Posts Tagged ‘Gore Vidal’

Breaking bad news to Gore Vidal

Friday, January 24th, 2014

In 2009 (Photo: David Shankbone)

Facebook posts rarely live longer than a butterfly or moth, but fortunately this one did –  it landed on the cyberspace pages of Truthdig.  Steve Wasserman, one of my favorite editors evah, first met the author Gore Vidal in Los Angeles, 1979, while Steve was working as an editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section:

We took an immediate liking to each other and he began writing for me, more I always thought out of a lifelong compulsion to irritate the New York Times, which he’d long been convinced had had it in for him, than for any particular affection for the Los Angeles Times. Over the years, he became something of an Auntie Mame figure for me, giving me pep talks at Patrick Terrail’s fashionable restaurant, Ma Maison, where we would sometimes meet for dinner, encouraging me to lead as wide and as fruitful a literary life as talent and ambition would permit. We saw each other from time to time at his Hollywood home on Outpost Drive, in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and once at New Year’s in Venice at the Hotel Palace Gritti, where he complained that Susan Sontag and he were the only American writers of any distinction that Bob Silvers would publish in the pages of the New York Review of Books.

Years later, I became editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Gore’s 1999 novel, The Smithsonian Institution, was about to be published. It was a modest entertainment, a satire in the manner of Duluth and Myra Breckinridge. I thought it an occasion to publish a lengthy consideration of Gore’s overall achievement as one of America’s foremost men of letters. Artwork suitable for using on the front page was commissioned and we chose a suitable reviewer.

Here’s the bad news: the reviewer thought the book sucked, big time.  How to break the news?  Or should he let Vidal read it over his morning coffee, just like everyone else?  Read the rest of the story, which was born on Facebook, here.

Gore Vidal’s “piety”

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

"a one-man great society"

That’s it.  I’m in love with Gore.

No, no, not that Gore.  Gore Vidal. I know, it’s sudden…  I was watching the interview I posted a few days ago.  It uncovered a Vidal I didn’t know existed.  He is moved almost to tears recalling Italo Calvino‘s death.  He, the disdainful mandarin, notorious for his literary fights and insults, humbly drops to one knee before someone he considers his better.  Didn’t know he had it in him:

“I have studied the landscape of literature all my life, and he was the only great writer of my time.”

“Let’s use a word that is often misused – universal.  Where Calvino was, there was literature. Like it or not.”  “He was it. He was the real thing.”

We don’t live in a great time for writers or writing, he said, “but Calvino was a one-man great society.”

“Calvino was there, everyone who knew about him admired him, read him, wrote about him.”

The interviewer, Riz Khan, asks Vidal what passed through his mind at Calvino’s funeral.  The author’s eyes seemed to mist up, as he answered: “When will there be another?  With Italo, I thought literature had died.”

“It was as if a great prince had died. The whole nation went into mourning,” he said in slow, emphatic syllables. “What American or Brit or Frenchman would have that audience in his own country today?”

Vidal was not, apparently, a great fan of the literature of Eastern Europe.  Otherwise, he would have recalled one funeral in 2004 where thousands lined the streets of Kraków.

Czesław Miłosz came to my mind for another reason.  I remembered speaking to the Polish poet about his friend and fellow laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and his description of what Miłosz called the Russian poet’s “piety.”  From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago:

There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.

For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.

Brodsky was very sensitive to the sacredness of being. Yes. That’s why I call him pious. I didn’t ask him if he believes in God – you felt in him that openness to the sacred.

“Piety.”  It’s an impressive quality.  And I thought of that as I listened to Vidal speak.  The sense of  “hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Khan asked Vidal what impressed him most about Calvino’s character.  Vidal, one short year before his demise, gazed straight ahead as if staring down death: “Truth.”

Watch the video for yourself, here.



Gore Vidal remembering Italo Calvino: “He was the only great writer of my time.”

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

Gore Vidal's magnificent Mediterranean digs – Calvino was a neighbor.

A few days ago I wrote about Italo Calvino.  I’ve so far neglected the death of Gore Vidal – so many have written so much already I didn’t feel I had anything substantive to add.

Since both writers have been on my mind, it was curious to see their names intertwined in a link (can’t even remember where) that revisited a New York Review of Books article, featuring Vidal’s 1985 recollection of Calvino’s burial in Italy – the two were, in fact, neighbors.

Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture. A literary critic, as opposed to theorist, wrote at length in Le Monde, while in Italy itself, each day for two weeks, bulletins from the hospital at Siena were published, and the whole country was suddenly united in its esteem not only for a great writer but for someone who reached not only primary school children through his collections of folk and fairy tales but, at one time or another, everyone else who reads.

He had first written about Calvino eleven years earlier, in an essay that included the passage: “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” The article caught Calvino’s attention, the two exchanged letters, and finally met.

En route to the burial sans ceremony at Castiglion della Pescáia, Vidal recalled:

As we drove north through the rain, I read Calvino’s last novel, Palomar. He had given it to me on November 28, 1983. I was chilled—and guilty—to read for the first time the inscription: “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use. What did this “last” mean? Latest? Or his last attempt to write about the phenomenal world? Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of “Learning to be dead,” the title of the book’s last chapter?

What greatness looks like.

What’s surprisingly moving in Vidal’s account is his obvious reverence for the Italian maestro, which assumes the usual form of embroidering a connection to make it more important, more real (“I hold Chichita’s hand a long moment,” he makes sure he tells us as he stands at the graveside with Calvino’s widow).  One would not have expected Vidal to expose himself that way, even inadvertently.  But humility is the sincerest and most difficult form of greatness.

That’s why it’s so dispiriting that Vidal’s fatal flaw persistently surfaces, the one that kept his own work from greatness: Vidal can’t resist the impulse to take an unnecessary and irrelevant swipe at those he holds in contempt, which is almost all of us.  For example, an almost random mention of meeting “the dread physical therapist Ms. Fonda Hayden,” which undermines the piece and should have met a sterner editorial pen.

He also laces his piece with taxonomies of middlebrow, highbrow, lowbrow, along with disdainful (and often unjust) comparisons of, for example, American ways with Continental ways – with the former always risible, provincial, gaffe-prone.  The inclusion of such remarks is predicated on the idea that we give a damn, and gives the impression that we earnestly seek his approval or want to be one of  the toffs.  We don’t. Where was the friend who could have told him these asides immeasurably weaken his writing?   

A more or less random example of passing insult:  “He wants us to see not only what he sees but what we may have missed by not looking with sufficient attention. It is no wonder that Galileo crops up in his writing. The received opinion of mankind over the centuries (which is what middlebrow is all about) was certain that the sun moved around the earth but to a divergent highbrow’s mind, Galileo’s or Calvino’s, it is plainly the other way around. Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day; Calvino used his imagination. Each either got it right; or assembled the data so that others could understand the phenomenon.

But I have seen “highbrows” hold remarkably conventional and conformist views, and I have encountered truly original and iconoclastic lowbrows.  So this isn’t a measure of anything except Vidal’s rather commonplace worship of “science.”

Here’s what Calvino does with related material, in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that preoccupied him in his final months, and eventually became Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

On the video below, Vidal says: “He was the only great writer of my time.”  This is a great video, thoroughly addictive.

Michael Krasny, a survivor – just like me!

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I finally met Michael Krasny, the genial presence behind KQED’s Forum – though we’d been Facebook friends for some time.  He was a kindly and  affable man – surprisingly humble and more friendly than I had anticipated.

From his 2007 memoir, Off Mike, I also learned that we have something in common:  In our greener years, we’d both interviewed Gore Vidal – and survived.  That’s not nothing.

I was a teenage Lois Lane for the Michigan Daily. It was usual for the editors at what was hailed as “the New York Times of student newspapers” to send us out last minute, without warning or preparation to interview grandees visiting Ann Arbor.

So I wound up being shoveled into a taxi with Vidal, knowing little more than that he was a famous author – indeed, his name was a household word at that time.  My memories of that event are captured somewhere in the bowels of microfilm records, but the memory is even less perishable.

Michael Krasny, on the other hand, was a young academic in 1976, and had done his homework thoroughly.  Here’s how he remembers the event:

“Heading into the interview, I was sure – both of us being literary types with left-wing politics – that we would become fast friends. I wanted to do a professional job and ask good, thoughtful, intelligent questions.  I read as much as I could on Vidal and reread early works of his like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar, as well as his newest novel at the time, Kalki.  More impressed by Vidal’s essays than his fiction, I still felt certain that the two of us would have much to talk about and would get on well.

