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Thoughts from the Top Table

Stephen Wilson

Point To Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006, by Gore Vidal, Little, Brown, £17.99, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-0316027274

There is an old joke about a man - Murphy is as good a name as any other - whose continual name-dropping and bragging about his intimacy with the great, the good and the famous so exasperates his workmates that they resolve to expose him as a liar at the first opportunity. When Murphy announces that he is going to spend the weekend in Rome "with a few friends" and that he will tell them all about it on Monday they see their chance and gleefully club together to send one of their number to keep tabs on him and gather the necessary evidence.

At first all goes well, but once in Rome the appointed shadow loses track of his quarry and, after wandering around disconsolately for a few hours, decides that as he is in the vicinity he might as well go and see the Pope. So he joins the crowd of pilgrims in front of St Peter's and after half an hour or so the Holy Father emerges onto his balcony, followed almost immediately by none other than Murphy. The shadow is still reeling from shock when his neighbour turns to him and asks: "Who's that fella in the frock up there with Murphy?" This, as I have said, is not a new joke (nor indeed a very good one) but it does convey something of the experience on one level of reading a Gore Vidal memoir.

Point To Point Navigation is described as an "account of my life and times since Palimpsest" (his first volume of memoirs), although the book also features a good deal of what Vidal terms "backstory" (Washington in the 1930s, the Second World War, television, movies, the theatre and politics in the 1950s and 60s). The memoir has bit parts, of various sizes, for: Huey Long, Greta Garbo, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Saul Bellow, Princess Margaret, Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Crown Princess Chumbhot (of Thailand), Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Miller, Federico Fellini and Rudolf Nureyev. I give the names in no particular order, and the list could be considerably extended. What may be described as the resident cast of the Gore Vidal saga - grandfather Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, father and mother Eugene and NinaVidal, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, John and Jackie Kennedy, Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward and Tennessee Williams ("the Glorious Bird") - also feature extensively. Name-dropping can be exasperating, but Gore Vidal has raised it to the level of a minor art. The best example in Point To Point Navigation is the following passage, tacked by the assured hand of the master onto the end of an account of how the boy Gore gleaned the news from Europe from newsreels ("The Munich agreement is signed. Hitler takes over Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland"):

I used to chat with Prince Philip of Hesse, the only person I ever knew who knew Hitler. Philip was son-in-law to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and Italy was a founding member - with Germany - of the Axis powers. Prince Philip was always regarded with suspicion by Hitler, and, eventually, his wife, Princess Mafalda, was sent off to a German concentration camp where she died during an air raid - Puccini had dedicated Turandot to her.

Of course it is not all this good. Vidal does his best with Princess Margaret, but the House of Windsor, even when repackaged as the less suburban House of Hanover, remains resolutely uninteresting. He also devotes rather more space to an account of a luncheon given by Crown Princess Chumbhot at which he got the better of a battle of wits with Barbara Cartland than such a sorry mismatch merits.

The point of all of this is not to dismiss Vidal as sort of up-market gossip columnist. The name-dropping here is more than an irritating affectation: it is important because it reveals something significant. In a 1987 review, Frank Kermode remarked of Vidal that "it is useless to complain that he sounds very knowing, for the fact is that he knows, and what he has to say depends upon his knowing". The grandson of a senator, the son of a member of Roosevelt's cabinet and the stepson of Hugh D Auchincloss (a Standard Oil heir and also stepfather to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, later better known as Jackie Kennedy), Gore was born into the ruling class of the United States and his work as a writer has given him an entry to the intellectual and literary elites of two continents. He is a quintessential insider, but that is only part of the story. In an essay originally published as "The Prince and the Pauper" in Screening History (1992), and reprinted with few emendations in Point To Point Navigation, Vidal defines fame for an artist as "the extent to which the Agora finds interesting his latest work" and on this basis argues that "there is no such thing as a famous novelist now" because "novels and poems fail to interest the Agora today". Be that as it may, Vidal is, by his own definition, famous - but perhaps not, or not only, as a writer. Kermode's observation can be both affirmed and extended: Vidal knows and is known, and knowing and being known to a large extent define and determine what he has to say and how he says it.

In the first instance this can be seen as distinguishing Vidal from other critical or dissident voices in the United States, particularly those whose moral and intellectual authority is predicated on their status as outsiders excluded from the media mainstream. Vidal may have much in common politically and ideologically with such public intellectuals as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, but the size and nature of his audience, his public, set him apart from them. A few years ago a backhanded confirmation of this was provided when a right-wing website posted a list entitled "The Twenty Most Annoying Liberals in the United States For 2002". Gore Vidal, described as a "crazed lunatic", was number thirteen, between Harry Belafonte and Michael Moore; Jimmy Carter came in at number one, just ahead of Barbra Streisand, with Vidal's distant cousin Al Gore at five, Bill Clinton at eleven and Norman Mailer sixteen; Chomsky wasn't ranked but received an "honourable mention".

