Seventeen years have passed, I remind Gore Vidal, since he told a reporter: "This is the last interview I shall ever give. I am in the departure lounge of life." "So where are you now? Tray table in the upright position, footrest stowed, taxiing towards the runway?"
The writer gives me a mutinous look. "How do you know that I didn't leave? Actually, I'm more fearful of airplanes than I am of my own mechanism, because I know how to run it.
I've had diabetes for 20 years. I have a titanium knee. Which is quite strong. But don't ask for it in the middle of the night."
With Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer gone, Gore Vidal, 82, is the last truly legendary figure from a golden age of American literature. "Serene" is his favourite word, though this is an adjective he employs rather than evokes: headlines he has inspired include "Into The Lion's Den" and "Cross Him If You Dare". That said, he looks tranquil enough this afternoon, an elderly ginger cat dozing on his knee, and a half-finished tumbler of whisky by his side. The expression he wears in photographs from his prime – a curious mixture of disdain and sensuality – has not altogether faded.
Vidal moved here, to this mansion in the Hollywood Hills, in 2003, because of its proximity to the Cedars-Sinai hospital. Howard Austen, his companion of 53 years, died of cancer in the same year. The two men had spent the previous 25 years in Ravello, near Naples, at Vidal's spectacular villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest.)
"It's been sold," Vidal tells me. "To an hotelier. A money-man. From what I hear, he is not prospering."
He used to delight in exhausting interviewers, unused to the debilitating sunshine of the Amalfi coast, with the arduous climb to his idyllic property. Here in his living-room, Vidal's limited mobility, along with the subdued lighting, the walls hung with stately oil paintings, and a carefully arranged display of lilies, lend a certain melancholy to proceedings. But neither age nor bereavement have dimmed his waspish intelligence; he still exudes the sense that he will not suffer fools – or, in a certain mood, anybody else – gladly.
Like Oscar Wilde, he is celebrated for his epigrams, most famously: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." Asked whether his first romantic encounter was homosexual or heterosexual, Vidal replied that he had been "too polite to ask". His conversation is precise and mannered to a point that you suspect this is a man who may still crook a finger when he drinks champagne. He speaks with an archaic, aesthetic tone that can be contagious: there's hardly an interview in his cuttings file where he doesn't elicit the word "exquisite".
To encounter Vidal is to meet a man who, through his friendship with André Gide, is only one handshake removed from Wilde. His two extraordinary volumes of memoirs – Palimpsest (1995) and its sequel Point To Point Navigation, published in 2006 – recall friendships with Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Margaret and Leonard Bernstein. He was close to John Kennedy and closer still to Jackie, a relative by marriage. "It is always a delicate matter," he once wrote, "when a friend or acquaintance becomes president." ("Oh we know, we know," sigh his millions of readers.)
A confidant of Tennessee Williams, he also frequented Christopher Isherwood, EM Forster, Albert Camus, Sartre, Anaïs Nin and William Faulkner. Vidal, who once wrote the line "Allen Ginsberg kissed my hand as Jean Genet looked on," was briefly the lover of Jack Kerouac. With this in mind, when you read him asserting, in Palimpsest, that "I have never much enjoyed the company of writers," it does seem necessary to add: "who are less famous than I am."
He was never a man plagued by self-doubt. A writer of supreme invention and poetic sensibility, his 24 novels include classics such as his transsexual satire Myra Breckenridge, and the innovative and surreal comedy Duluth. He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor; other scripts include Ben Hur and his underrated adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel, The Scapegoat.
As an actor, Gore Vidal appears in numerous movies, including Fellini's Roma, in which he plays himself, and Tim Robbins's Bob Roberts. A prodigious satirist and gifted speechwriter, he was narrowly defeated as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960, and refused to accept a safe seat four years later "because I realised my true motive was vanity". It would come as little surprise to hear that he was offered, but declined, the captaincy of Matt Busby's first great Manchester United side.
There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa holds up a book entitled Tome, with Vidal's name on the spine. "These are my only friends," she complains. "Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal. And even he's kissed more boys than I ever will."
"Girls, Lisa, girls," her mother says, and it's probable that a majority of viewers were, like Marge, unaware both of the writer's name, and romantic reputation.
Prime among life's potential irritations for Vidal is the knowledge that, because his unique gift has been applied to so broad a range of disciplines, his name is less familiar than those of more minor, but ruthlessly focused, talents such as Truman Capote or Norman Mailer.
