Whenever Gide wrote or spoke about himself directly, which was not infrequently, he would insist that his wars within were to be traced to his very genes. His mother was Norman and Catholic, his father from the south and Protestant. He was of two races, Gide would say–two cultures, two traditions. And from this dicotyledon grew those contradictions that entwined everything he did and wrote: the constant traveler dependent upon domestic comforts, the sexual apostate without emotional attachments, the proper French bourgeois with leftist sympathies. Gide spent sixteen years writing and rewriting Corydon, his famously self-revelatory dialogues on homosexuality, before publishing them in 1924. “Je ne suis qu’un petit garçon qui s’amuse–double d’un pasteur protestant qui l’ennuie,” he wrote just prior to that long excursion: I’m merely a little boy amusing himself–paired with a Protestant minister who bores him. He was 37, and already grand.
Fairly or un-, usefully or reductively, I sometimes wonder if Gore Vidal isn’t our American Gide. They both arch their eyebrows, having found advantage in a distance of their own choosing. They both achieved a rare clarity in their best productions. Vidal wants us to think before we feel–as Gide did. He holds a razor to reality, not a mirror; so did Gide. A generation and a world or two apart, our petit garçon has waged many of the same wars as the maître. When it finally came out (as it were), Corydon made the middle-aged Gide a renegade in French intellectual circles. Vidal didn’t wait that long. He published The City and the Pillar, his self-exposing exploration of eros, when he was 22–and then assumed something of the same position in the land of the Puritans.
Vidal met Gide in 1948. The old man had his Nobel, the young one had just published City. In Palimpsest, Vidal’s 1995 memoir, he is snippy as to the extent this was the paying of court. But one senses he knew well he was meeting a writer who had traveled long miles on a path he had just started upon. Palimpsest offers an altogether fuller account of the encounter than Fred Kaplan renders in Gore Vidal, his new biography. That is true in other passages, too. But it is in Kaplan that all the pieces of the puzzle are at last assembled. Vidal is a dicot, too–dedicated from the womb onward to the achievement of wholeness out of parts. He told us this in Palimpsest. But the memoir begged the biography: It is Kaplan who lets us see the seed and the shoots, the leaves and flowers–and, alas, the weeds.
Vidal has given us many gifts. His gathered essays are nonpareil in postwar American letters. With Julian, published in 1964, he began to exploit the historical novel to an extent no one I can think of approaches. Then came the American series, which opened with Washington, D.C. and ended with–what else?–Hollywood. Amid these came Vidal’s “inventions,” as he calls them: from Myra Breckenridge in 1968 to the recent The Smithsonian Institution. Italo Calvino thought of these as hypernovels, “that new form which is taking shape in world literature.” In the land of Updike and Jane Smiley, one does not stray this far from the nineteenth century without risking opprobrium. Some of Vidal’s risks–too many, one could argue–have not come good. Praise be to him, though, for all the leaps he has attempted. In no artist’s work can the failures be subtracted from the triumphs.
It will be a better time than this, I think, when we finally understand all of what Vidal has been up to, or–better, perhaps–when we’re finally ready for him. For a half-century and counting, he has sought to stretch not just our our notions of sexuality but of humanity. Though he lives entirely a life in the present, neither time nor space nor fixed characters have interested Vidal as artistic constraints. In one dimension, he has run a one-man crusade against the sick, debilitating eternal present of which the American consciousness is made. The historical novels challenge us to find ourselves in the past–not exactly a popular notion to advance in the United States. In Julian and elsewhere afterward, we are confronted with what we lost of ourselves when we gave up the natural world and the ancient mysteries in favor of Christian morality and conquest. In the American books, we have no less than an alternative version of history, just as the inventions give us “alternative narratives.” Let us see ourselves as we are, stripped of encumbering myths, for clear sight comes first: It has never been an easy message to deliver, yet Vidal has never stopped urging it upon us.