'Empire of Self': a wonderful, moving biography of Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal accomplished more in a typical decade than most people do in a lifetime.

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal By Jay Parini Doubleday 480 pp.

Anecdotes about the inimitable novelist and essayist Gore Vidal generally include at least two of the following: exorbitant alcohol consumption, multiple celebrities, outrageous behavior, and barbed witticisms. After fellow novelist Norman Mailer punched Vidal in the face at a party in Manhattan in the late 1970s, Gore responded with a concise restatement of precisely the sort of critique that had so enraged Mailer: “Norman, once again words have failed you.”

This is only one of many similar stories in Empire of Self, a wonderful and moving new biography of Gore Vidal by his longtime friend Jay Parini, an accomplished novelist and critic himself. When Parini quotes Vidal telling these anecdotes, Vidal inevitably depicts himself as a hero, the center of a swirling and star-studded galaxy that revolved around his legendary wit. When Parini relies on his own memory or another source, however, the perspective sometimes shifts in interesting ways.

Parini recalls, for instance, a dinner in the 1990s at which Vidal drank an entire bottle of wine by himself. Over coffee, Susan Sontag asked Vidal if he had read her most recent novel, "The Volcano Lover." “A pained expression crosses Gore’s face as he reaches across the table and takes Sontag’s hands into his own, then says, ‘I’ve read it, Susan. But you must make a promise to me. That you will never, ever try your hand again at fiction.’”

Here the drinking seems more self-medicating than glamorous, and the sharp wit has a cruel edge that recalls one of Vidal’s famous quips: “Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies.” Zinging one-liners and celebrity-laced anecdotes could easily fill an entire biography of Gore Vidal. And this is arguably legitimate for a writer who once said, “Never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television.” A sizable part of Vidal’s career was spent performing his own public persona – a caustic, erudite, and aristocratic intellectual – and apart from some blunders in his final decade, he played the role brilliantly.

Parini does indeed deliver a satisfying dose of both glamour and gossip. We learn that Gore Vidal slept with Rock Hudson and Fred Astaire, among countless others, including dozens of young Italian men he picked up on the streets of Rome. One could write an entire book on Gore’s sexual extravagances. In fact, someone has: it’s called "In Bed with Gore Vidal," by Tim Teeman.

Parini does far more, however, than simply chart Vidal’s friendships with people like Paul Newman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Federico Fellini, Jackie Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and countless other cultural luminaries. Vidal was, after all, an immensely gifted novelist and essayist, not to mention a competent screenwriter, playwright, and senatorial candidate. Parini gives subtle and balanced readings of Vidal’s vast and varied body of literary work. He also captures the sorts of poignantly vulnerable moments that Vidal usually did his best to conceal.

Gore grew up in the political tumult of Washington D. C, where he was raised primarily by his maternal grandparents in a stately mansion that is now the Malaysian Embassy. His grandfather was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma. Blinded in an accident, Senator Gore relied on his precocious grandson to read aloud to him. From an early age Gore read to his grandfather from books of American and Roman history as well as important briefs from influential congressional committees.

“Gore had a kind of proprietary sense of American history,” Parini rightly observes. His childhood partially explains why he could write about American political history and Washington insiders with such familiarity and ease, as if describing his own extended family and social circle. In many cases, he was indeed drawing on personal memory.

His imaginative genius as a novelist, however, dramatically increased the range of his subjects, allowing him to depict Lincoln, Aaron Burr, and the Roman Emperor Julian – to name only a few of the figures from his historical fiction – with a rich and precise knowledge that seemingly derives from lived experience. He had an astonishing capacity to assimilate vast amounts of historical information and fashion it into dramatic stories infused with his own penetrating brand of irreverent, cynical analysis.

The sheer range of creative endeavors he undertook is astonishing. He wrote rapidly and easily, sometimes finishing a novel over the course of a few weeks. In his twenties he dashed off mysteries and detective novels under a pen name to make extra cash. Simultaneously, he completed several literary novels, including his widely acclaimed 1948 novel, "The City and The Pillar," which has since become something of a classic for its unabashed depiction of homosexual love.

This barely covers a small fragment of his activities in a single decade. During the same years, he befriended Tennessee Williams, bought a villa in Guatemala, read all of Henry James, wrote more literary novels – including "The Judgment of Paris," my favorite of his early works – and wrote successful dramas for Broadway and television. And that was only in his twenties.

Vidal accomplished more in a typical decade than most people do in a lifetime. In his mature years he expanded into essays and historical fiction – the genres in which Parini and many others think he did his finest work – while also running (twice) for Congress, completing multiple screenplays, taking up acting, appearing regularly as a political commentator on television, and writing what he called his “inventions,” the comic and surreal novels like "Kalki" and "Myra Breckenridge." He and his partner Howard also bought a beautiful mansion in Ravello, Italy, where they continued to entertain a steady stream of politicians, diplomats, novelists, artists, and other illustrious guests.

His intellectual and social exuberance were not categorically positive. He could be egomaniacal, cruel, and stubbornly unwilling to change his mind. He often wrote too hastily, sacrificing quality for sheer quantity of output. And the last decade of his life was not particularly graceful – his alcoholism worsened after the death of Howard, and his statements on politics and literature grew increasingly cantankerous and cranky.

Parini’s title – "Empire of Self" – is well-chosen. Gore’s relentless conquest of literary forms and social circles was a sort of amassing of territory for an intellectual empire. As in any vast and overextended realm, certain border provinces periodically fell into decline and disrepair. The creeping menace of collapse advanced as his empire matured and expanded. But at the height of his powers, Vidal presided over a magnificent sweep of cultural terrain.

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