“No one wants to be extinct,” Gore Vidal writes in this second memoir of his life as a star of several sorts: novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, actor, political candidate, political gadfly and celebrity among celebrities. It’s clear that Vidal enjoys his fame, but perhaps not quite as much as what it allows him to say about other famous people. Tony Blair appears in Point to Point Navigation “looking smaller than life,” offering “intricately banal” answers to journalists’ questions. Johnny Carson, on the other hand, “was better looking than he looked” (because “clowning distorts regular features and his were most regular”). Federico Fellini “was a droll and inventive liar” and his “least favorite word” was “why.” Vidal can never quite remember what his family relation to Al Gore is, “even though his father, a Tennessee senator, once explained it to me on television in San Francisco”; but he does manage this handsome tribute to Princess Margaret, the sister of the Queen of England: “She was stoic; nothing to be done but one can note her kindness to friends, to those employees whose pensions she paid out of fairly meager resources, not to mention her steadfast loyalty to a system that never in the end did as much for her as she sacrificed for it.”
Extinct. Most of us are too worried about dying alone to wonder whether the species will go with us, and there seems to be a certain delusion of grandeur in even thinking along these lines. “How odd it must be not to be the self you have spent a lifetime perfecting. To vanish like Prospero into thin air, leaving behind pale understudies but no replacement.” It’s even odder perhaps to think of the self as perfect, but Vidal knows what he is saying. First, because if, as he says, “death is literally unimaginable,” the world without us is also impossible to picture. What is it? “An empty room where one is not?” And second, because you can, it seems, survive your own species, or one of them. This book has scarcely begun before Vidal is telling us he “recently…observed to a passing tape recorder” that he was “once a famous novelist.” The tape recorder makes reassuring noises about Vidal’s continuing renown, but being a machine, it doesn’t really get it. What Vidal means is not that he used to be famous but that the category “famous novelist” used to exist and is no more. “Thirty years ago, novels were actually read and discussed by those who did not write them, or, indeed, even read them.” Or even read them. That’s what fame is: to be known by people who don’t know you. On the same page Vidal reports that when an interviewer asks him what Marilyn Monroe was really like, he doesn’t hesitate to spill the purely supposititious beans. “As I barely knew her, I tell him.”
“I have…never been my own subject,” Vidal says early in this memoir. Can this be true? Surely no man ever so loved the sound of his own opinions. Here he tells us yet again that he calls his country the United States of Amnesia, that his definition of commercialism is “the ability to do well what ought not to be done at all,” and that “Yes: I did say Always a godfather, never a god.” But opinions of course are not a life, and epigrams are not confessions. Even that perfected self turns out on inspection to be a series of masks, a range of “apparently conflicting identities.” Vidal’s two memoirs–Palimpsest was published in 1995–are about where he has been and what he has observed, not about who he is or why he isn’t someone else. He is not his own subject except obliquely, and his deepest sorrows are registered through the behavior of others. At the death of Howard Austen, Vidal’s partner of fifty-three years, the nurse weeps, and Vidal tells us simply, “I envied him–the WASP glacier had closed over my head.” Of course, the glacier doesn’t exclude emotion; it is a way of dealing with emotion, just as “heavy sleep,” Vidal says, is his “natural response to the unbearable.” But Austen’s death, quite properly, is Austen’s own, and the writing here manages to be both intimate and stately:
Near the end he asked me, “How old am I?” I told him he was seventy-four. He frowned. “That’s when people die, isn’t it?” I said that I hadn’t and so far he hadn’t. I was sitting beside his armchair looking out over the tile roof opposite. For a moment he looked puzzled; then he said, “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?” Of course it had. We had been too happy.
Vidal recently turned 81, an age at which anyone’s life can seem full of the dying of others. He wonders at one moment whether he should call the book Between Obituaries. “Those of us whose careers began in the twentieth century are now rapidly fleeing the twenty-first, with good reason.” Of course, we can flee without a reason, or with no better reason than mortality, but the sarcastic flick at the end of the sentence is Vidal’s stylistic signature. It’s there in his account of his actual title too. Point-to-point navigation is sailing among memorized landmarks when climatic conditions are too bad for you to chart a course, or when, as Vidal says, you have “a compass made inoperable by weather.” The weather he has in mind is primarily political and historical: “All times are bad but some times are worse than others. This is one for our country.” He is writing in “the awful year 2005” and carefully keeping track: “It is now April 2005”; “now it is September 2005.” One of the (I imagine rather few) advantages of surviving your species is that you get to have the last word, “which is something,” as Vidal says at the end of his novel The Golden Age (2000). Here in the memoir he has a lurid finale borrowed from Pope’s Dunciad:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,
And universal Darkness buries all.