In 1994 Gore Vidal attended a small dinner given by First Lady Hillary Clinton. The dinner took place two years into Clinton's first term, only a few days before the disastrous (for the Democrats) mid-term elections of 1994; by this time Hilary had tried and failed to implement the administration's policy of reforming health insurance. Vidal's account of the evening (given in "Bubba Rules: Clinton Gore II") can be read as a parable of his position as an American writer and it is worth quoting at some length.

[We] talked about Washington in general. About Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I'd known and she was fascinated by. Then I began to probe, tactfully, I hope: How well did the Clintons understand just what they were up against? Did they know who actually owns and is rather idly running the United States - a very small class into which Bush had been born and trained and they had not. So, Who? What? How? I gave an example of poignant concern. In 1992 the country, by a clear majority, wanted a health service. But insurance companies, in tandem with the medical-pharmaceutical axis, have always denounced any such scheme as Communist, and so the media, reflecting as it must the will of the ownership, had decreed that such a system is not only unworkable but un-American . The ownership spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertisements 'proving' that under the Clinton plan each citizen would lose his own doctor and become a cipher in a computer (which he is pretty much anyway, thanks to the FBI, etc.), while its authors were guilty of everything from murder to ill-grooming.

As an old Washingtonian, I mentioned some of the ways in which the great corporate entities destroy politicians. 'It will never be on the issues. It will always be something unexpected. Something personal. Irrelevant. From long ago. Then they will worry it to death.'

'That's certainly true.' Mrs Clinton was grim. 'No story ever ends here. Even when it's over.'

I was about to suggest that if there was to be a war (as there is) between hated insurance companies and a popular plan, why not target the insurance companies publicly and go on the attack? But Paul Newman, another guest, saved Mrs Clinton from the golden treasury of my hindsight: Get Gore to tell you about the day the horse ran away with Eartha Kitt ... '

Like a pair of dusty Ronald Reagans, we told Hollywood stories of the 50s. She brightened considerably. 'I wish I'd been there. You make it sound so interesting.' She has beautiful manners. She asked about the Roosevelt years, and I told her how Mrs Roosevelt delicately one-upped those who attacked her. 'No, I'm not angry,' she would say with her gentle half smile. 'Only a little ... sad.'

This is Vidal in one of his favourite roles, that of the biographer of what he likes to refer to as the "United States of Amnesia". Poets were traditionally the custodians and transmitters of the record. They recorded and celebrated or lamented triumph and disaster, told the "tale of the tribe" (the phrase is Ezra Pound's and he stole it from Rudyard Kipling). Vidal is well aware no such role is available to the contemporary writer, but it is nonetheless one to which he aspires. It should be noted that Paul Newman's courtly intervention "saves" Vidal as much as it saves Mrs Clinton. Had he begun to harangue or lecture he would have lost his audience and his privileged position; thanks to Newman he is able, eventually, to pass on his message, or part of it, and does so with some grace.

To say that Gore Vidal knows is not the same as saying he is always right. He is not. In 1975 he first published an essay entitled "The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas", and he has been proclaiming the imminent implosion of the political system of the United States and the end of American hegemony ever since. Twenty-two years later the American Empire is still for better or worse (mostly the latter) on the road. However, in this area Vidal is a bold and innovative thinker who is usually more right than wrong and his speculations should not be judged as if they were the hypotheses of a political science dissertation. He is also, I am convinced, wrong in his view that the government of the United States was complicit in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and in the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, while his treatment of David Koresh and the tragic outcome of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, and of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma bombing, are misguided at best. These are more serious errors, in so far as they stem not from a tendency to focus on the big picture and to paint with a broad brush but from Vidal's penchant for conspiracy theories.

Although, mercifully, Vidal does not deal specifically with these matters in Point To Point Navigation the book is not short on conspiracy theories. Indeed, he puts forward a conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories. Writing of the assassination of Huey Long in 1935 Vidal records that "the Long family believed that FDR had ordered his killing" because he posed a threat to Roosevelt's prospects of re-election for s second term in 1936. After commenting that this "seems farfetched even in Louisiana", Vidal notes that "it was about then that the conspiracy theory doctrine was promulgated to make it impossible for anyone to investigate much of anything". He adds:

Huey's murder was the first of a number of stylized "unsolvable" murders committed by solitary lone killers given to motiveless acts of violence; witness, Lee Harvey Oswald at Dallas. More later. It is as if we have a permanent Federal bureau of Non-Investigation ever ready to chuckle about the relation between flying saucers and political assassinations or the "alleged" torture of those held in our military prisons.

