Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Gore Vidal

I am caught up in Gore Vidal’s second volume of memoirs, Point to Point Navigation. A welling up of sadness overcomes me in waves as I complete each short chapter. He has lost his partner. He has sold his house in Italy, and, he is missing his deceased editor, Barbara Epstein. This third mancanza is the one most severely felt by his readers. (He always said he never cared much for writing, that he did it only because it presented itself to him as the surest way for the making of money.)

He is eighty-five years old. He seems to have been rushed through this book by a publisher who was perhaps worried that death might rupture certain contractual obligations. I mitigate this suspicion with the realization that once GV had finished the draft of it, wouldn’t the publisher have calmed down and taken the time needed to clean it up? To fix the rough parts no more refined than scribblings produced at 3AM while just having sat up in bed with a freshly caught dream in hand?

The book’s title, needing too much explanation, seems to be an excuse for not producing something more skillful and finely wrought. Who among us has not resorted to melismetic rambling when our daily schedule does not permit the disciplined ordering of thought?

His first volume, Palimpsest, was much better, and I am left assuming Ms. Epstein provided the shake-and-bake to that earlier raw material. In the second volume, on page 173, we find the following baffle:

Goldwater fans were angry because when I had noted that as a public-relations man for his family’s department store, he had also invented a line of men’s boxer shorts decorated with red ants.

Aren’t we rather missing a second half to that thought? Perhaps some junior editor reading the draft while trying to negotiate a pastrami sandwich simply assumed that GV knew where he was headed and had arrived there intact.

On page 176, we are reminded that the comma is our friend whose absence makes us grind teeth.

Some years before he had entered, at the last minute, a presidential primary against Carter.

There are other similar moments. You get the point. Still, his valiantly restrained recounting of the death of his partner moved me to tears, and his loathing of Truman Capote is to be understood with salt and consumed with amusement, as is his need to be associated with famous names.

He lived a short walk from me in Rome, but I could not talk any of my professors who knew him into an introduction. They knew he would devour me. They also must have known how much I wanted to be devoured by him. Sometimes, on my way home from the Gregorian University, I would swing by the Piazza Argentina and look up at his building, trying to guess which set of windows was his. I wondered if he would step out of the shadows and onto his balcony to observe the famous cats that swarmed the ruins of that sunken square to see me there among them, eating an orange, licking its juice off my fingers, a winsome and young seminarian, pretending bravado, ready to know the man behind the words. (Instead, my superiors offered to introduce me to Muriel Spark…)

Despite his lack of focus, which I deeply hope is not caused by some loss of faculty, he remains frequently brilliant and provocative. I share his lack of memory for the personal paesaggio of one’s past, and, as he points out on page 111, must rely on what I have written to recall much of what I have lived. C is frequently astounded by my having totally forgotten places, people and adventures we have shared. Like GV, I grind them up, making a pate, spiced to enhance itself, and ready to be shared.

Finally, there is his frightening conclusion to Chapter Twenty-Two:

It has been my experience that writers, myself included, often forget what they have written since the act of writing is simply a letting go of a piece of one’s own mind, and so there is a kind of mental erasure as it finds its place on the page in order to leap to another consciousness like a mutant viral strain.

Where was I?


XX said...

Socrates portrays writing as a destructive outsourcing of memory in the Phaedrus...
The Perseus Project isn't working but I did find this handy link:

Anonymous said...

Although Mr. Vidal may unfortunately lack an editor, judging by his adroit fielding of unrehearsed questions last night in Los Angeles during an hour and a half public interview, his faculties, if not his body, remain intact. His quick wit was as evident as his admirable and inspiring knowledge of American history. His gift as a mimic, of the voices of JFK, of Churchill, and Roosevelt, is also undiminished.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps when we write, it's as though the mind gives permission to somewhat "let go" of that memory because it now exists in concrete form. We sublimate it in the written recounting.

Perhaps too, Mr. Vidal's lack of focus in this second book reflects his present mindset. Maybe as we age, instead of a clear, directed sense of focus which has a semblance of purpose, our memories, like our lives, have no need for that kind of linnear order. They exist in their own right.

Anonymous said...

Good grief! That reads, almost as incomprehensively, as my blog was written that, way.

dpaste said...

Boy, I can't tell you the number of times I've resorted to melismetic rambling.

Really, I can't.

R J Keefe said...

I hope that you took them up on Muriel Spark!

Anonymous said...

I devoured the book over Thanksgiving weekend and agree with your assessment. I guess I was hoping Point-to-Point would pick up right where Palimpsest left off. I'm trying to be a grown-up and let Gore be who is now. (He's eighty, not eighty-five, by the way.)

I sobbed a bit during the description of Howard's decline and death, too.

Anonymous said...

I just re-read Faulkner's "The sound and the fury". Although intentional in that case, it reminded me how almost incomprehensible an unedited (written) stream of consciousness can be.

A Bear in the Woods said...

It's really awful that a publishing house would publish the work of someone who has given so much to so many without the benefit of even basic line by line editing.

Anonymous said...

"Palimpest" remains one of my favorite books... I was a bit apprehensive about the new book because of the NYT's review.

A friend in California (pack-rat that he is) sent me copies of letters that I had sent him in 1985. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, and while I remember most of the stories, I'd forgotten the details. Jeez, I was witty and non-chalant at one time!

Joshua said...

Well, I'm only on the first chapter so I can't chime in any feedback - at this point.

BJ said...

I think he is an old windbag who should just stay in bed with the sheets covering his weathered face.

His hatred of the administration overclouds common sense. How could we not have invaded Afghanistan? Yes, the enemy was there and needed to be dismantled.