"Talking about books is the last thing I would think to do in real life," Gore Vidal announces near the end of a visit with PW at New York's Plaza Hotel, though he has already offered his opinions about books – his own, including his novel Lincoln (Random House), and others. "That's one of the reasons I don't see many writers," he adds. "They bore me.
"I don't like talking about myself, either," he continues. "I'd rather talk about, well, anything, from Ronald Reagan to the economy, to gossip about friends. The usual subjects interest me. After all, I don't write about myself, either. Which sets me apart from most of my contemporaries, even the very good ones. Like Saul Bellow. It's extraordinary how close things are in his books to his real life."
Vidal leans back into the flowered print of the couch in his sitting room at the Plaza, straightening his tie and pulling a navy blazer closed over a pink shirt with white stripes. He hastily arranges the seat cushions, which have slid out past the edge of the couch, bending beneath his knees. We've been talking for an hour; earlier, Barbara Howar of Entertainment Tonight had his attention for more than a half hour. We met precisely at 9:30 A.M.; there is no break between interviews for the author, who lives most of the year in Italy and is not available to the press very frequently. The blue-carpeted room is brightly lit, the chandelier glistening in the mirror above a false fireplace, the curtains closed against the gray rain outside on Central Park South.
A copy of Lincoln rests atop the mantle, as does an issue of the New York Times Book Review folded open to a full-page advertisement for the new book. Clipped reviews are collected on a side table between the windows, next to the biography of John Maynard Keynes. Vidal is now on the phone, arranging to meet a friend in Washington. "It was an old friend of mine," he explains, "a relative of Teddy Roosevelt. Well, once I told him, ‘I don't like TR,' and he said to me, ‘Well, Gore, old boy [Vidal imitates his English accent well], Uncle Teddy wouldn't have liked you very much either!' "
For nearly 40 years ("I begin to think I'm eternal") Vidal has kept us entertained. From Williwaw in 1946 (published when he was 20) through The City and the Pillar, Julian, Washington D.C., Myra Breckinridge, Burr, 1876 to Lincoln, Vidal has short stories, pseudonymous mysteries, prizewinning criticism. "Many are puzzled," he acknowledges, "about how the author of Myra Breckinridge can also be the author of Julian. They don't see how it works." He is silent for a moment. "I do, but I'm not telling." Reticence is probably the only thing Gore Vidal is not known for.
"I'm a natural writer. There are not many of those. Most people, it strikes me, write either out of vanity, as a means of therapy or simply out of ambition. I never wanted to be a writer. It is the last thing on earth I wanted to do. I was born one," he explains. "When I read my first book, I started writing my first book. I have never not been writing. And there's nothing you can do about that." He pauses. "I might not publish it, which might be an interesting form of discipline. But I was not interested in writing about myself," he resumes, pooh-poohing diaries. "I was interested in writing about other people. And invention. Being a natural novelist. When I hear about writer's block, this one and that one! F**K off! Stop writing, for Christ's sake: you're not meant to be doing this. Plenty more where you came from."
Vidal has no problem with writing. "If I had any problem with it, I wouldn't do it. You do what you do. It's like saying to a singer, ‘Admittedly, you can't do high C, and you don't have any low register, your middle register's pretty bad, and your higher register's impossible, but yes you should sing Tosca.' This is the American attitude. Anybody can bull through it, or fake it. Faking it is our great national pastime.
"The authentic people are kind of, I think, disliked." Vidal begins to talk about himself. "They always think that if you write well you're somehow cheating, you're not being democratic by writing as badly as everybody else does. That was in the days," he corrects himself, "when people knew the difference [between good writing and bad]. Now, as I say, they don't quite know what a good sentence or a bad sentence is."
The difference between good writing and bad writing interests Vidal; though criticism of Lincoln does not bother him, it offers an opportunity to criticize the critics.
"Anyone is naïve who thinks if you write a good book you get a good review, if you write a bad book, you get a bad review. This might be true of unknown writers, although even then I wouldn't count on it, because few people even know what a good book is." Reviewers, he finds, all have personal axes to grind. He savages a few in particular. "The new trick now is to take two or three sentences from a book and say, ‘Look at what bad writing this is,' sentences that glitter like diamonds in their prose. They don't know why it's bad. And it's always from the first 12 pages, because that's as far as they get.
"But in the case of somebody like me," Vidal exclaims, "they don't even have to have the book in hand before they know what they're going to write. It's all very personal," he believes. "I am one of the national villains, so I have to be treated that way." He is proud and compassionate.
"I quite understand." If you want to know why his is a villain, "Ask them," he says. "It's for them to answer."
Intrepidly, Vidal hypothesizes: "I belong to the old America. I don't tell lies, which makes me very different from the average New York ‘book chat' person." Vidal digresses. "I've never known such a city for liars as this place," he swears. "Everyone reinvents himself every day. And I think I represent oh, certain, puritan virtues they find reprehensible. And I make them nervous. I think they're very funny, and they don't like to be thought funny."
