Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Where Gore Vidal's ice melted

I knew next to nothing about Gore Vidal's personal life or public persona before I read his Times obit today. One passage in the obit jumped out at me, though, because I'd like to believe it wasn't true -- or at least, was true only in some senses. Here it is:
Television was a natural medium for Mr. Vidal, who in person was often as cool and detached as he was in his prose. “Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Vidal wrote three of the best historical novels I know: Julian, Burr, and Lincoln.  For all his purported worldliness and cynicism about politics and human nature, he seems to me to have been devoted to a project that Dostoevsky set himself (as I recall reading long ago...) in The Idiot, a project that absorbs a lot of writers*: to portray the perfect man.  Or at least a man courageous, generous and brilliant, navigate though he may through a den of thieves and fools.  It's no accident that these three books are titled simply by their heroes' surnames. The hero's decency is usually offset by the jaded perspective of a more flawed narrator (though not in Lincoln). But that enhances rather than diminishes the hero. The pattern more or less holds in 1876, though here the hero, Samuel Tilden, who like Al Gore won the popular presidential vote but submitted to having the election stolen, is more flawed (perhaps that's why he doesn't give the book his name).

Vidal's Burr is something of an antihero, in that he all but completely opts out of the founding fathers' purported political ideals. But brave and brilliant and capable of love he is.  Julian, the military genius of an emperor who tried to roll back the Christianization of the Roman empire two generations after his grandfather Constantine, is viewed largely through the caustic eye of a court philosopher (literally a cynic) who could have run a modern presidential campaign. But his (doomed and slightly goofy) idealism, generosity and concern for the public welfare are shown off in all the sharper relief for that.  As for wife, the best-hearted person I know, adores it, rereads it every year or two, so strongly does it bring that singularly kindly, compassionate and functionally ruthless leader to life -- in this case, with very little offsetting irony. If Gore did not love Lincoln as well as my wife does, I don't think she'd draw such nourishment from his work.

The novelist John Gardner, acknowledging the vast range of dysfunction in the lives of writers, affirmed that in some cases (to paraphrase again from memory) the writer may be a better person when writing than when not. Perhaps it was so with Vidal. 

* I recall reading an essay by Ursula Le Guin voicing the cliche that novelists should portray real people with all their flaws and thinking, nah. She too is all about limning the ideal man (or maybe woman in later work).

No comments:

Post a Comment