"Mailer once said that 'Vidal lacks the wound.' What do you think he was referring to: the fact that your grandfather was a senator? Your privileged upbringing?"
"Privileged? You mean more privileged than a fat boy from South Africa," Vidal snaps [Mailer's father was born in Cape Town] "with a doting mother?"
He refers to Tennessee Williams as "The Bird", on the grounds that he was an artist who soared above the heads of lesser writers, and I have no doubt that Vidal considers that he, too, is on the radar of air-traffic control. The theme of flight is one that recurs in his writing and conversation. His father Gene was the first instructor in aeronautics at the highly prestigious US Military Academy at West Point, New York. As a 10-year-old, Gore appeared in a Pathé newsreel, landing a light aircraft. How did that feel? "Great. I was the most famous kid in the United States. That was 1936." He points to a dresser covered with small framed photographs. "There's a picture of my father."
"He looks like a film star."
"He was like a film star. He was the most famous college athlete in the history of the United States. A quarterback at West Point. He won a silver medal in the Olympic Games of 1924. In the 43 years that I knew him, we never quarrelled once, and we never agreed on anything."
His father's picture is towards the back of the display. Most prominently positioned is an image of a young woman with tousled hair, a mischievous grin, and great vitality: a tomboy with Katharine Hepburn cheekbones.
"Amelia Earhart," Vidal says.
"You can see courage in those eyes." "You can."
"Didn't she have a fling with your father?"
"She had more than that. I said to him, "Why didn't you marry her?' This was after she went down in the Pacific in 1936. They'd set up three airlines together." Even now, more than seven decades later, there is emotion in his voice. "He said: 'I have never really wanted to marry another boy.' And she was like a boy."
"Who told you she was dead?" "My father. Roosevelt put him in charge of the search."
"How did you react?" "I didn't cry. Almost everyone I knew had died, or nearly died, in an air crash." '
Vidal is engaging, generous and amusing. But you never lose the sense that his temper ("no gentle affair at best") is a bomb waiting to go off. Among his contradictions is that he suffers from what he's called "a dread of anonymity", yet loathes interviews, even though he has precipitated some of the most glorious collisions ever to occur in the media. In a television debate from August 1968 (now a popular destination on YouTube) he locked horns with arch-reactionary William F Buckley – "Hitler," as Vidal describes him, "without the charm." Buckley compared anti-Vietnam war demonstrators to Nazis.
"As far as I'm concerned," Vidal told him, "the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself."
"Now listen, you queer," Buckley replied. "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face. I was in the infantry in the last war."
"You were not," Vidal replies.
"You were not."
The British writer Richard Adams, appearing alongside him on That Was The Week That Was, called his work "meretricious." "Pardon?" said Vidal.
"Meretricious to you," the American replied, "and a happy new year."
It's the written press that he really despises. One piece by a female journalist, published in the early-1990s, abused his personal appearance in a way that could never be contemplated by a man writing about a woman: "Unkempt. Overweight. Sloppy trousers ... his belly is bursting through his shirt." His recollection of this highly dissatisfactory encounter is uncanny in its detail.
The first English writer to have the wit to seek out Vidal was the late Arthur Hopcraft: the author of The Football Man and scriptwriter for the Alec Guinness version of John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remains, I would argue, the most gifted writer ever to have interviewed Vidal. Hopcraft, while noting the American's "candid vanity", produced a highly complimentary assessment of his life and career. The American has absolutely no memory of who Arthur Hopcraft was. But then Hopcraft didn't make mean asides about his wardrobe or his weight.
"You've got a pretty good capacity to feud, haven't you? I don't necessarily mean that maliciously. You're what John Osborne called 'a good hater'."
"I am quite sure you mean it maliciously. You are a journalist. I pay no attention to most people. The opinion of the world does not mean a goddamn to me. I hate nobody."
"Norman Mailer?" [Vidal once characterised Mailer, Henry Miller and Charles Manson as brother chauvinists who should be collectively referred to as M3.]
"Mailer feuded with me. I knew Norman's syndrome. If I was on the cover of Time and he wasn't, my God he would be insulting me in the press. He couldn't stop. He lived for his little swig of PR."
"Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house."
"What was Capote doing that you didn't like?" "Lying," Vidal shouts. "The one thing I hate most on this earth. Which is why I do not have a friendly time with journalists."
