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.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower