GORE Vidal never suffered from writer's block and had little patience with anyone who said they did.
His regimen – as befitted someone born at West Point – was military in its adherence to routine. "First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me," he once said in the tone of a doctor dictating a prescription. He was a man who did not invite contradiction, expecting his statements to be accepted as if they were papal bulls. The self-appointed laureate of the American Empire's rise and fall, as Gibbon was of Rome's, he was imperial in manner and Caesarean in demeanour. What Vidal said went. It wasn't too hard to imagine him in a toga.
It is 25 years since we first met. With the recklessness of the ignorant and the naive I had invited the author to Edinburgh, where he agreed to appear in public at the Queen's Hall. He was 61 years of age and had just published Empire, part of his celebrated Narratives Of Empire series in which he tells, in fictional form, the story of the United States. It was billed as "the literary event of the year" and so it was. Fresh from an appearance with Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show, on which he had been at his Wildean wittiest, Vidal held the audience in thrall, firing one-liners at them as if they were bullets.
He had also just published a selection of his essays, Armageddon, in which he railed against Ronald Reagan and his "lifelong habit of exaggerating not only his past but those stories that he read in the Reader's Digest", defended Richard Nixon ("He buried the hatchet with the Son of Heaven, Mao..."), and identified born-again Christians as dangerous lunatics. "Have a nice quarter-century now," he wrote in my copy, doubtless thinking that our paths would never cross again.
But over the years they did, not frequently but regularly enough for him to take my calls without me going through gatekeepers and from to time we met – occasionally for fun, usually because there was work to be done. Once, a television company suggested I play Boswell to Vidal's Johnson in a recreation of the pair's 18th-century Highland jaunt. I thought about it for an hour or so then said no. It was one thing to be the butt of Vidal's jokes in private; quite another to be humiliated in front of the viewing millions. At the time Vidal and I didn't discuss it, but when I brought it up much further down the line he sounded almost regretful, as if an opportunity had been missed. Eventually our parts were taken by Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions.
Re-reading interviews with him, what one discerns in his voice is not ennui but world-weariness, exasperation. Vidal was easily bored and frustrated
with small talk. He liked gossip, though, and was always eager to be brought up to date on what our few mutual acquaintances were up to. His preference was for anecdotes that ended badly for their subjects. But it was not one-way traffic. It was never difficult to wind Vidal up. Mention a name and away he'd go, like a car whose handbrake was off. As a young man he'd set out to meet writers he admired, including Andre Gide, EM Forster and Jean Cocteau. He once sent Thomas Mann a book. In return, he recalled, Mann sent him a letter with his name misspelled.
Whatever Vidal was, he was no misty-eyed sentimentalist. Nor was he ever inclined to put people on pedestals. For him, it seemed, everyone had at least one foot made of clay. Any hero he had was undoubtedly flawed. Status, power, wealth and breeding never impressed him. Nor was he ever likely to self-censor. If asked what he thought of a fellow writer or a politician or actor, his response was unexpurgated. Envy, he reckoned, was the "central fact" of American life. He told the Paris Review: "Then, of course, I am the Enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys – as well as the American Empire. I've also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land."
At the turn of the millennium he invited me to visit him in Italy, where he had lived for many years. He and Howard Austen, his partner, had bought La Rondinaia – the swallow's nest – in 1972. Perched on a cliff top on the outskirts of Ravello with a view across the Gulf of Salerno to Capri, it seemed to float in space. It was near here that Tiberius, emperor when Christ was crucified, had a palace. "We have a lot in common," Vidal liked to quip. Tiberius, however, never had to put up with boats full of sightseers in the bay. As he swam in his pool, Vidal could hear tour guides pointing out where he lived. I remarked that his powerlessness in the face of such provocation made comparisons with Tiberius – whose brutality was legendary – seem rather odious. "Mmmm," Vidal said, as he shuffled around the furniture-stuffed room in search of a corkscrew.
