He kisses boys and girls

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan Bloomsbury £25

Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan Bloomsbury £25

Many a child was surely puzzled by those few seconds in that episode of The Simpsons which finds Lisa packing for the family holiday: among the items to go into the bag is a hefty volume, called Tome, by Gore Vidal, a version of whose cover photograph briefly fills the screen as Lisa laments, "these are my only friends, grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he's kissed more boys than I ever will." To which her mother replies, "Girls, Lisa, boys kiss girls." And in that moment, the canny youngster's eyebrows appear from nowhere and twist in something of the manner with which Vidal's have confronted the folly so often set in his path this past half-century and more.

Professor Kaplan's 850 pages find no room for that pithy moment but should Marge ever pick up a copy, she will be divested of her certainties forthwith - as will those who think that they are all too familiar with the novelist's trajectory from a wellconnected Washington childhood to a certain seclusion on an Italian hillside where he presides over what is quite possibly the busiest fax machine in the Western hemisphere. All this has been ventilated down the years, not only in Vidal's memoir Palimpsest but in Screening History, essays, that fascinating hybrid Two Sisters, and the innumerable interviews, both in print and those broadcast performances which show that good telly is not a matter of flash effects and jump-cuts but cogent words.

Vidal has, naturally, been in command of all that. Why, then, should he not only sanction but also solicit and encourage an account by somebody to whom he has given well-nigh complete access to material? Moreover, such was his desire to have a tome that Professor Kaplan was not the first. The journalist Walter Clemons died on the job after nine years in which he had done nothing other than interview many illustrious now-dead, the apparent transcriptions of which, gallingly, an executor has locked in a dank Long Island cellar to which he will not give anybody the key. As Kaplan admits at the end of a book which he began writing less than two years ago - and that after being attacked on the Manhattan subway - he has become fond of Vidal. He is hardly going to put the boot in. He even begins with an evocation of a visit to the Washington graveside - already famous from Palimpsest - in the company of its future occupants, Vidal and his chum of 50 years Howard Austen, who will be as close as now possible to the grave of Jimmie Trimble, dead in the war and so much the love of Vidal's life that he gave much energy to finding that grave.

Such has been the free hand allowed by Vidal that he said that he would not read the book - a line duly trotted out by those who have jumped the gun and reviewed it from a proof copy. Kaplan now reveals that "toward the end, he expressed his desire to see the manuscript. Doubleday and I were succcessful in maintaining our position that it was neither in his nor our interest for him to read it before publication."

It is, in any case, bizarre that anybody could have a two-inch-thick slab - one's life - on the shelf and let it remain a mere tantalising object. At the very least, it will surely be consulted. And a strange business that must be, to take down a volume to find out what one was doing in 1947 and, with it, to have a rush of memories not on the page, for biography is a form of fiction, a winnowing of material that, if given in full, would leave no reader time for his own life, let alone other biographies.

Was Vidal, like Greene, hoping to preclude other attempts? Is it a means of keeping up his own sales? Quite possibly, and, as such, likely to be successful. Here is a couple of days' fascinating read. Along the way, one might weary of a re-run of political campaigns, litigious disputes with the likes of William Buckley and that strange fascination with JFK, but throughout there are such details as a 1987 letter from a Moscow in which he mentions that the charming poet Andrey Voznesensky "knew that I knew that (Top Secret) he had fucked Mme Onassis and so every time he could get me to one side he would ask, wistfully, for news of her, which I gave as best I could, as learned from our sister in common. Around eleven in the morning Graham Greene would begin to wriggle beside me: he still looks about 17, a lean dirty minded boy with a fact that got, somehow, frost-bitten and worn. 'Will these French never shut up?' he moaned."

