Gore Vidal would have scorned the paeans of praise to his memory, but is anyone worthy to take up his mantle, asks Dani Garavelli
GORE Vidal had no time for the platitudes death ushers in for even the least deserving. When Truman Capote, a man he loathed “the way you might loathe a small animal”, died at the age of 59, he described it as “a good career move”. E M Forster’s death he greeted with the observation: “I guess we’ve all moved one rung higher up the ladder.” But his greatest savagery was reserved for William F Buckley, who in an infamous televised debate responded to Vidal’s description of him as a crypto-Nazi by calling him a “queer”. “RIP WFB – in hell,” he wrote as Buckley’s obituary.
Sardonic, acerbic and a committed iconoclast, Vidal might have been bemused – offended even – by the reverence with which his own passing has been treated. Yes, there have been passing references to his more dubious character traits; his suspected anti-Semitism, his irascibility, his ability to bear grudges up to and beyond the grave.
There has been mention too of his decline; his claim that the US administration was probably “in” on 9/11 and his advocacy of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh did much to discredit him.
But last week’s tributes focused by and large on his heyday; that time in the Sixties and Seventies when a group of male authors – Vidal, Capote, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow – took on the status of gods. Capitalising on the power of television, they flaunted their intellectualism. With their off-the-cuff aphorisms and love of a good fight, they revelled in the kind of celebrity now reserved for rock stars.
Of the group, Vidal was the most verbally agile; his novels – though entertaining – are widely regarded as overblown, but his essays provided a savage critique of American society. Using words as “high-precision weapons”, he also inflicted lasting wounds on his personal adversaries. Of Edmund White, he once said: “He likes to attack his betters, which means he has a big field to go after.” The three saddest words in the English language, he opined, were “Joyce Carol Oates”.
Born into the heart of the US establishment – his father was the first aeronautics instructor at West Point, the US Military Academy, his mother an actress and socialite – he took no prisoners. Every US president from J F K onwards was a target for his lacerating wit. Ronald Reagan was “a triumph of the embalmer’s art”, George Bush, “the stupidest man in America”.
The acuity with which Vidal observed the world around him has led him to be presented as a worthy successor to the likes of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. But though most tributes imply he influenced a generation of writers, few have explored the likely pretenders to his throne.
This is surprising, as Vidal was keen to have an heir. So much so, that in the Nineties – by then living in Ravello in southern Italy – he wrote to writer, broadcaster and polemicist Christopher Hitchens appointing him his “delphino”, in other words his “dauphin” or successor. At first Hitchens was flattered; but ultimately the relationship ended like so many of Vidal’s; in a vortex of hostility, contempt and traded insults.
Hitchens lost faith with the writer after 9/11 and publicly rejected his advances. Vidal for his part returned the compliment with his trademark cattiness: “You know, he [Hitchens] identified himself for many years as the heir to me. And unfortunately for him, I didn’t die,” he said.
Now both are dead within eight months of each other. So who can take on Vidal’s mantle? Those writers – Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion among them – who founded “new journalism” and have established themselves as the pre-eminent literary chroniclers of US life, are too old (and not interested enough in self-promotion) to be his torch-bearers. Others, such as Robert Harris and Ferdinand Mount, whose social and political connections have given them exceptional insight, write well about the life at the heart of the establishment, but they’re not prone to making the kind of shocking observations that kept Vidal in the public eye.
Of course, there are plenty of social satirists out there: Clive James; P J O’Rourke, perhaps David Sedaris, who are more than capable of coming up with original and incisive observations about American society. And for prominent iconoclasts one might look no further than film-maker Michael Moore – who, like Vidal – has never been scared to challenge those in power, taking a potshot at George Bush, while accepting an Oscar for Bowling For Columbine.
Or what about contrarian and polemicist, Niall Ferguson, whose book Colossus presents the US as an empire with attention deficit disorder, imposing ever more unrealistic timescales on overseas interventions? Are any of these controversialists capable of filling Vidal’s shoes?
The problem when trying to identify a potential successor to Vidal is trying to establish exactly what he was.