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born in West Point, the only child of Eugene Luther Vidal and Nina Gore. He was raised in Washington DC. When he was 10, his parents divorced; his relationship with his alcoholic mother, which ended in 1957 (she died 21 years later) seems to have been at once unsuitably intimate, in terms of her personal disclosures to him, and thoroughly poisonous.
He has recalled her telling him, for instance, that rage made her orgasmic ("I forgot to ask her if sex ever did") and remarking that she was born only "because my mother's douche bag broke". Nina also informed him how, on the way to their honeymoon, his father had told her: "'There's something very important I want you to know.' I was so excited. He's going to tell me he loves me. But he didn't. Instead, he said: 'I have three balls.'" According to Vidal, his father "was in all the medical books".
"How old were you when you noticed Nina was behaving differently from most parents?"
Vidal laughs. "51."
"No. Really. I was a slow developer. The thing is, she was just atrocious. Everybody who knew her hated her."
"What did she do, exactly? Your grandmother said that when Nina walked in a room, it was like an evil spirit arriving." "Yes. This is her own mother saying that. You know what the problem was? It was racial. And I'll give you the race: Anglo-Irish. They are more vicious than most. She was a shit." He pauses. "A drunken shit."
"It must be awkward, then, to contemplate the fact that, genetically, you are half her. Is there anything in your character that you recognise as inherited?"
"No. If I did, I would take an emetic."
"You sound pretty angry with her."
"If I cared at all, I would say I would still be angry. She was a terror. The damage she caused."
"To you?" "To many people. Not just me."
Vidal formed a strong bond with his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, Oklahoma's first Democratic Senator, who had been blind from the age of 10, and had the young boy read to him. "I would say that he raised me."
"Your mother was terrified of him."
"Yes. Because he was strong as an ox and he would beat the shit out of her. Occasionally."
"Why did she drink?"
"Not anger? Or disappointment? Or jealousy?"
"You have been spoiled by Freud."
"Wasn't your father's relationship with Amelia Earhart a good reason for your mother to have been unhappy?"
"Well, since you bring up the subject and I play some of the tapes in my head, I think yes, she must have been very jealous. Amelia was bigger than Elizabeth Taylor. If you went down Fifth Avenue with Amelia Earhart you would have 500 people following you. Even at 10 I was impressed."
I have a feeling that Amelia Earhart is not just the mother Gore Vidal would like to have had, but also the lover.
When Vidal's parents divorced in 1935, his mother married Hugh D Auchincloss; they had a daughter, ' also named Nina. After Vidal's mother left, in 1940, to marry "her on-off lover, Robert Olds, an air corps officer", Auchincloss married Janet Bouvier – mother of Jackie Kennedy, young Nina's stepsister.
Gore Vidal had at least one heterosexual relationship as a youth, but has written far more about his great love, a schoolmate called Jimmie Trimble. An outstanding athlete, Trimble was killed in action in June 1945, aged 20. "His sweat smelled of honey," Vidal wrote, "like that of Alexander the Great."
He has said that Trimble was the only person he ever truly loved. "Many people might find it hard to understand how you have remained so... I'm not sure what would be the best adjective here..." "Smitten?"
"You might equally say, 'loyal.'"
"You don't forget what matters."
"What attracted you to him?" "Remember my father was the greatest athlete in his school."
"Can I infer from that that Jimmie reminded you of your dad?" "You could, yes." Gore gives a mischievous smile. "Not that he did." "And you are going to be buried together, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC?" "Yes. Howard is already there."
Vidal's first book, Williwaw, a war novel, was well received in 1946. But it was his third, The City And The Pillar, an openly homosexual novel, published two years later (dedicated "To JT") that influenced his life most profoundly. Vidal has consistently argued that the term "homosexual" has no validity, because human sexuality is too complex and diverse to be reduced to binary terms. This was a nuance lost on publications such as The New York Times, which refused to review his next five novels. He retains a special contempt for the paper, "which never found a well it could not poison".
"You've said that, from childhood, you wanted to be a politician more than a writer. How do you think your life would have been different if you hadn't published The City And The Pillar? For instance, when you ran for Congress in 1960?"
"Not much. I almost won the most difficult seat in the country."
"And yet even today, any admission of a sexual inclination that doesn't involve two children and a well-manicured back yard is likely to be used against you in politics."