I had meant to quote only the business of the randy poet but that image of Greene is incisive Vidal, whose letters form a counterpoint to the Kaplan narrative, and must surely have a volume to themselves. He is the Virginia Woolf of his gender. Much is brought out that was latent in Palimpsest, whether it be the (lucrative) machinations of Fifties telly in America (which, thanks to the Museum of Broadcasting, is so much better preserved than our own) or his youthful relationship with a woman whom he simply called Rosalind, named by Kaplan as a Miss Rust, daughter of the carefree son of a real-estate magnate. "She had a beautiful face and a beautiful body, with long legs and no breasts," recalls a friend while she herself noted - 50 years before The Simpsons - that Vidal "can raise his eyebrows one after the other, and wiggle his ears".

Kaplan's documentation is a muddle. Who was the friend to whom Rust later said that Vidal was "my first beau and the best man I ever had. The best man I ever had in bed"? One assumes that Vidal will not be faxing Kaplan to demand that the sentence be cut from future editions, and it is one of several dalliances which Marge Simpson could show to Lisa as evidence that boys do kiss girls. He still has a block over talking about the breaking of his engagement to Rosalind Rust, and Palimpsest overlooks one of the most shocking stories in literary history. At Key West in the early 1950s he had an affair with a waitress, who later told him, plausibly, that she was pregnant with his child. He was distressed, and Louis Auchincloss advised him to send the untraceable $780 demanded. Vidal was later told not only that a doctor performed an abortion but that some enemy had spread the story there that the fellow "had a Christmas tree, and on it was a fetus and he said that's Gore Vidal's child". Even Truman Capote would have shied from that malice. Perhaps the whole incident was a scam, but it is a sign of the animus which Vidal can arouse.

There is ample dispute in these pages. Writers, unleashed from the desk, act in a way that, in other trades, would be commercial suicide and can even make estate agents blanch. Vidal must, even now, wake each day and wonder what fracas will erupt before sundown. For all such banter, all that courtly venom, Kaplan's volume can make one weary of dusty controversy, and hasten one back to the books instead. (He does not mention an entertaining amalgam of Vidal interviews.) The glib, in dividing Vidal into essayist and novelist, ignore the variety of each: for every political disquisition, there is an essay that explores the whole of George Meredith; if one had to choose one Vidal novel, it would be a tussle between the very different Duluth and Creation. Perhaps it is such fecundity, a willingness to use new forms, that has him held in suspicion - just as he looks askance at the rich forays of John Updike.

And there is yet more, unknown Vidal. A canny producer should seek out the remarkable-sounding 1964 play Drawing-Room Comedy, which takes place in the brief interval between thrombosis and death. (Incidentally, there is an American director, one Ed Sherin.) In Palimpsest Vidal alludes to five pseudonymous novels. It is well known that he wrote three elegant thrillers as Edgar Box, to which Kaplan adds one by Cameron Kay (pretty good) and - at last! - he documents the magnificent A Star's Progress by "Katherine Everard", the tale of a poor girl who makes good in the movies but falls prey to bad men and worse drink, and dies with dreams of a place she will never see: Duluth. It is brilliantly done, as if Alfred Brendel were to play boogie-woogie (and perhaps he should).

Vidal has never spoken publicly of this, but, in 1984, I had a few clues, which tallied (the Library of Congress records "pseudonym, author's name unknown") and was emboldened to discuss it in the Spectator under the title "Valid Distortions" and opposite a review of his Lincoln - and then woke early several mornings, fearful of a lawsuit. Soon after, we chanced to meet. "My, what a literary sleuth we have here," he drawled - and, yes, an eyebrow was raised, although the ears did not wriggle; without missing a beat, he continued, "I read - I began to read your article, and when I've finished it, I'll let you know what I think." There was a look in his eye - as ever - of irritation and bemusement. In due course, he revealed that, alas, Miss Everard had now died, and, as she turned to the wall, she gave one last sigh - 'Haw - tree!' - but I can now reveal that she went on to write the entire works of Margaret Drabble." There's no denying that Gore Vidal gives good value.