said I'll get to Jimmy Trimble. This was a relationship from your late teens until your early twenties, it was very short, a matter of a number of years.

GV I would never have written about it if a clever journalist at Vanity Fair hadn't done some sleuthing, as I dedicated The City And The Pillar to the memory of JT And they started to ask around St Albans [Vidal's school] and found out who it was. I would never have let anybody know.

AC Why wouldn't you?

GV He had a mother who was alive until two years ago.

AC I think you said in your own superb language something like it was the single most significant relationship in your life.

GV Yes, and I didn't figure that out until I started to write the memoir.

AC You have the occasional rumble.

GV I am belligerent, an eye for an eye, and know this is ridiculous because it gets you into all sorts of unnecessary problems. But I cannot not hit back. I don't go around hitting people, but I certainly believe in a swift, preferably terminal, response.

AC We talked about you being wary of emotions. I have a picture that, despite yourself, some pretty wretched movies move you to tears.

GV Oh my god, I weep torrents whenever Bette Davis gets into trouble.

AC Are you wary of love?

GV I'm wary of people who go on about it. I also quite understand that people don't know what it is - they confuse it with lust. And of course lust doesn't last very long, and then they're out of love. Why not just call it lust and have as good a time as you can and move on. We're supposed to procreate and society, god knows, is ferocious on the subject. Heterosexuality is considered such a great and natural good that you have to execute people and put them in prison if they don't practice this glorious act.

AC But same sex lovers seek love.

GV I'm not into the generalising business about what others do. One has theories and you can describe something from your point of view.

AC You generalise about the delusory nature of love. You say, more or less, it's a fantasy.

GV The evidence supports me on that, starting with the divorce rate in my own country.

AC Do you worry about dying?

GV The process, everybody worries about. The countdown is going to be very unpleasant. And now I have a pretty good idea of what I'm dying of - I have diabetes. In Italy it's called senile diabetes. They're quite tactless there.

AC You fear dying, but not being dead.

GV No, it's no different from what it was like before I was born, which I remember very, very well. I'm the only person who does.

AC Remember before you were born?

GV Yes. There wasn't much to do but it was quite pleasant. I think you would describe it as happy.

AC It was quiet?

GV It was quiet, there wasn't much fuss. And you didn't have to dress for dinner.

'In the Psychiatrist's Chair: Gore Vidal' is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 today at 11.15am and repeated on Friday at 9am. 'The Golden Age' (Little, Brown £17.99), by Gore Vidal, is published on 26 Oct. See extract in 'The Sunday Review' p63

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