The Gore to end Gore

Robert Winder checks out the Vidal statistics of one of America's grandest literary men; Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal Andre Deutsch, pounds 20

Gore Vidal is in the rare position of having featured in many memoirs written by others. "It seems," he writes with tremendous hauteur, "that practically everyone that I have ever met is now the subject of at least one biography." Now he sits high in his enviable Italian villa, with commanding views over a dazzling ("yes, cobalt") sea, and sifts mockingly through the documentary material. In his introduction he makes quite a meal of his title - a palimpsest is, after all, a cliche among tricksy moderns, who love the idea of manuscripts scarred by revisions and erasures. But it does turn out to be a perfect driving idea for anyone, like Vidal, in the memoir business. He does not narrate his life; he reviews it. He quotes from diaries, letters and books, even enlisting the support of his own essays and fiction, The result is something quite novel and wonderfully appealing, a critical biography of himself.

Not many people could imagine taking such an approach. But Vidal knows everybody - or at least the small group that counts as "everybody". The grandson of a senator, and the half-brother of Jackie Kennedy, he grew up with Washington's political elite, which he both despises and enjoys (even early on they used to call Jack Kennedy "the president-erect"). A natural crowd-pleaser and devout gossip, his memoir is mainly an enchanting set of stories about household names: Anais Nin, Tennesse Williams, Grace Kelly, the Roosevelts, Isherwood, Kerouac, Mailer, Truman Capote, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Princess Margaret, Andre Gide, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles,Nureyev ... how long have you got?

In the wrong hands this might have seemed a ghastly exercise in name- dropping. But it is a shrewd move to let others do his boasting, and then quibble. After all, the bare facts of this life - what we might call the Vidal statistics - are impressive: 22 novels; nine volumes of essays; five plays, various screenplays; lots of acting and television work. A fierce liberal critic of America's military-imperial complex, he also flirted with politics, and might have done well in the age of the soundbite.

There are some lapses into mere self-regard - he wastes an entire page of expensive deckle-edged paper on a reproduction of the 1964 bestseller list to prove that his novel, Julian, was a number one seller - but mostly the book is given an appealing fluid strength by its very haughtiness. Vidal's pen is sometimes accused of being barbed, but it doesn't seem malicious: it is too tolerant and amused. Even when his subjects fare poorly - his mother, Nina, who married a man with three balls ("apparently it was in all the medical books") or Anais Nin ("I did not like her writing but, compassionately, never said so") - his tone of sorrowful superiority remains appealing because it seems neither adopted nor disdainful. "It's always a delicate matter when a friend or acquaintance becomes president," he writes, mischievously aware that this is a line few people could write. "I am a poor guest and dislike staying in other people's houses," he says with a showy yawn, "But in my early days in England, out of curiosity, I did sometimes go for weekends at the stately homes."

Vidal extends this world-weary air to most of his acquaintances. In London he meets Du Maurier: "Daphne talked to me of her fascinating family, whose ancestors had been glassblowers in northern France," he recalls. "I affected awe." And he has Waugh-like fun with Evelyn Waugh - "a drunken social climber who wrote small funny novels of no great appeal until television realized that the books contained soap opera elements which, properly exploited, could fill with vicarious joy the dismal lives of consumers everywhere." He meets Evelyn at dinner and affects (much as Waugh himself might have done) not to know what he does ("something in the line of estate planning, I decided").

Vidal is proud of his composure, especially in sexual matters, and is casually candid, putting the record straight about his night in the shower with Jack Kerouac, among other adventures. Making a strict distinction between sex and friendship, he declares that among his thousands of encounters he did not have a single "affair". Well, maybe one. The book begins and ends with an affecting remembrance of his true love, a schoolfriend called Jimmie Trimble. At the beginning, enlarging on the subject of palimpsests, Vidal likens his memoir to the excavation of Troy. "At some point beneath those cities upon cities," he writes, "one hopes to find Achilles and his beloved Patroclus, and all that wrath with which our world began." And here they are - for Achilles and Patroclus read Gore and Jimmie. It's a pretty epic claim, and all the more touching for that. Vidal describes their union (in truth, a couple of snatched scenes) in high Platonic terms that are wonderfully at odds with the frosty, satirical tone everywhere else. Only some indefatigable reader who has read the entire oeuvre could say so with confidence, but Vidal's life might even be his greatest work: the Gore to end Gore.

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