Monday, November 06, 2006

I love Gore Vidal

(when I was a teenager in particular he was the third in a trinity that included Anthony Burgess and John Fowles, I think my particular favorites of his novels were Julian and Lincoln but his sensibility and technique and personal history taken together are just remarkably appealing); however it seems as if this time round he's written a singularly bad book. The verdict seems to be that rather than reading this second installment of memoirs we should go back and reread the wonderful Palimpsest instead.

At any rate, on the grounds that non-gratuitously scathing reviews are sometimes edifying and often amusing, here's Adam Kirsch writing in the New York Sun (shades of my recent lectures on Fielding and crypto-aristocratic posturing--thanks to Nico for spotting it):

. . . the sheer number of Mr. Vidal's famous acquaintances comes to seem less remarkable than the fact that he has never known anyone who is not famous. "It seems that practically everyone that I have ever met is now the subject of at least one biography," he wrote in "Palimpsest," leaving the reader to wonder what sort of person would contrive such a glamorously restricted life. The one great exception to the rule was Mr. Vidal's lifelong companion, Howard Auster, whose death from lung cancer evokes the only moving passages in "Point to Point Navigation."

Yet here, as in "Palimpsest," Mr. Vidal tells us next to nothing about Auster's personality or their relationship, except to repeat, airily and rather brutally, that it was entirely asexual. Only his allusions to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," a far better book about mourning a spouse, suggest that he understands how much more deeply this subject could, and should, have been treated. Mr. Vidal has always revelled in the aristocrat's pose of cool detachment; by allowing that pose to freeze into indifference, "Point to Point Navigation" reminds us why almost all great writers have come from the middle class.

And here's James Marcus at the LA Times (quoting these last paragraphs out of context makes it sound outrageously scathing, but it's the more humane and perceptive review of the two, I think--in both cases you see the reviewer torn between sympathy and impatience, interesting phenomenon...):

. . . Vidal's imagination has always operated most vividly upon the past. Einfühlen is the word he has used, borrowing it from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. In a 1999 interview, Vidal defined it as "an ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people you know dressed up in funny clothes." The present, especially in his fiction, sometimes hobbled him. The past — the pageant in the rearview mirror — gave free rein to his archeological brand of empathy with compulsively readable results.

But not, alas, this time. Despite some exquisite passages and frisky prose, "Point to Point Navigation" betrays a diminishing attention span. There are sentences so sloppy that I never would have attributed them to a spit-and-polish stylist like Vidal. There are clanging redundancies, including entire paragraphs lifted almost directly from "Palimpsest." Nor can he resist kicking his biographer, Fred Kaplan, in the shins whenever the impulse seizes him.

That's not the worst of it. It's bad enough when the author turns over the microphone to a pair of his academic exegetes — one of whom helpfully informs us that Vidal "exploits the congruencies among critiques of genetic, genital, and technological determinism." (Help!) But when one of our greatest living critics reprints a Publishers Weekly précis of a book rather than summarizing it himself, it's really time to throw in the towel. Shame on the publisher for wheeling this subpar product into the marketplace.

As for the 81-year-old Vidal, I hope he'll sail on to his centennial and beyond — and that he'll go out on a more distinguished note than this one. He certainly has earned it.

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