"More later" refers to Vidal's claim to have solved the mystery of the assassination of John F Kennedy. He gives the solution towards the end of the memoir. The conventions that apply in reviewing detective fiction demand that the reviewer not spoil things for potential readers by revealing the solution. I will respect these and say only that in this case it involves Cuba and the Mafia. EM Forster's injunction "only connect" is, I am sure, highly useful to the novelist, but it is a mixed blessing for the chronicler of and commentator upon the public life of the United States.

In the course of a chapter largely devoted to Princess Margaret, Vidal describes a member of the Heinz family as "the largest single employer in Ireland" and then adds that the "island was not to become prosperous until the premiership of Charlie Haughey". He is referring, I presume, to Haughey's fourth term as taoiseach, from July 1989 to February 1992 (the first three did little for the "island's" prosperity). "Charlie Haughey" was an old friend and coeval of Vidal's. ("Coeval" is one if Vidal's favourite words - he is also fond of informing his readers that William Faulkner "went to his grave believing ... [it] meant evil at the same time as".) Elsewhere Vidal recalls his friend and coeval's assurance that should he decide to settle in Ireland there would be no problem with such formalities as passports. Although Haughey's skill at raising the wind on the level of his personal finance was not always evident in his management of the Irish economy, what Vidal has to say about his premiership is not altogether wrong. It is, however, something of an over-simplification and one suspects that, like too many others, he was taken in by Charlie. Sometimes the fact is that he should know better.

On the first page of Point To Point Navigation, Vidal describes himself as "a writer and political activist". He was, as has been seen, born into a highly political family and in one way or another has been politically active from his days at Exeter Academy onwards. He has twice run for public office as a Democrat: in 1960 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York state and likes to boast that in his district he got 20,000 more votes than Jack Kennedy; in 1982 he entered the California primary for the US Senate and came second out of nine candidates with half a million votes. Since the early 1960s he has been, as a writer and broadcaster, a highly visible and effective advocate for liberal and radical causes. Gore Vidal has also been the friend, informal adviser and occasional speechwriter to a number of politicians. How much influence he has managed to exert in this way is incalculable but by his own account it has been considerable. In the book under review he tells of how in 1960, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, he came up with a scheme for "voluntary service at home or abroad in such places as help was needed" as an alternative to military service and "passed it on to Jack [Kennedy] who adopted it" and "it became the Peace Corps".

Vidal's political career is well documented, but his politics are something of a puzzle. Generally recognised as being on the left, he is not an orthodox socialist, or one suspects an orthodox anything, and for a radical he has, as we have seen, some rather odd friends and opinions. He has been accused of anti-Semitism and of ignoring black literature (charges that are indignantly and effectively refuted in the book under review). Any individual's politics will, of course, contain contradictions and inconsistencies and it should also be remembered that American politics cannot always be fitted neatly into the European left-right spectrum: there is often a degree of incommensurability. I do not wish to strip Vidal of his contradictions and inconsistencies. To do so would be to lessen him both as a writer and as a politician, but I think that his politics can be made sense of by bearing in mind three factors.

The first of these is the influence of his grandfather. Senator Thomas Pryor Gore was originally a South Western populist (he was born in Mississippi and represented Oklahoma in the Senate). The senator's populism - a distrust of high finance, banks, big business (of eastern money generally) and big government, rooted in a strong sense of Americanness and more specifically in the constitution of the United States - is an important part of Vidal's political inheritance, as is his isolationism, his opposition to the United States' entry into the Second World War and to all other "foreign entanglements". Populism, and more particularly isolationism, also has a dark side: a tendency to develop a blinkered view of the world that in extreme cases can become xenophobic or racist. Vidal, who has spent much of his life in Italy, is the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated of Americans, but that dark side is also part of his inheritance. It is apparent in his insistence that the anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser (to put the case at the minimum) Charles Lindbergh was a much misunderstood patriot whose undeserved bad press was a result of Roosevelt's vindictiveness.