When we met briefly before going to the television studio set to begin the interview, Vidal seemed world weary, as if afflicted with terminal weltschmerz, but more important, he smelled of liquor and his voice was thick with booze. …

Now the amazing thing about the interview was that once we were on the air, Vidal was “on” in a way that took me as much by surprise as his prior world-weariness, condescension and anti-Semitism.  The lights and cameras rolled, and he was a different man: he sounded sober and was all performer. I gave him a short but flattering introduction that I had memorized, mentioning that I was an English professor and that Vidal’s real name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. He quickly ripped into me for bringing up what he archly called “my Christian name,” adding that, unlike our born-again president, Jimmy Carter, he, Vidal, was a born-again atheist. …

Vidal was animated and electrified, palpably alive as he proceeded to skewer his favorite targets – The New York Times, Republicans, corporations, Reagan, Nixon, President Jimmy Carter.  Some of it was clever stuff, refined and caustic humor that I might have enjoyed were it not for the anti-Semitic cracks and the invective against English profs. …

As the interview moved into politics and I asked Vidal about his social concerns, another self emerged.  Vidal was suddenly benign, casting himself in the role of munificent socialist.  When the interview ended and the cameras were off, he once again became world-weary, cold and aloof, the man I had met before the interview, as sterile as I’d found his apocalyptic novel Kalki.”

Ah, I remember it well.  The weltschmerz, the condescension, the weight-of-the-world sighs, as he gazed outside the window of the taxi as we tooled through Ann Arbor to his speaking engagement (though he was thoroughly sober, to my knowledge).  I was, of course, thoroughly intimidated, in a way no prep would have alleviated, anyway.  Then, at the theater on campus, he spoke to a crowd of what appeared to be mostly well-heeled, well-dressed Republican women, and managed to offend them all in the course of 45 minutes.

Finally, during a question-and-answer period, with written questions submitted from the audience on tiny bits of paper, someone let him have it: he was conceited, overbearing, a snob with an ax to grind… well, you get the picture.  So did he.

“That’s right,” he admitted. “I only go out into the world to have all my biases and prejudices confirmed.”

“That’s what makes me different from all of you!”

It was a good line.  Even the Republican women laughed.

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

Writing is a life of poverty? Not.

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Waugh's digs at Piers Court, near Stinchcombe

For those of you entering this or that writing competition or perhaps applying for a grant, hoping to scrape together a few shekels so you can buy kitty litter – behold and weep!

Writing does not have to be a monastic dedication to a life of poverty – here are a few dwellings where famous writers had their desks and pencils.  Probably lots of other stuff as well – including maids, gardeners, and butlers.

Obviously, they mostly did not begin poor.  If one wants an independent income and a room of one’s own, it’s best to acquire them at birth.  (The old joke:  What does it take to make a small fortune as a writer?  Answer:  A large fortune.)

Vidal's domicile in Ravello, Italy

I’ve selected a few from Flavorwire’s 15 – based strictly on personal taste, the houses I would most love to live in.

Not surprisingly, Evelyn Waugh comes out tops with his home in Goucestershire.  Given my love of the English countryside and its stately homes – is this any surprise?

And for the winter break, I’ll take Gore Vidal‘s home on the Amalfi coast, just for the landscaping. It’s also known for handmade paper and plenty of limoncello. Pray for no earthquakes.

Where he lived in exile: Hugo

Perhaps it’s only a lifelong and slightly cheesy love for Jean Valjean that makes me hanker for Victor Hugo‘s “Hauteville House,” at 38 Rue Hauteville in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, where he lived during his exile from 1856 to 1870.  Hard to beat Guernsey for beautiful climate, and probably an improvement on Paris. This is the view from the garden, not the busy street. Thanks to the mild climate, the jardin is filled with trees and flowers.  Well, rather like Palo Alto.

We can’t leave without citing the ur-house, and the only one of the bunch that I’ve seen face to face:  William Shakespeare‘s house in Stratford.  Shakespeare, to his credit, did make his own money, in sometimes less-than-savory ways (he was accused of hoarding).

The Bard's stomping grounds

I’ve seen lots of writers’ homes – Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Elizabeth Bishop in Samambaia, Mikhail Bulgakov in Kiev, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, C.S. Lewis in Oxford, Robinson Jeffers in Carmel, Alexander Pushkin in Moscow and Odessa,Winston Churchill at Blenheim and Chartwell, Czeslaw Milosz in Kraków and Berkeley and Lithuania, even John Milton‘s humble digs in Chalfont St. Giles, a couple miles from where I lived on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Can’t say these top the preferred list – but they certainly stack up very well.  See the rest here.