It was about a quarter of a mile from Ravello's Piazza Duomo to La Rondinaia. Guided via intercom through a succession of security gates by Austen, I encountered at the final checkpoint a pair of preppy youths who had appeared out of nowhere from an avenue of cypress trees. Who were they? Undercover Mormons come to reclaim Gore for the Lord? Celebrity stalkers? Encyclopaedia Britannica salesmen? "We're fans of Mr Vidal," one said. "We're from Ohio," said the other, which I doubted would impress Vidal. "We've read all his books," he added. But when I relayed this to Austen he was not impressed. "Tell them," he said, "to go away."
Abandoned in the middle of a wood with no signposts and a plethora of paths from which to choose, I got lost. After a while I came across a grand house that I thought must be Vidal's. With no-one in sight, I entered through the open French doors and was immediately greeted by a waiter carrying a drinks tray. Something did not feel right. I had stumbled into the Villa Cimbrone, which had once been home to Greta Garbo and her lover Leopold Stowkowski. Vidal and Garbo, needless to say, had history. "People think I'm pair-annoyed," she once told him, after a former lover spilled the beans about an affair she insisted they'd never had. "Really," said Vidal when I finally reached him and told him where I'd been, "you'll be needing a whisky."
He'd put on weight and was wearing a loose shirt and monogrammed slippers. In this same room, he had entertained Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Lauren Bacall, Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret, Muriel Spark, Hillary Clinton, Tennessee Williams and many others. He needed such a big house, he explained, to accommodate his books. Had he fewer books, he said, he'd have lived in a one-room apartment. This seemed unlikely. He was in a good, gloomy mood, preferring to talk about anything other than himself. In the age of the internet, he discerned the slow death of literature, not for a lack of authors, but for a lack of readers.
Like his much-loved grandfather, TP Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma in whose household much of Vidal's childhood was spent, he wanted to become a politician. "I just happened to be a writer," he said. "And if you are that, that is what you do even though what I write is simply no use at all. Or could ever be for a politician. Politicians must never give the game away and a writer must try and tell the truth. These are two conflicting impulses." Having said which, he added that he would have had no difficulty being a politician. "It was just the urge to express myself, about what I thought about a subject. I find that when I do not write, I do not think. I suppose I like cerebration rather better than the exquisite sound of the celebration of a political career."
For someone so celebrated, Vidal was the recipient of few prizes. For United States, which brought together four decades' worth of essays, he received a National Book Award. But he never won a Pulitzer, still less a Nobel. Such was the fate, it seemed, of the congenital contrarian. "For those who haven't read the books," he said, "I am best known for my hair preparations." As the blistering sun went down over the Bay of Salerno, he sipped his Glenfiddich. He was 75 and conceded that he was "not bad" for his age, though he suffered short-term memory loss and walking was becoming problematic. But like an Old Testament prophet, isolation appeared to suit him. Showing me to the door, he pointed out an Aubusson tapestry and dining chairs that were designed for the set of Ben Hur, on whose script he once worked and for which, typically, he'd say, he never got any credit.
Later that year he came again to the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I tried and failed to get him to discuss his fiction. He was never comfortable talking about himself and his work. In any case, as he often said, people preferred to talk about his essays rather than his novels because they were shorter.
Austen's death in 2003 spelled the end of Vidal's Italian sojourn and the beginning of "the hospital years". Like the black sheep of a dysfunctional family, he returned reluctantly to the "United States of Amnesia" and the hills of Hollywood. Reliant on a wheelchair to get about and wearing what in photographs looked like tracksuit bottoms, he seemed diminished, worn out, his voice weak. Pat Robertson, the evangelist who said Scotland was a "dark land" overrun by homosexuals, had, he said, once called him the anti-Christ. "I never use the full title," said Vidal. "I just put AC after my name. It would be rather vulgar to use the full title."
Homophobia, he reckoned, was just as bad today, if not worse, than it was in the late 1940s when he wrote The City And The Pillar, his groundbreaking, courageous novel about what Anais Nin described as "same-sexualists". Christianity, he felt, was the greatest disaster to befall the West. Why? "We did not need an oriental, absolutist, monotheistic religion which claimed total truth." In hotel rooms, he said, he always replaced the Gideon bible with a copy of his novel Live From Golgotha, which is his scabrous interpretation of the gospel. Death was much on his mind. "Go to heaven; what do I care. I want my tombstone to say: 'He wrote the perfect sentence' - and then not give it."
Thus spake the man who was always going to have the last laugh.
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