"The book was fiction. That it could be exploited by political enemies is – yes – kind of proof of something."
"You were the one that said: 'I might have had a life in politics if it wasn't for the faggot thing.'"
"You're right, I did say that. And it is true. But now I am old, I realise that I probably didn't want that [political career]."
"To return to the question, if you hadn't published The City And The Pillar..."
"I would be President, like George W Bush," Vidal says, with just the slightest hint of sarcasm. "Come on."
"We'd be a lot better off if you were."
"We'd be safer."
In the aftermath of The City And The Pillar, which now appears almost prudish in terms of its sex scenes, Vidal relocated briefly to Guatemala, and wrote several novels under pseudonyms. He was once quoted as saying he had had 1,000 lovers by the time he was 25, a statistic that adds a certain credibility to his 1960 election slogan "You get more with Gore."
Surprisingly, for an inherently private man, he collaborated with Dr Alfred Kinsey, America's first "sexologist", who produced the ground-breaking 1948 study Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male.
"What interested you about Kinsey?"
"He was the biggest explosion since Freud. Suddenly the whole sexual world shifted. Why do you think I wrote The City And The Pillar? Because I knew that everything that people thought was stupid." "Yet Kinsey refers very rigidly to the 'condition' of homosexuality."
"There was no vocabulary otherwise. Homosexual and heterosexual are nouns that I would not use myself, it's true. Nor would he, when he was thinking. These are not semiological signs to a state of being. They aren't saying anything at all. Except, you know, 'I prefer rice to potatoes.' What great news that is. Tell it and gasp."
"Did you learn anything from him?"
"No. Well... he made a sexual revolution at the moment when I was making one. He sent me a copy of his book, with a great inscription. It compliments me on my 'work in the field'. Kinsey had a sense of humour. He was not a fool."
Vidal met Howard Auder in New York in 1950. "Where, exactly?" Vidal tells me that he can't remember. "People have said it was at The Everard Baths." [For decades Manhattan's most famous gay bath-house, it burned down in 1977.]
"I remember The Everard Baths. But what would I be doing there? There's nothing they do there that I like."
"The reason I ask is that most long-standing relationships begin with a physical..."
"I have always said, very clearly, that there was no sex involved with Howard. You can get sex anywhere. You cannot get a friend anywhere. I thought that would be clear to everyone."
"Perhaps people find it hard to identify with a long-standing platonic arrangement."
"Most people end up having to settle for that: friendship. And it's not the worst thing."
Vidal persuaded Howard to change his surname from Auster to Austen after advertising firms refused to hire him because he was Jewish. For all of its memories of Brando and Orson Welles and Bette Davis and the Kennedys, Point To Point Navigation is at its most powerful when Vidal describes nursing his friend through his last illness. In Austen's last days, the writer recalls, "He said: 'Kiss me.' I did, on the lips, something I had not done for 50 years.' "
When the two men began living together, Vidal's mother began complaining about her "pansy son and his Jew boyfriend because of whom she was not able to see her dearest friends". She had by now added regular shots of morphine to her voracious intake of alcohol. The last time Vidal saw her was 1957, when he invited her to London. "I think she came to try and restore relations," Vidal wrote. "That didn't work. She took to the bottle. Then she started attacking Howard. I said: 'I think you had better go.' Later she wrote me a poison-pen letter and I wrote her and said: 'I shall never, ever, see you again as long as you live.'"
"And you never did?" "No."
"Wasn't it your half-sister Nina who said that you were the focal point of your mother's life?"
"Are you sure she didn't say 'vocal point'?"
"What did your mother die of?" "Cancer."
"A slow death?" "Ooh, yes."
"Did you consider going to her funeral?" "Why would I do that? I don't go to the funerals of people I like."
"Your mother claimed you went to visit her, and apologised, just before she died." "That was a crazy story that she told. This was a woman whose potential apologies could have swamped Lourdes."
When he was 20, Vidal had a relationship with the erotic diarist Anaïs Nin. "Psychologically," Nin said of Vidal, "he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was 10, to have other children... but he does not know why he cannot love. He moves among men and women of achievement; he was raised into sophistication and into experience with the secret of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely." Nin says he was her lover. In Palimpsest, Vidal dismisses the idea that they were ever a couple.