The second factor is Roosevelt himself. FDR loomed large in Gore Vidal's childhood, as he did in the political life of the United States for almost two decades. Remembering his frequent visits to the cinema as a child, Vidal notes "how often in films of the thirties and forties a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt can be found, usually hanging on a post office wall". FDR was his earliest image of political power incarnate and it has remained a dominant one. Vidal shares much of his grandfather's disapproval of Roosevelt (of his somewhat cavalier approach to the constitution, for instance) but he is also fascinated by him and returns to him again and again in his novels and his non-fiction writing. In Point To Point Navigation, Vidal invokes Eleanor Roosevelt on the pessimism of Henry Adams: "You know he'd say things like 'It makes no difference who is president.' Well, it certainly does." We may safely assume that here Eleanor is also speaking for Franklin (who was president certainly made a difference to him) and Vidal too shares the conviction that it "certainly does" matter who is in the White House. It is, I think, what has kept him active and involved in American politics on an almost day to day basis for so long.

The third factor is Vidal's long and deep engagement with Roman history. The earliest Roman piece in his collected essays is a review of the Robert Graves translation of Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars (dated 1952 but published in The Nation in 1959) and he is still quoting Cicero, on "how potent in politics is opportunity", in Point To Point Navigation. The grand narrative of Roman history - the founding of the city and the rise of the republic, the transformation from republic to empire and the decline and fall of that empire - provides Vidal with a powerful historiographical trope for understanding and representing the United States. Such figural or typological thinking arrived in the New World with the first settlers and so may also be said to be profoundly American. To see the United States as a new or second Rome was commonplace during the period of the revolution and the early years of the republic, and is reflected in the public iconography of the new state (notably in the Great Seal of the United States). Vidal has inherited, continued and remade these traditions. This Roman dimension has contributed to Vidal's politics in two ways: it broadens his inherited isolationist world view and affords him a clear insight into American imperialism and so facilitates his trenchant critique of it.

Vidal's sexual politics too are unorthodox and over the years he has offended gay (not a word of which he is fond) and straight equally and impartially. His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar violated taboos by giving a sympathetic account of a homosexual relationship and as result Gore was, until the 1960s, effectively ostracised by the American literary establishment, led by the New York Times. His sexuality was certainly a contributory, although not by his own reckoning a decisive, factor in his two electoral defeats. Vidal began protesting about mistreatment and discrimination based on sexual preference long before it was fashionable or safe to so. In 1961 he published an account of an incident he witnessed outside a YMCA in Washington ("Police Brutality" in United States: Essays 1952-1992 ) and he is still on the case. Point To Point Navigation contains a spirited recollection of his efforts on behalf of the Boston-Boise Committee, a group formed in the late 1970s to defend the victims of the police "cracking down on same sexualists" in Massachusetts and Idaho. For all his unorthodoxy and his general reluctance to march in step even with those with whom he substantially agrees, he has for more than half a century been a courageous and powerful advocate of gay causes.

Vidal is now over 80 and is no longer as active in politics (or probably anything else) as he once was, but I doubt if he is ready to give up entirely. Where does he stand on current issues? He is, of course, anti-Bush and anti-war. Beyond that he is, I suspect, a Clintonista, or at least will be if Hillary comes out strongly against the war. This might well, somewhat unusually, put him in the majority. Whether, come November 2008, it will also put him on the winning side is another matter.

Point To Point Navigation begins: "As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit . ", and these opening words accurately convey the sunset feel of much of what follows. This is a book of many deaths: at one point the author jokes that its title should be Between Obituaries. The deaths of friends and family and of fellow writers such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow feature prominently, but above all this is the book of the death of Howard Auster, described by the author as "my 'partner' ... of fifty-three years", who died of lung cancer in 2003. Those parts of the book that deal with the years before 2003 are often narrated in the first person plural; thereafter he reverts to the first person singular. It is essentially the story of how that "we" was "reduced to the singular 'me'", and Howard pervades it, he is a permanent presence in the memoir, just as he is, Vidal tells us, "permanently present in my memory". The account of Howard's last months, a time of panics and of hospitals and nurses and of false alarms and false hopes, is clear-eyed and unsentimental and (as all who have read it agree) intensely moving. It is not just the best thing in Point To Point Navigation but one of the best things Vidal has written and it is more than worth the price of the book on its own.

In his attempt to tell "how did the living die and what did they say and how did they look at the end", Vidal invokes the spirit of the French Renaissance essayist and thinker Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne is one of his great literary heroes and he writes of him that he "was deeply interested in politics" and that he "wrote to influence the kings of France and Navarre and ... was heeded". One could not say this of Vidal nor, I think, of any other modern or contemporary writer, at any rate in English. That Gore Vidal should have failed to emulate his hero is unsurprising. Not the least of the merits of Point To Point Navigation is that it makes us aware of something much more remarkable: just how close he did come to succeeding.

Stephen Wilson, who studied at the University of Ulster and Trinity College Dublin, teaches American literature at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He is currently working on a book on Ezra Pound and American history.