Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don't be macabre

Gore Vidal has finished the memoir he began in Palimpsest. Sort of. It has everything one usually expects from Gore: gossip about movie stars; arch and fastidious political invective from an insider, and, of course, his specialty: the epitaph. (Or at least various versions of antiquity; contemporary ones are frequently compromised, irrelevant, or beneath contempt.) The novel is dead. Theatre is dead. Television is dead. The American Republic is dead.

Reading Gore is like skimming People Magazine in an expensive, highback leather chair. You’re definitely getting away with something. You find out that Fellini was devoted to overdubbing. Paul Newman hurried past woman because he made them faint. Eleanor Roosevelt had an unrequited “Sapphic” passion for Amelia. Gore got Coppola hooked on wine. The right-wing Grace Kelly thought FDR and the New Deal silence her playwright uncle, and got out of movies when her makeup call was moved back earlier to allow them more time to work on her. Tennessee Williams could not write without a character for whom he did not feel sexual desire.

The price for all this dirt is that you have to put up with an occasional snark that implicates your own self, such as when Gore makes fun of someone who doesn’t know what “coeval” means (which, Dear Reader, I did not). So there’s a continual sense that you are reaching above your station. In fact, I can’t think of another contemporary who so adroitly manipulates class anxiety in the reader, though Gore certainly doesn’t claim to be populist or democratic. Like Robert Lowell, one intuits that he feels like he can criticize the monerati because he is of the monerati.

I’ve read criticism of Gore that his memoir neglects his private affairs (read: sex) in favor of pontifications or gently chiding the zeitgeist for getting it wrong on historical events. Maybe. Whether or not it is in good taste to describe liaisons or circumscribe a series of daguerreotypes of one’s personal disappointments, needs, and recriminations decade by decade, Gore certainly does reveal his obsessions, even obliquely. In this book, death sends up its freight of steam on the horizon. There’s a faint aftertaste in his rebuff of Tennessee Williams:

“Once in New York, when Tennessee and I had been prowling together one summer night, without success, he said, ‘Well, I guess that just leaves two of us.’ To which he claims I replied, ‘Don’t be macabre.’”

It hangs over his excavation of suppressed history:

“[Pope Pius XXII] was something of a faddist when it came to medicine. The ultimate fad proved to be his embalmment by what seems to have been an amateur taxidermist. As a result, while he lay in state in the basilica, he turned, according to viewer, ‘emerald green.’ Then, in response to the summer heat, he suddenly exploded. This was kept from the world for a long time until someone (a Jesuit)? passed on the information. It is reported that many sturdy Swiss guardsmen fainted during this holy combustion.”

And, it delivers the book’s most pitilessly clinical and certainly costly image (he has to repeatedly invoke both the authority and presence of a ghostly Montaigne to guide him through it) that he chooses to reveal about the death of his partner, Howard Auster:

“During the wait [for the ambulance], I pulled back the sheet for last look at those clear grey eyes—could they still see?—but the substance of the eyeballs had collapsed and two gelatinous streaks of the sort snails make had coursed down his cheeks.”

Easy to see why he admires Paul Bowles’ own summary of his raison detre: “A spy sent into life by the forces of death. His main objective is to get the information across the border, back into death. Then he can be given a mythic personality.” No wonder Gore’s intelligence about 20th Century personages has a clandestine feel.

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