"There are rumours that you have a daughter from a relationship with a woman living in Key West, Florida [in the 1950s]; are they true?"
"Possibly. I don't believe so. The father was either me or a German photographer. I believe the mother is dead. The child was a girl. Every Christmas, I would receive ' a picture of them all around the tree, and there's the little girl, looking like me. I could have a daughter, yes."
"Have you tried to contact her?"
"No. Why would I?"
"Because you might have a sense of responsibility, which, in the age of DNA..."
"I sent her mother money for an abortion. Which she used to go to Detroit, where she found a rich man."
Jackie Kennedy once remarked that Gore Vidal made her feel "like a Philistine – as if I knew nothing". It's a sensation he's still capable of communicating, both by gesture and word. Vidal is the only autodidact I've ever met who is both highly skilled at filtering information, and not overawed by professional academics; to be more accurate, he's positively condescending towards them. At one point I ask him a question about John Kennedy, and he tells me – wrongly as it happens – that he believes I can never have seen the 1964 film of his play The Best Man, which stars Henry Fonda.
"So when do you watch it?" asks Vidal (who once remarked that a part of the condition of the American writer was "an inordinate concern for reputation".) "Every other leap year?"
It's curious that he should be so sensitive, when his own estimation of himself is, on the face of it, shatterproof. This is a man, after all, who wrote the sentence: "Although something of an avatar of Mark Twain, I have never read The Prince and the Pauper."
There are times when his just-about-ironic pomposity recalls Frasier Crane in one of his more self-congratulatory moods, as in: "Contrary to legend I was born of mortal woman and if Zeus sired me, there is no record on file."
In his memoirs, rarely for a North American, it is sometimes possible to discern snobbery – or as Vidal prefers to say, 'snobbism' – of an almost English intensity. Having fallen out with Robert Kennedy, he writes about that family's "ardent struggle ever upward from the Irish bog", and complains of another writer that his instincts reflect "the lower-middle-class insular standards of the day". And will we really sleep any easier, when reading about a visit to London, in Point To Point Navigation, to learn that "I stayed, not as always before at the Connaught but at the Ritz"?
There can be no modern writer who has disregarded so enthusiastically George Orwell's egalitarian advice to use an English word unless no alternative is available. Vidal is the only non-restaurateur I've ever heard employ the noun amuse-gueule, and the only person in any profession I've known who uses "cher confrère" as a verb. When he paces a room at midnight, he doesn't do so like any run of the mill phantom, but "like Wilde's Canterville Ghost".
Gore Vidal gets away with this because of his brilliance, and because unashamed elitism, in matters of class as well as of intellect, has become part of his act. It's no accident that he gets on so well with Melvyn Bragg, another man of extreme intelligence who for some reason feels compelled to wear his learning, if I can plagiarise Vidal just once, "like a plume". I ask the American why this might be. "Well," he says, "I believe Melvyn's grandmother came from Bury."
There is no doubting the courage with which Vidal has opposed certain individuals and causes, such as Richard Nixon, Martin Amis and Zionist expansionism. He spoke out against his distant relative Al Gore, when family loyalty might have prevailed, and was one of the very few Americans to understand – if not empathise with – the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged correspondence, and Vidal failed to attend McVeigh's execution in Indiana, in 2001, only because he was given inadequate notice of its rescheduled date. For all that, Vidal is instinctively orthodox in outlook. He may once have declared "I am a political activist", but in his lexicon this means exercising influence at the highest level of traditional US politics. This explains how, at the height of the acrimonious attacks launched by Hillary Clinton (who has known Vidal for years) against Barack Obama, he continued to support the former, regardless of her tactics. "I feel," he says, "somewhat paternalistic towards the Clintons."
While his 96 year-old friend, writer Studs Terkel, has spent his life trying to rock the ship of state, if not actually scuttle it, Vidal tends to see his role as commanding from the bridge. With this in mind, he returned to politics in 1982, but was beaten by Jerry Brown for the Democratic nomination in California.
"WB Yeats, years after Oscar Wilde was dead, said: 'I think that the English don't understand that we Irish do. Wilde was a man of action. He was meant to lead the state. But he gets caught up in all of this airy-fairy nonsense."
"Can you identify with that?" "Yes."