On the other hand, "I think I'm always kind of funny," Vidal says, explaining that his histories are not so different from his satires. "I do see comic aspects of our history. There's not much reverence in my view of these characters, including Lincoln. I don't think Lincoln is reverential at all. Most of the people through whose eyes I see Lincoln don't like him." Vidal responds to his critics again. "It's a detached view, and you have to make up your own mind about Lincoln. It's an uncolored prose, which is the most difficult to write," he continues, "but you keep the subject in view and let the narrative unfold. It's for the reader to perceive what's at the center.
"I'm more wary of Lincoln [as a historical figure] because there are certain mysteries there that I haven't worked out. I think I understand them," he qualifies, "but I set it up so that the reader, if he is attentive, will begin to understand them." He hints at nothing. "They're in the book."
But is Vidal hoping for too much? An attentive reader? The contemporary America he speaks of is likely to have a few. "People don't read books. Writing has very little influence on people at large. Very little influence on the ruling class. They don't read anything, either. However, half an hour with Johnny Carson and you can scare the shit out of them." Vidal wonders "when the great cretinism began in the United States. When people really got dumb." It is a question he expects he must wrestle with in the next installment of his American Saga, The Golden Age, a look at America in the Age of Roosevelt and Wilson, 1907-1919, "sort of our high noon.
"I really dislike Theodore Roosevelt. I was brought up not to like Wilson. My grandfather [Senator Gore of Oklahoma] ran his first campaign, but couldn't bear him." Despite animosity, Vidal believes "the intellectual level of those two men is far higher than, let us say, any two heads of English or history departments at universities in the United States today, much less any politicians. The ignorance of our politicians," Vidal expounds, "is just dazzling. They don't know anything, any history. Both Roosevelt and Wilson were writers. Quite good ones, not great ones, constant readers, obsessed with history."
The American Saga, Vidal explains is his attempt to "reach a Whitmanesque synthesis of the whole American experience. I'm telling the story of the country, through, as it were, one family, which is partly fictional and partly my own. If I survive," he adds, promising future volumes beyond The Golden Age, "I'll bring all the threads together at the end." He is, he says, "re-dreaming and recreating the republic, and my own family and, finally, myself." Vidal comments that when he writes about himself and his generation, as he has in Washington D.C., he will not be self-indulgent where other writers might be.
Vidal turns back to Lincoln to bring the conversation round to the future: "Lincoln took one big thing he believed in, which was the Union, that it could not be dissolved. He built his own life around this one controlling idea. Perhaps a dangerous, maybe wrong thing to do. But it defined him and made him the greatest of our presidents. He redesigned the United States in his own image, a task both fundamental and astounding, to use adjectives from his second Inaugural.
"He did what he thought was best at the time," Vidal says. "Times change. If I had been the president then, I would have let the South go. But he didn't. And he created a new nation, more horrible, more formidable than anything run up by Washington, Madison and Jefferson. Now we're ready for something else." Vidal foresees a global turning away from the nation-state organization he detests. "I suppose it's going to be a world confederation of states," he says. "Less centralized in some ways, more centralized in others. More regionalism, I should think.
"Anyway," he stops himself from speculating, "the 21st century is going to belong to Japan and China, so it's pretty irrelevant what we do. They've already taken over industrially. They have the numbers, they have the skills. What they lack in raw materials they'll buy from us. The Western hemisphere? I see us as eventually being happy peasants, providing the East with wood and apples. They'll take pictures of us in our bars. A kind of Disneyland for the Yellow People."
He deplores the state of literature. "Isn't 90% of what is written now about schoolteachers on sabbatical, committing adultery? I love Mary McCarthy's long list of what you now cannot write about in a novel: there are no sunsets, no revolutions, no murders, no kings, no intrigues. It's getting more and more focused on the sensibility of middle-class, middle-brow schoolteachers," Vidal repeats. "Since those are the writers, presumably those are the readers." That excludes an awful lot of people, Vidal believes, himself included. "It leaves to the junk writers," he says, "all the great themes, a funny thing nowadays. All the Tolstoyan themes are being written by" (he pauses for an author's name) "Mr. Frederick Forsyth. The serious writers are writing little books that tell of their sad lives, of the capacities as victims.
"Most writing today is about victims. Which is why I think it's interesting to write about the victimizers. If all literature is by victims, for victims, about victims, you're not going to change anything." Vidal quotes Sartre, who complained that he could write the darkest criticism of bourgeois society for the theater, and it would be accepted, though not necessarily liked. "Suggest any change in society, however, and your play goes off."
Vidal writes for himself ("What has eternity done for me lately?" he asks), and he writes of what interests him at the moment. "They impose themselves on you," he says of his "reflections," such as Lincoln or Burr, and his "inventions," Myra Breckinridge and Duluth. ("One of the funniest books ever written," says Vidal and, by far, he says, his favorite Vidal book.)
He surveys his position. "Happily my reviews are the reviews of a very young writer. I'm attacked as if I were the youngest, most dangerous kid in town, with a switchblade, you know, ‘Get Him.' "Vidal is contentious and satisfied, delighted to stab back. "Most writers my age are treated with veneration," he says, "regarded as wonderful old things, like what's his name, Wright Morris, the correct writer. Or Walker Percy, just benign, treated with great reverence.
"Not me." He is glad. " ‘Here comes trouble,' they say when I appear. Yes, let me say, I would prefer that to getting literary degrees from Tufts every June."