Vidal memorized these lines, and the ones that precede them, as a schoolboy at the Phillips Exeter Academy. Asked by a classmate why he bothered to learn the passage, he said, “Because it’s bound to be apt one of these days.” “And so it is today,” he concludes, “January 1, 2006.”
But it’s not just the times that render the conventional compass inoperable. “Nonlinear lives make for awkward biographies,” Vidal writes, and they make for rather rambling memoirs. If you are determined not to (or are perhaps unable to) explore or explain yourself, you can only shift among the points your memory or your current reflections tell you are interesting. This is bound to be an erratic affair for anyone. Vidal is funny about Garbo (“very rich and somewhat lazy”), Francis Ford Coppola (who asks Vidal, “Didn’t you used to be older than me?”) and the Warner Bros. studio (“known for its love of such traditions as the annual Christmas layoff”); but he is less compelling about the letters he gets or the books written about him or the movie he saw last night. Being a considerable wit does not, alas, always prevent you from being an old codger.
Palimpsest notionally took Vidal, or his memories and anecdotes, from 1925 to 1964, and Point to Point Navigation just as notionally continues the story to the present day. But both titles give us fair warning. Time is going to fold over in these narratives, and in the second volume Vidal is still getting born, complete with shepherds and wise men and at least the chance of a Greek god in the offing: “Contrary to legend, I was born of mortal woman, and if Zeus sired me, there is no record on file in the Cadet Hospital at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.” The mortal woman gets short shrift in this volume, as she did in the earlier one (“at the end it was as if we had never known each other”). She did die within the purview of this book, though, in 1978, and she bequeathed her son at least one immortal line. When asked why she didn’t marry a fourth time she said, “My first husband had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck.” Vidal is more sympathetic to his father, or to the person who took Zeus’s place in the records, and he doesn’t need to insist on how much Gene Vidal’s illness and death (in 1969) mattered to him. Gene was an aviator and a founder of airlines, and somewhere between his father’s sky and his grandfather’s Senate, the young Vidal found his America. Even here, however, a refreshing sarcasm steals the sentence and tints the romance: “I did know that senators spent their days in the Senate chamber passing bills–dollar bills, I thought–from one to another, by no means an entirely surreal image.”
Meanwhile, back in 1964, Vidal still has things to do, books to write, places to go. Myra Breckinridge lies, or rolls, in the future, and so do all seven of the novels composing his American Chronicles series (a k a Narratives of Empire). The New York Review of Books–where Vidal says he seems at one time “to have published an essay a week,” an excellent rate for a paper that comes out twice a month–is only one year old. Vidal sells his house on the Hudson in 1969 and moves to Italy; then much later to the Hollywood Hills, or “cancer valley, as I think of California.” To his own distaste he becomes much better known as an essayist than a novelist, and his political writing takes off. Always a little erratic in its targets, it is deeply consistent in its theme. The Republic has been betrayed, is always being betrayed, but we are not to give up hope. Even the weariest of Vidal’s tropes on this subject has remnants of energetic interest. It’s not that his theory of the Kennedy assassination (“Thus was the murder of JFK ordered and carried out by the same team that his brother was assembling to murder Castro”) is all that new or so well represents “classic irony and on the bloodiest scale.” It’s that his idea of “the great fiction” of American political life is so thoroughly sound. The fiction is that “anything truly wicked, at least in the murder line, must be the work of a sole solitary ‘nut’ who is simply Evil.” The implication is not that we should believe in the reality of every conspiracy or even of most conspiracies, but that a culture professing never to believe in any conspiracy is lost in the dark, or, worse, so busy conspiring it has to deny the very conditions of its own existence.
Vidal quotes Paul Bowles as saying a writer is “a spy sent into life by the forces of death,” and thinks this is “a splendid metaphor” for Bowles’s writing “at its best.” What is attractive about Vidal’s writing, and what keeps us reading it in spite of its dips and wanderings, is its brave and continuous affirmation that there are no forces of death. Death is just the end of what matters, a strange occlusion: “Of all the facts of life, death is the oddest.” Odd because unreal, and therefore irrelevant, at least for the person who is doing the dying. In this memoir Vidal continues to spy on life from life’s point of view.