Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal, 1925-2012

I guess this is no surprise: I knew that Vidal was in his eighties, that his health was failing, and when I saw a clip of a late TV appearance a couple of years ago, his mind wasn't as clear as it used to be.  (The photo above, taken a couple of years ago with Cindy Sheehan, startled me.)  But his death still took me by surprise for some reason.

I had my differences with Vidal, but I still think of him as one of my teachers, one of the people who taught me to think and to write.  I believe I read his queer novel The City and the Pillar before I read his 1970 takedown of David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but I could be wrong -- I probably read them at around the same time in my life.  I also remember skimming through Myra Breckinridge standing up in the public library, looking for the good parts -- could that have been in high school?  Myra was notorious on publication, so a closeted gay teen like me would have sought it out.  Not that it was any help at all, but it wasn't supposed to be.  His review of Reuben, on the other hand, was a big help, the first head-on demolition of antigay bigotry I'd ever read.  And it was funny, too.  (The opening of that article can be read here, though the whole thing is only available to subscribers.  And of course it can found in full in collections of Vidal's essays.)

Like a lot of people, I got more out of Vidal's essays than out of his fiction, though I eventually read everything he wrote.  It was the combination of all the information and ideas and gossip that he crammed into them, with his style and manner, that made the big impression on me.  As I wrote in my review of a book of selections from interviews with him, he's endlessly quotable.  I picked up from him the idea of reading a writer's work all the way through chronologically, and I often applied it to writers I'd learned about from his essays, such as Peacock and Calvino.

I learned that Vidal had died when a friend linked to this New York Times obituary this morning.  I don't know anything about the nonentity who wrote it, but it's a predictably catty job, with snipes at Vidal's politics:
Some of his political positions were similarly quarrelsome and provocative. Mr. Vidal was an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and once called Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, and his wife, the journalist Midge Decter, “Israeli Fifth Columnists.”
Sure, people who criticize Israel or the US are just trying to be "provocative."  The writer also says that "Mr. Vidal loved conspiracy theories of all sorts," and that "from his grandfather [Senator Thomas Gore], an America Firster, he probably also inherited his unwavering isolationist beliefs."  "Isolationist," I've noticed, is more often a term of abuse than an accurate description of people's political beliefs; but it wouldn't do to call Vidal's beliefs anti-imperialist.  Not in the Times, no indeed.  My favorite bit, though, is the summary of Myra Breckinridge as "a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery and turns into a woman."

And this is an interesting remark:
By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir “Palimpsest.”
Like many American military men, Vidal benefited from the sexual carnival that accompanied the mobilization of World War II, and from living in cities afterward.  A thousand "encounters" sounds like a lot, but I imagine that numerous heterosexual married couples have had as many by the age of 25 -- all of them with each other, however.  What the writer meant, as Vidal probably did, was the number of sexual partners Vidal had by that age.  Oh well, it's not as obnoxious as NPR's obituary of Howard Zinn.

P.S. The Times corrects itself.  Sort of.