Most of all there is Jimmie Trimble, Vidal's first, lost love. Trimble died at Iwo Jima--and has lived on in Vidal ever since. We met him in City and again in Two Sisters, Vidal's 1970 "memoir in the form of a novel." But it wasn't until Palimpsest that Vidal revealed the primacy of this, "the unfinished business of my life." Kaplan calls Palimpsest "a nonintrospective memoir without a center of consciousness." I couldn't agree less. The Trimble material was a revelation; the rest of the book is draped around it.
"Finally, I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared but a love story, as circular in shape as desire (and pursuit)." That's Vidal finishing his memoir. Can it be coincidence that Trimble reappears in Smithsonian, Vidal's first work after it? Is his lifelong grief unrelated to the cold eye he came to cast on love, art and much else? These are legitimate questions, and Vidal invites them. "It was the key to everything," he wrote of his attachment. "You only see the pattern afterward."
For the first 74 years of Vidal's life it is afterward now, and Kaplan helps us see the pattern. And so far as warring factions go, Gide has nothing on our man: Northern, aristocratic and Catholic on the father's side, Southern, populist and Protestant on the side of a true mommy dearest. Emerging from this is the man of privilege, charm, intelligence, looks. They were all Vidal's in generous measure. But so long as we understand these simply as gifts, we do not understand. Among the great conflicts in Vidal's life was that fought between the public figure and the private man. And here, just as one supected, the blessings were mixed. It's tempting to conclude that Vidal had too easy a time moving in and out of early television, Broadway, Hollywood, the talk shows and Democratic Party politics. Amid it all came the I'm-number-one literary wars, often fought in public, and an all-too-American addiction to "success." Surely Vidal risked living an elegant chronicle of wasted time. He started out wanting to be either President or a writer. Only when he made his choice--in the early sixties, after a failed Congressional bid--did he reach the clearing in his woods. His first book to follow was Julian, one of his best. Thereafter, the public man tended to follow the artist, and the politics went into the writing--and in this dimension, at least, Vidal made himself something like whole.
Kaplan manages all this in an unexpected way. Unexpected, at least, given that he's a scholar with lives of Carlyle, Dickens and Henry James behind him. (Even among the dead, Vidal has a gift for good company.) Gore Vidal is weak on literary judgments and analysis. It rests, instead, on Kaplan's assiduous, hands-off accretion of the facts. "There's no end to your thoroughness," Vidal tells his Boswell at one point. That's for sure. I like the detail; the density is necessary, by and large. Yet, with apologies to the late Miao, I could do without an account of the passing of Vidal's cat in Ravello, her home on the Italian coast. And Kaplan takes us down numerous such narrow paths. On the other hand, he is describing, more than anything else, the evolution of an artistic consciousness. Dolly-in is the correct camera direction. And in any event, the detail is all we've got.
This means we're free to form our own thoughts on Kaplan's complex subject. And we're thrown back on the essays and novels, which is no bad thing. To speculate briefly, maybe Kaplan intends this as a companion volume. Maybe he thought he covered the literary side in The Essential Gore Vidal, which he edited and brought out earlier this year. And he does tell us, in his first sentence, just what he told Vidal as he began his work: "I prefer my subjects dead." Perhaps this is why Gore Vidal is a book of dots without the connecting lines. Kaplan's legwork is everywhere evident. He knows the books and has interviewed thoroughly--though he sometimes seems a touch too willing to take Vidal's word for things. It works, for the most part. But one would've liked more. The Trimble stuff is simply too important to be treated this way. So are the threads between the works.
Kaplan is also one of those writers who manage to put it all down in monotone. In 850 pages, the voice rarely modulates. He describes swims in the Hudson and casual encounters with the same intensity he applies to the writing of the biggest books. I would've liked more drum roll, for instance, as Vidal composes his first essay. (His first for this magazine was published in April 1950, believe it or not.) On a winter's night in 1962, Vidal climbs Delphi. At the Temple of Apollo he has a moment of almost mystical clarity that will resonate through his work for many years. This gets a paragraph--a good paragraph--but the next one begins, "In Rome he saw familiar faces...." After a time, the effect is something like "If this is Tuesday it must be...." One suspects that haste may have been a factor here--in the writing, not the research. And haste is almost always a blight--as Vidal's work, here and there, shows too well.
One other point in this vein is technical, having to do with craft. Time and again when Kaplan is in the early years, for which sources can be scant, he draws from the novels to depict actual people and events. He uses a passage in The Season of Comfort, Vidal's fourth novel, to describe Vidal's birth. He relies on "fictional surrogates" from the same novel to describe Vidal's life at school, summer camp and a ranch out West. This is simply not acceptable--not even once. Yes, a character may be recognizably drawn from life. But the thoughts, feelings and acts assigned to him in a novel may or may not correspond; they are certainly not admissible as biographical evidence. This is freshman lit crit, it seems to me, though the problem arises with startling frequency among literary biographers. It jars here because it suggests that Kaplan may not understand the transformation at the heart of the fiction-making process. And that can't be so. It's a strange error for one of Kaplan's stature. It would be as much to surmise that Giacometti preferred the company of tall, thin people.
At this point I suppose I ought to add the usual "But these are quibbles." But I'm not going to flip Kaplan that dime. He's too rich in talent to need it. I value this book; it's a strenuous, professional effort, and it can't have been easy. But the lapses mar its veneer, and they are the more regrettable for the knowledge that this is, safe to say, all we're going to get for a good long while in the way of full-dress biographies of our petit garçon, our cher maître.