While Terkel spent time with John Lennon, Malcolm X and Woody Guthrie, Vidal, who sometimes seems slightly dazed by contact with royalty, and had lots of fun with Barbara Cartland, has little time for hardcore activism. When I ask him his opinion of popular music, he pulls the kind of face you might expect to produce if you'd just snapped a hydrogen sulphide capsule under his nose.
"Did you spend any time with people from the so-called counterculture: men like [the black activist and diet coach to Muhammad Ali ] Dick Gregory, say, or Bob Dylan?"
"Not if I could help it."
"I was bored by them."
"I'd have thought that the moment during the Watts riots, in South Central Los Angeles, in 1965, when Dick Gregory walked from the police line to try to negotiate with the rioters, and was shot, was about as far from boring as you can get." Vidal gives an exaggerated yawn. "I didn't even know that detail."
"I believe Gregory received two details; one grazed his hip, and the other penetrated his left thigh."
"I'm sure he did many useful things of a public nature."
"Would it be fair to say that you're not really a rock'n'roll kind of a guy?" "I hate it," says Vidal (whose first contribution to street culture occurred in 2004, when he was persuaded to perform a bold and strangely haunting Celtic rap, in the second US series of Da Ali G Show.) "But then I am an elitist. Obama has been accused of being an elitist. And as he pointed out, how can a boy who was brought up in the jungles – the woods – of Kenya, with a mother on welfare by the time they got to America, be an elitist; which is what Hillary, to her shame, was trying to reduce him to."
"How was your friend John Kennedy on the question of racial equality?" "Jack was rather bad on the black situation. He wasn't especially interested."
"How about you?" "As good as most people could be, who were not deeply involved in it. I was the first editor of a publishing house to try to get Jimmy Baldwin published. I have done my duty."
He hands me a copy of the book Ain't My America by the so-called "radical reactionary" Bill Kaufman, who challenges, from a right-wing perspective, the expansionist policies of Bush and Cheney. "I am considered to be a radical leftie and of course I am not. Neither is Kaufman. We are the original patriots. Like General Washington. We are, for instance, strongly opposed to foreign wars."
"Joseph Heller wrote a chapter, towards the end of his life, which was called: 'Every Change is for the Worse.'"
"I won't contradict it."
"You would consider yourself to be living under a dishonourable regime?" "Absolutely."
"With a corrupt president?" "Yes."
"Who cheated his way to power?" "Oh, yes."
"Is this the most pernicious US government you have ever experienced?" "Yes. It is inconceivably bad. There is nothing that one could ever have imagined to be so bad."
"So what hope do you have for what you've described as the American Empire?" "None. It's finished."
"How do you see it ending?" "No more money."
"You once wrote: 'Robert Frost thought that between fire and ice, the world would end in ice. Plainly it is going to be fire this time.'"
"I don't think so now. We're too cowardly. We would be at risk if we attempted to blow up..."
"You're already at risk."
"Not to anybody truly dangerous."
"How about a meltdown in the Middle East precipitated by Iraq and Iran? Doesn't that sound dangerous to you?"
"Well ... our people are very, very stupid. And stupid people are apt to make huge mistakes."
"And your hope for the future?" "Politicians are shadowy people. We don't know what they may be capable of. The one certain thing is that there will be big surprises. They may be pleasant surprises, but it is my experience of history that most surprises are unpleasant."
Gore Vidal is back in Europe this week, for a visit you sense he feels may be his last. "I examine a new cancer on my forearm," he writes, in Point To Point Navigation, "while I wait for diabetes to do its gaudy final thing."
"Do you have major regrets?" "There is nothing that I deeply regret in my life. I see nothing to apologise for." "You're lucky." "Maybe. Or maybe I just played the game harder."
He has talked many times about his readiness to proceed – serenely – through what he terms "the exit door". "What do you expect to find on the other side?" "Nothing."
"You never know; it might be like coming out of a cinema matinée in the summer – you're always astonished to find that there is another life still going on in daylight, outside."
"I banish you," Vidal says, in his most witheringly ironic tone, quoting Coriolanus. "There is a world elsewhere."
"Do you fear death?" "I think everybody does. If it's going to be immediate, sure. I can't imagine brooding about it."
"I suppose it's not really an option to say: 'I'm scared witless.'" "As I recall, Kurt Vonnegut told me that he was."
"But you're convinced that, to put it crudely, when you die, that's it." "No," Vidal replies. "I wouldn't say: 'When you die, that's it.' I'd say: 'When you're born, that's it.'"