My first awareness of Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was in the summer of 1966. Though neither of my parents attended college, my mom was an eclectic reader. Jumbled in no discernible order on the bookshelves at home during my teen years was the oddest variety of books including Sigmund Freud, Harold Robbins, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacqueline Susann, Jules Verne, and Gore Vidal. I don’t know why one day at age 13 I picked out of this hodgepodge Dark Green Bright Red, one of Vidal’s youthful (1950) novels. Perhaps it was just because, unlike most of his later works, the book is short. It is possible I wanted to read something but didn’t want to get carried away with anything requiring a real commitment – a disposition that has been common enough for me in matters other than literature too. The novel about a Central American revolution intrigued me at once.
Over the next few years I sought out other novels by Vidal, all the while ignoring much of my assigned reading in school. Julian, his historical novel about the last pagan emperor of Rome, was the clincher. With Julian he became and has remained my favorite 20th century author. Fortunately for me, he was a prolific writer not only of novels but of short fiction, plays, reviews, commentary, screenplays, and essays. I like them all. I would like them for the prose alone, but they also are thoughtful and drily funny. With regard to his commentary, I often found myself on the other side of the political fence (not on social issues), but he invariably knew where the fence was, which is valuable in itself.
I don’t read many biographies of writers. In my experience, very few good authors are remotely as interesting as their books, even – perhaps especially – when they deliberately make their lives theatrical, e.g. Hemingway and Mailer. Besides, Vidal wrote at length about himself. Nonetheless, a couple of weeks ago on a whim I picked up Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw. Mewshaw is a novelist and journalist two decades Vidal’s junior. He became friends with Gore and his long-time companion Howard Austen in Rome during the 1970s, and remained friends with them for the remainder of their lives. In Sympathy he tells us what that was like.
I rather wish I hadn’t read it, because the depiction isn’t pretty. To be sure, the book has plenty of anecdotes about Gore of the sort a book like this should have and it is generally well written, but it chronicles a sad and not very graceful decline from middle age to old age. The last three decades of the 20th century were enormously productive for Gore. He churned out essays, screenplays, and truly impressive novels (Burr, Creation, Lincoln, Smithsonian Institution, et al.) with as much talent and energy as ever while working the lecture and talk show circuit and taking the time to run for US Senate. He hobnobbed with the elite, including Nancy Reagan of all people, while preaching populism. Yet, depression, personal loss, and vast quantities of alcohol exacted ever more severe tolls with the passing years. Mewshaw quotes Gore as saying he preferred to “sink myself into whiskey where one’s sense of time is so altered that one feels in the moment immortality – a long luminous present which, not drinking, becomes a fast-moving express train named…Nothing.” By the 21st century he frequently needed a wheelchair. In his public appearances, his former witty humor gave way to cantankerous scolding. He became deeply suspicious of people around him. But then, as he liked to say, “Anyone who isn’t paranoid isn’t in full possession of the facts.” Then he was gone.
After Mewshaw, something more cheerful was in order. I recalled that there was one novel Gore wrote during his peak years that I thus far had neglected to read, the relatively obscure Two Sisters. As of yesterday, the omission has been corrected. Written shortly before he met Mewshaw, Two Sisters is an idiosyncratic but marvelous book that gives us the full Vidal range in a compact package. It is a screenplay inside a memoir inside a novel masquerading as a memoir. Gore, appearing in the novel as himself, is asked by another author to read a memoir by a deceased mutual friend; the memoir includes a spec screenplay titled Two Sisters of Ephesus. The layered structure of Two Sisters allows Gore to digress into mordantly funny commentary on culture and movies while remaining on plot.
Two Sisters is a playful novel. Yet, at age 45 Gore plainly was experiencing middle-age angst, as so many of us do at that time of life. Contemplation of mortality is central to the book and to each of its subparts. In the screenplay the characters seek a sort of immortality through notoriety, in one case by burning the Temple of Diana which was a structure noted throughout the Mediterranean world. Gore cites the same desire in himself to beat death through his own work: “But then the artist’s desire to outwit death through perpetual fame is a common one, and no less powerful a drive for its naiveté.” That might not appear to be a cheery message, yet somehow it made me happier.
Though Gore already was a heavy drinker by 1970, the quantity and quality of his literary output appears not to have suffered. At one point in Two Sisters he says, “I have known or known about most of the American writers of my time and I can think of only three who are not – or were not once – alcoholics.” Hmmm, would my own fiction benefit were I to consume more whiskey? Maybe. But I’m not sure it’s worth it.