In 2004, 41 years after moving to his Italian home in Ravello on the Amalfi coast, Gore Vidal - novelist, playwright, screenwriter, ironic observer of what he accurately persists in describing as the American empire - returned to the United States. He had acquired a house in the Hollywood Hills in preparation for what he and his partner, Howard Austen, called the "hospital years". At the time, they presumed these to lie some way ahead. In fact, they came earlier than either had believed likely. Austen died and Vidal sat down, with a titanium knee, a cataract, a cancer on his arm and a faltering memory, to write a memoir that would, he claimed, take over where its predecessor Palimpsest (1995) had left off.
He began by hiring a researcher to remind him of his own life, confessing to having forgotten much about it - an irony for the man who referred to his own country as the United States of Amnesia, identifying what he regarded as its contempt for history and its tendency to denial. The result is somewhat curious. Perhaps the best that can be said for Point to Point Navigation is that it is a testament to the depth of his commitment to Austen, his companion of 53 years. This is not only because at one stage it contains a moving testament to their relationship (non-sexual, and for that reason, he curiously suggests, lasting) but because the drifting inconsequence of much of the rest is perhaps best seen as a reflection of a life that seems suddenly to have lost much of its purpose.
The shock of Austen's loss was considerable, and you can feel it even when Vidal appears to focus on something else. He describes writing his memoir at a so-called partners desk, designed so that two people could sit across from each other. Now no one looks back since "we" have become "me". He tells of meeting Joan Didion, whose husband had just died. For both, empty rooms are a reproach. There is no longer anyone to talk to. His new book is his attempt to navigate through a life whose fixed point has disappeared.
The past alone seems worth revisiting so that, far from continuing where Palimpsest left off, this book takes us on a meandering journey through time - which he and Didion agree heals nothing, but which has assumed some ultimate authority.
Point to Point Navigation has something of the quality of a dream, as if a man in his eighties were drifting off on a warm summer's afternoon, the present fading into fragmented images. Past and present commingle. The famous, or once famous, come and go, often with little to do beyond announce their presence and their relationship to Vidal. Incidents and anecdotes are repeated. He twice tells a detail to do with the interment of Austen's ashes, a stuttering preparation, perhaps, for his confrontation with loss.
Beyond the internal repetitions, there is much that is familiar from earlier works. Vidal rehearses old disagreements, slights, misunderstandings. Indeed, he even repeats events, sentences, entire paragraphs from Palimpsest, which has its own irony since that book quoted approvingly George Santayana's observation that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We all reach an age when we preface our stories by asking if we have told them before. Vidal has, and his editor should have gently reminded him.
Since this is Vidal, however, the book is lit from time to time with vivid miniatures of some of those he has encountered in a life often lived publicly. A wigless Barbara Cartland is pictured in a Bangkok hotel insisting on what a devoted couple Charles and Diana are. Jacqueline Susann's false eyelashes resemble "a pair of tarantulas in a post-coital state". Rudolf Nureyev, dying of Aids, is pictured beside Vidal's swimming pool awaiting a doctor from Paris, who will flush his blood through and re-animate him so that, if only for a while, he can dance again. As ever, the stories are wonderfully entertaining and irreverent. Though he never met Pope Pius XII, I would recommend his story of the pontiff's exploding corpse.
On America, he remains as acute as ever, and if we have heard and read his denunciations of politicians and businessmen before, they are none the less cogent for that. He was denouncing the National Security State long before others seemed to notice its existence. On Britain, he is more suspect, sharing a common American misconception that Question Time in the Commons is evidence of "democracy in action". His claims to be able to penetrate the truth about the Blair-Brown deal are equally unconvincing.
He is on home territory with his fellow writers Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles, as when he recalls his experiences in Hollywood, seldom satisfying and frequently surreal. As author of I Accuse!, about the Dreyfus case, he was asked to cut all references to Jews, which, as he remarks, "was not easy to do in a film about anti-Semitism".
Writing of the Louisiana populist Huey Long, Vidal remarks that he began performing when he stepped out of the elevator in the morning. A memoir, of course, is itself a performance, a step out of the elevator, and Point to Point Navigation has him strutting the stage, a trooper making positively his last appearance, replaying some of his finest roles. But as the footlights fade, it is tempting to believe that the tear trickling down his face from a cataracted eye is the real thing, and that irony might finally have been replaced by a sense of imminent loss.
He ends with the last lines of Pope's Dunciad: "Light dies before thy uncreating word;/ Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,/ And universal Darkness buries all." These are, as he remarks, not perhaps entirely abandoning irony, bound to be apt one of these days.
Christopher Bigsby, professor of American literature at UEA, Norwich, has edited the new 'Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture' (CUP)Reuse content