Thu, Oct 29, 2015 - Page 11 News List

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

If your subjects are William Faulkner or Robert Frost, two writers Parini has tackled, you could make a case for interpretive digressions. But Vidal is not Frost. And he’s no Faulkner. When Parini writes “reviewers missed the anarchic energy of Duluth,” he does not, alas, make a compelling case for Duluth. Whether Vidal liked it or not, his most interesting literary legacy was his critical essays (of which he wrote scores), and his most interesting creation, his own self. But only in the last quarter of this biography, when there are fewer works to summarize and trans-Atlantic trips to report, does an unobstructed portrait of this charismatic, complicated narcissist start to emerge.

Until then, the book reads like a catalog: of works written, of real estate bought and sold, of parties attended and company kept (Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Claire Bloom, Clive James, Federico Fellini, Anais Nin…the list is endless). Which is strange, frankly. You don’t need a great deal of descriptive power to bring Vidal or his world to life. Yet Parini has awfully tin eardrums, especially for a novelist, often quoting Vidal to staggeringly bland effect. “I liked to walk around in New York and try to imagine what would be there in earlier decades, even centuries,” he has him saying about his book 1876.

Parini is plainly too awed by his friend. He may also be too gracious to give Vidal the interrogation he deserves; Parini is as humble as his subject is bombastic. And this generosity has payoffs. He shows great empathy for Vidal’s inability to come fully to terms with his homosexuality, for which he was forever finding linguistic sleights of hand to explain. He conveys what a toll it took on Vidal to have such a self-involved, alcoholic mother — two traits her son would recapitulate, sadly — and makes clear that Vidal, in some basic sense, was a puppet of his own aggression, sublimated not just in sex and literary feuds, but in an almost frenetic careerism, a desperation to be in “the Swirl” at all times. His description of Vidal in decline is beautiful and unbearably sad: The scene of an imperious Vidal breaking down as he listens to a recording of Howard Austen, now dead, singing Hello Young Lovers is one I will not forget.

Though Parini says he didn’t want to write a memoir of his friendship with Vidal, it’s when he does so that Empire of Self is at its finest. This is what Michael Mewshaw did in Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship With Gore Vidal, published in January, and readers had a savory sense of Vidal within 20 pages. In this latest book, it takes far longer, and it’s only on the penultimate page that you find a clue as to why: Vidal had at one point asked Parini to be his literary executor. When Vidal died, Parini says he was relieved to discover that this burdensome task had not been left to him. “The problem,” he writes, “was that nobody assumed this role.” But in this book he essentially did.

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