When I was writing my first novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, I wanted to create a villain who combined in himself all of the most intimidating qualities of every great American writer of the 20th century. He would be a world-famous author of not just novels but short stories, essays, dissident manifestos, plays, memoirs, screenplays; he would possess the high erudition of Saul Bellow, the self-regard of Vladimir Nabokov, the political yearnings and preening grandiosity of Norman Mailer, the corroding wit of Dorothy Parker, the charisma and physical attractiveness of a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the wary, war-tested bravado of Ernest Hemingway. After spending much of his life in Manhattan and Hollywood society, he’d flee from American culture and politics and exile himself in a small village in Italy. He would be a terrifying presence: a magniloquent, more than slightly mad, extremely charming monster. Then it dawned on me that such a person already existed, and his name was Gore Vidal.
His obituaries have emphasized his work as a critic, quoting his most memorable slights and sneers. (Truman Capote: “a much loved television performer”; Hemingway: “the great careerist” who is “our time’s most artful dodger”; Susan Sontag, whose “intelligence is ... greater than her talent.”) Vidal particularly despised writers whose legacies he felt were inflated by English professors, The New York Times Book Review, and other arbiters of conventional wisdom. But his approach is not to be confused with writers like Nabokov who, baiting publicity, made a pastime of disparaging celebrated writers. Vidal was persuasive because he read closely and with empathy, even when he despised his subject; and because he was a vocal champion for the unsung and passed over. He singlehandedly revived the legacies of Dawn Powell and, at least briefly, William Dean Howells, and introduced American readers to Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, and Yukio Mishima.
Publicly he was all haughtiness and chill, but later in life, in two memoirs—Palimpsest (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006)—he revealed an aspect of his character that, to his faithful readers, seemed shockingly alien. Vidal, it turned out, suffered from embarrassment, regret, and insecurity; he was mortal after all. And in passages devoted to his first, lost love, and Howard Austen, his platonic partner of five decades, he wrote beautifully about loss and death. Yes, he grew up as Washington royalty, lived like an emperor (closer to Caligula perhaps than Julius Caesar), and held forth as if from a mighty perch in the clouds above Olympus. But he also knew heartbreak. There is, as he mentioned in a brilliant 1973 essay on bestselling novels, a Russian phrase that describes this condition. It’s pronounced “goré vidal” and it means “he has seen grief.”