A self-taught polymath and scion of a political family (his maternal grandfather was a senator), his politics were left-wing and isolationist and he opposed the US’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet however radical his ideas, he thought of himself as a conservative. He twice stood for election as a Democrat, yet in the 1970s, he wrote: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” On one level he wanted to be accepted, to be given his rightful place in US cultural and political history. On another, he didn’t care what people thought. He believed most human beings were bisexual and was unwilling to compromise his views to court public approval. His 1948 novel, The City And The Pillar, a dispassionate account of a homosexual relationship, saw his following five novels boycotted by an appalled New York Times.
Vidal was simultaneously, a consummate name-dropper and a despiser of the names he was dropping. He loved to tell people about his connection to the Kennedys (his mother married Hugh D Auchincloss Jr, who later became stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier), but his essay The Holy Family ripped Camelot to shreds. He lamented the dumbing down of popular culture but embraced television as the platform which could give him the highest profile. A bundle of contradictions, his most insightful self-assessment came when he said: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag.”
For others, however, the most appropriate word for him was a gadfly; he was a contrarian, an irritant, someone who loved to cut down his contemporaries and those in power. Social satirists such as James, O’Rourke and Sedaris – with their erudite, sometimes scathing, observations can challenge the hegemony and make us look at the world in a different way, but they cannot match Vidal for bitterness and loathing.
And Moore who is constantly spoiling for a fight – and whose greatest flaw is arguably his inability to marshal his anger artistically – may be Vidal’s equal as a political irritant, but, he lacks Vidal’s insider status and his linguistic finesse.
So what of Niall Ferguson? As a neo-conservative and pro-colonialist – a backer of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and a believer that the US’s problem is that it lacks the stamina for successful empire-building, he may not seen an obvious contender.
But over the past few years the historian – who attended Glasgow Academy, gained a first from Oxford University and became Tisch professor of history at Harvard University eight years ago – has transformed himself into the A J P Taylor of his generation.
Lauded by his peers for the intellectual rigour of his books and named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004, he has demonstrated an increasing desire to be a celebrity, presenting five TV series including the Emmy-winning Ascent Of Money, and writing a weekly column for Newsweek.
And just as Vidal saw himself as America’s biographer, Ferguson is currently working on a book on the life of Henry Kissinger.
“He’s become a professional controversialist and he’s jolly good at it,” journalist and historian Max Hastings said recently. Ferguson recently became embroiled in a public spat with economist Paul Krugman, who criticised to him as a “poseur” who “hasn’t bothered to understand the basics, relying on snide comments and surface cleverness to convey the impression of wisdom”. Ferguson, in turn, branded his rival “patronising” and “ a whiner”.
Ferguson is also happy to cause offence – such as when he compared Barack Obama to Felix the cat (“not only was Felix black, he was very, very lucky”).
But ultimately, Ferguson lacks Vidal’s wit, pithiness and mastery of the killer putdown. For Michael Wolff, contributing editor on Vanity Fair, any attempt to come up with a successor is doomed to failure. “You have to understand that Vidal emerged at an interesting moment in America in the Sixties and the Seventies when TV was so strong you went on and you were guaranteed an audience of 40 or 50 million people. If you were a writer and had that kind of audience then you were suddenly elevated to something that writers had never been in the past and will never be in the future,” says Wolff.
At the same time – some would argue – serious literature is no longer accorded the same place in popular culture, and a boom in fiction means there is more competition for attention. “There are polemicists contributing to the discussion – and some of them are as interesting as Gore Vidal ever was – but they won’t ever get that same level of exposure,” says Wolff.
Despite a proliferation of contemporary gadflies, it seems, Vidal was the last of a breed of writers whose literary genius, gift for self-promotion and unerring ability to come up with a memorable soundbite turned them into stars. There are those – including Wolff I suspect – who would say that’s no bad thing; that Vidal’s ability was undermined by a mean streak and a tendency towards bigotry.
But judging by the onslaught of Twitter tributes – from people as disparate as Martha Lane Fox and Courtney Love – there are many more who believe the world will be the blander for his absence.
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