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Book review: Cataloging, more than clarifying Gore Vidal

Jay Parini, in his authorized biography, wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose

By Jennifer Senior  /  NY Times News Service

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore VidaL (Illustrated), by Jay Parini

By virtually any metric, Gore Vidal was a difficult man. He had a skyscraping ego. On a clear day, you could see his grudges forever. He had an almost fathomless capacity for envy; he could be gratuitously cruel even to friends; a vein of paranoia pulsed through his politics.

Yet as Christopher Hitchens noted — in an essay that praised him before burying him — Vidal was as close a figure to Oscar Wilde as America has ever had. He spoke in perfect epigrams, devoting his versatile intellect to matters high and low, and he lived his life in defiance of bourgeois sexual norms. For decades, he was one of the country’s most visible liberal intellectuals, although he and his partner, Howard Austen, spent years living abroad.

You have to pity Jay Parini, author of the dutiful Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal who was no doubt besieged with questions about why on earth he was bothering to chronicle the life of a man who spoke so ably for himself. Vidal wrote not just one but two autobiographies, ran twice for public office, and practically took up residence on television for a while, in settings both relaxed and fraught. (Johnny Carson adored him; William F Buckley Jr. famously threatened to slug him.) Then again, Parini, himself an accomplished poet, novelist and biographer, was a longtime friend of Vidal’s, and to sustain such a relationship must have required a high threshold for suffering. Once, Parini writes, he asked Vidal whether it would be okay for two characters in his novel-in-progress to spend 20 or 30 pages discussing Kierkegaard. Vidal winced. “Of course you can do that,” he said. “Even 40 pages. But only if your characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there’s a bomb under the seat.”

Publication Notes

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore VidaL (Illustrated)

By Jay Parini

464 Pages


Hardback: US

Parini assures his readers that his book is not a memoir of friendship, but a straight up biography, “the story of Gore Vidal’s extraordinary life and writing.” Had this book only been longer on his life and shorter on his writing. Vidal was stunningly — his critics would argue incontinently — prolific, writing more than two dozen novels, as well as dramas, screenplays and television scripts. Some were pathbreaking for their radical sexual politics, like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar; some of his Narratives of Empire, like Burr and Lincoln, have withstood the test of time.

But much of his fiction has faded from view. Even when Vidal was alive — he died in 2012 at 86 — he complained that he never got the literary credit he deserved, and his peers were keenly aware of it. “I guess Gore left the country because he felt under-appreciated here,” Truman Capote said of Vidal, whom he visited in Rome. “I have news for him: People who actually read his books will under-appreciate him everywhere.” (When Capote died, Vidal had this to say in return: “It was a wise career move.”)

In Empire of Self, Vidal finally gets what he wished for: To be taken seriously as a novelist. Unfortunately, what this means for the reader is that Parini fills page after page with plot summaries of Vidal’s work — even the pulp he penned under the names of Edgar Box and Katherine Everard, even the novels available only on Amazon Marketplace. Any literary biography runs this risk — you can’t see the artist for the precis — but here, this tic is especially pronounced, to the point that the biography feels like an exercise in slaloming through SparkNotes.

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