Reading
Gore Vidal

South Bank Centre, London

An after-dinner speaker with true gravitas, that's Mr , who flew over from the Hollywood Hills this week to deliver the first in a series of lectures at the South Bank with the marvellously portentous collective title of "Sounding the Century".

Mr Vidal, an old-style, gadfly leftie with a true patrician's manner, is exactly the man to speak on such a subject. He so looks the part. He moseys on to the stage, silver-haired, smiling comprehensively, like a great ocean-going liner that knows without even bothering to inspect its new livery just how impressive its appearance is going to be when it hoves into view. The only thing lacking is the big band on the quay.

The last time Vidal hopped over here in an official capacity - he lives part of the time in southern Italy and part in California - he delivered something called "The European Lecture" at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and there were some remarkable similarities between the two events.

The two gags with which the evenings both began were identical, for example. "I am obliged to read this lecture," he said, with an air of mild distress, "but I shall look up from time to time to give it an air of spontaneity." That brought the house down last time, and it worked again this week. Then came the next, also delivered with a masterly touch of faux-spontaneity: "Eisenhower always read his speeches with a great sense of discovery..."

There was not a great deal new to be discovered from Vidal this week for those who have read even a few of his many books. He was rehearsing some of his best-loved themes: the evils of the American empire; the treachery of Dean Acheson, that goddamn son of a bishop; the duplicities of Truman; the slavering greed of bankers. But this did not matter too much. What is perhaps even more important with Vidal is the sheer style with which it's done; the calculated elegance of it all; that magnificent aura of pride that appears to clothe him like some gorgeous, angelic raiment. When he acknowledges an audience's applause, his slow wave is straight out of a Jack Kennedy motorcade. It would be, though, wouldn't it? He was one of Jack's friends, wasn't he? He may castigate Dean Acheson, but he is careful to let us know that he danced with his daughter - in fact, he was one of the few who could do so comfortably because she was such a tall, rangy girl - and what a marvellous combination of put-down and self-elevation that is!

The only heartfelt cruelties of the evening were shot in the direction of a couple of fellow Americans during question time. "Can you not say one single positive thing about America?" a girl asked him, her voice bruised and quivering with indignation for the comprehensive social snub that he'd just delivered to the United States of Amnesia, as his coining goes. "Why are you so angry?" He replied with superbly calculated disdain. "You've learnt so many new things tonight. You don't know what the world was like for my generation." Yet another poor soul who hadn't got round to reading his books.

And yet: who would not wish to have the next dance with a guy who's that quick, that smart?

Michael Glover

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