The highest compliment Gore Vidal can bestow on Robert Caro's biography of the New York politician, Robert Moses, is that he enjoyed all of its 1,200 pages, and never 'riffled glumly through the pages to come'. I cannot quite return the compliment. There were times, as I slogged my way through 1,270 pages, when I reached for my calculator to see what percentage of my duty I had performed.
Even rum truffle chocolates, by the hundredweight, begin to cloy. This is one of the liveliest, most thought-provoking and enjoyable collections of occasional pieces that I have read for a very long time. As writing, it is wonderful, infuriating, enriching, delightful. As publishing, it is bizarre. No one who actually enjoys reading, as opposed to seeing books as ornaments, would push out 114 articles - book reviews, travel pieces, scraps of memoir, invective, profile, interview and cultural essays written for audiences of many kinds in Britain and the United States over four decades - jumbled together in one volume that is exhausting to hold even when one is propped up against the pillows in bed.
The writing is as light as a feather, the book as heavy as a pair of hiking boots with the clay still on them. Why on earth couldn't Random House, or their licencees in the British market, Andre Deutsch, have published these essays in, say, four volumes?
Gore Vidal is a master of invective. Take this, on the political chat on American television: pumped out by 'seedy Washington journalists, sharp-eyed government officials, who could not dispose of a brand-new car in Spokane, think tank employees, etiolated from too long residence 'neath flat rocks, and always, always Henry Kissinger, whose destruction of so many Asians and their oncecharming real estate won him a prize for peace from the ironists of northern Europe'.
Or this, on Lord Longford: 'After the humiliation of (a) bad war, the failed career in politics, the eccentric attempt to regulate England's morals, now comes the halo . . . At God's right hand, forever and ever stands the Seventh Earl of Longford, peering happily into an eternal television monitor. Pray for us, Saint Frank. Intercede for us and teach us to love ourselves as you loved you.'
Vidal calls himself 'at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise'. He is certainly capable of presenting himself as a great hater. His profile of the New York neo-conservative publicists, Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, drips with ferocious intellectual, social and personal contempt.
He is the master, too, of the honed barb. Sometimes he concentrates shrewd historical or political perceptions into a tiny, deadly phrase. 'The white race,' he reminds us, 'is a minority race with many well-deserved enemies.' Social climbing in America, he notes, 'is one of the most exciting games our classless society has to offer'. There is only one way out, he wrote as early as 1986, when Ronald Reagan - the 'Acting President', as Vidal calls him - was still preaching against the Evil Empire, Vidal wrote that 'the time has come for the United States to make common cause with the Soviet Union'.
In his native country, Gore Vidal is widely disliked, even sometimes hated, for his acid attacks on the conventional wisdom and the national religion of Americanism. It is true that he is a 'tiresome nag' on certain subjects. He has a clear and coherent view of American history. He believes that since the early years of this century the US has transformed itself into an empire not morally distinguishable from those of Britian, France or imperial Germany; that this was a consequence of Lincoln's mobilisation of the state to preserve the Union; that it was 'carefully thought out' by men like Theodore Roosevelt.
He is profoundly pessimistic about American culture, and he lives by choice in Rome. The essays suggest autobiographical clues to his hates and his nagging. Gore Vidal's mother, described by Time magazine as 'beauteous', was the daughter of the blind Southern Senator T P Gore, a luminary of the old Washington. Jimmy Carter was a fifth cousin, the current VicePresident even closer kin. His father was a football star at the West Point military academy, a pioneer aviator and a New Deal official. His mother left his father and married an Auchincloss, making him a cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Young Gore adored his father and despised Auchincloss. Show me a human being, it has been said, and I will show you a sense of loss. Gore Vidal has smelted his own banishment from paradise into anger, but also into exceptional intellectual clarity.
Born and brought up in the heart of the American ruling class, he is firmly seized of the dirty secret, so vehemently denied by less well-informed Americans, that there is such a thing. When Roosevelt's political henchman, Jim Farley, complained that he wasn't asked to the White House, Vidal recounts that Mrs Roosevelt explained, 'Franklin is not at ease with people not of his own class.' These essays contain delightful vignettes of personalities from Henry Adams (a little before his time) to Eleanor Roosevelt, and from Edmund Wilson to Tennessee Williams. ('Since Tennessee cannot now die young,' he remarks in a characteristic aside, 'he will probably not die at all.') They include an evocative picture of pre-imperial Washington: 'I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruptiuon of the simpler, saner city of my youth.'
Like other denizens of his beloved classical antiquity, Gore Vidal is bisexual. He also exhibits many of the ambivalent attitudes of someone born close to the purple who has never felt comfortable either inside or outside the ruling circles of the American empire. No doubt these ambiguities explain the barely controlled savagery of his polemical writing, the righteous contempt for the complacent, the conventional, the conformist.
If he is a propagandist, though, it is not clear what he is a propagandist for. In fact, I suspect that at heart he is not a propagandist, at all. Born a patrician without a patrician's wealth, he has had to work for money all his life, and writers who write for money need some courage if they are not to take up the poisoned foils. At heart, I suspect, he would rather understand the world than change it.
Although he does not say so in so many words, he thinks of himself primarily as a novelist, and the bank account of his reputation will have to its credit Julian and the historical series that runs from Burr, through Lincoln, 1876, to Empire, Hollywood and Washington DC. Some would say that Myra Breckinridge and his most recent novel, Live from Golgotha, are debit items.
These essays, by comparison, are small items on the account, but most are worth reading. Where Gore Vidal writes about what he knows from the inside, he is hard to beat. That includes the way it felt to live at the heart of the American empire in its brief but brilliant heyday.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies