IN an era when droves of American writers have deserted the novel for the cozier pleasures of the confessional -- and when pouring your heart out, preferably on television, has become a national sport -- Gore Vidal remains an unlikely memoirist. Long ago, he pronounced himself "the least autobiographical of novelists." And despite Vidal's deep affinity for Montaigne, who spent his final decades contemplating the face (and the soul) he saw daily in his shaving mirror, our greatest essayist has never had much of an appetite for introspection.
Instead, Vidal's fine-toothed and ferocious scrutiny has been directed outward, at the great arenas of public life, including politics, theater and the movies -- "three worlds," he has noted, "where no one is ever on oath." No other writer has peered so intently under the hood of American society. None can match his uncanny gift for (as he wrote of Roman historian Suetonius in 1993) "telling us what we want to know." But the author invariably kept one subject under wraps: himself. All we got was a million or so words of unbeatable prose and that tantalizing Cheshire grin. It was only with the 1995 publication of "Palimpsest: A Memoir" that Vidal finally took the witness stand.
Or did he? In that fat volume of reminiscences, Vidal put the verifiable truth on the back burner. A memoir, he insisted, "is how one remembers one's life." He was determined to follow the promptings of memory rather than the moth-eaten paper trail so beloved by most biographers. And despite the fact that he seemed to have met every important figure of the last century -- and slept or quarreled with a generous fraction of them -- he suggested they were oddly interchangeable: "If you have known one person you have known them all."
Vidal, however, is nothing if not perverse. After nailing shut the door to his inner sanctum, he let us in anyway. Amid the killer anecdotes and heat-seeking epigrams, the emotional core of "Palimpsest" was Vidal's youthful relationship with Jimmie Trimble, a fellow prep school student and the author's diametric opposite. They had a handful of sexual encounters before Trimble was killed during the bloody conquest of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Yet Vidal never shook off the sense that he had encountered, and lost, his Platonic opposite -- the one figure who could have completed him as a human being. His grief made for a more complicated, and more vulnerable, portrait of the artist than his readers expected. Even the author sounded a little stunned by what he had wrought: "I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story I had feared but a love story, as circular in shape as desire.... " For all its circularity, "Palimpsest" ground to a halt in 1964. Its narrator, happily, continued his march forward into the less-than-radiant future. To bring things up to date, Vidal has written a sequel, "Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir."
These were hardly fallow years for the author. After losing a race for Congress in 1960, Vidal said goodbye (at least temporarily) to politics, moved to Italy, launched an investigation of U.S. history that would result in such bestselling fictionalized works as "Burr" and "Lincoln," and completed his metamorphosis into a Famous Person. Yet the new book is a sadder, spottier chronicle than its predecessor. As the title would seem to suggest, Vidal is stuck in the fog, taking his bearings from a dwindling set of landmarks.
The fact that they're dwindling, of course, is what gives "Point to Point Navigation" its erratic power. This is a book of the dead -- so much so that Vidal facetiously suggests calling it "Between Obituaries." There are witty evocations of such vanished contemporaries as Paul Bowles, Federico Fellini, Amelia Earhart, Tennessee Williams and Johnny Carson. The author's most famous stepsister, Jackie Onassis, gets the back of his hand. Saul Bellow, "a man of Benthamite utility," is glimpsed checking out some sexy nuns with Alberto Moravia.
What cuts deeper, though, is the 2003 death of Vidal's companion, Howard Austen. The two lived together for 53 years. (A quick dating tip from the master: "[I]t is easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does.") And just as he always declined to drape their romance in sentimental bunting, Vidal recounts Austen's last conscious moments with a melancholy precision.
"I passed a hand in front of his mouth and nose. Nothing stirred. Montaigne requires that I describe more how he looked -- rather than how I felt. The eyes were open and very clear. I'd forgotten what a beautiful gray they were -- illness and medicine had regularly glazed them over; now they were bright and attentive and he was watching me, consciously, through long lashes. Lungs, heart may have stopped but the optic nerves were still sending messages to a brain which, those who should know tell us, does not immediately shut down. So we stared at each other at the end."
For a brief interval, Vidal's companion is not quite alive, and not quite dead. One senses that the author, too, must feel this way at times. In fact, "Point to Point Navigation" is the ghost story he anticipated writing when he began "Palimpsest." On several occasions, we find him poking through ruins, wondering exactly who is haunting whom. At Santorini, in the Greek islands, he seems to catch "a fleeting glimpse" of its Bronze Age inhabitants. Even more tellingly, he has a recurrent dream in which he returns to Edgewater, the estate in New York's Hudson Valley that he precariously maintained before selling it in 1969.
"In the dream the lawn has vanished," he writes. "The river is almost even with the columns. The island is large and stony. Inside the rooms are unfamiliar. And, of course, there is no one there. Plainly I, too, am a ghost as I wander through the empty rooms."
Sad, yes. But with a strange circularity of its own. For Vidal's imagination has always operated most vividly upon the past. Einfuhlen is the word he has used, borrowing it from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. In a 1999 interview, Vidal defined it as "an ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people you know dressed up in funny clothes." The present, especially in his fiction, sometimes hobbled him. The past -- the pageant in the rearview mirror -- gave free rein to his archeological brand of empathy with compulsively readable results.
But not, alas, this time. Despite some exquisite passages and frisky prose, "Point to Point Navigation" betrays a diminishing attention span. There are sentences so sloppy that I never would have attributed them to a spit-and-polish stylist like Vidal. There are clanging redundancies, including entire paragraphs lifted almost directly from "Palimpsest." Nor can he resist kicking his biographer, Fred Kaplan, in the shins whenever the impulse seizes him.
That's not the worst of it. It's bad enough when the author turns over the microphone to a pair of his academic exegetes -- one of whom helpfully informs us that Vidal "exploits the congruencies among critiques of genetic, genital, and technological determinism." (Help!) But when one of our greatest living critics reprints a Publishers Weekly precis of a book rather than summarizing it himself, it's really time to throw in the towel. Shame on the publisher for wheeling this subpar product into the marketplace.
As for the 81-year-old Vidal, I hope he'll sail on to his centennial and beyond -- and that he'll go out on a more distinguished note than this one. He certainly has earned it.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times