Gore Vidal [1925-2012], an anti-establishment individual by nature or choice, said goodbye to this world of more or less straight realisms this Wednesday after having led a prolific writing career for six decades publishing outrageous novels, uncompromising essays on contemporary American politics and culture, frequently appearing on popular television shows, scripting famous screenplays for Hollywood movies and carrying a well-known life of an elite celebrity.
Over the years he had produced an incredible number of over 25 novels, five plays, several screenplays for television and film, over 200 essays, and two memoirs. ‘I write in so many different genres,’ he had said in an interview in 1990, ‘novels, screenplays, essays, stage plays, and so on. That seems to puzzle everyone. The general pattern isn’t easy to work out, so I don’t blame anyone for not trying.’ Vidal’s writings often proceed from a political vision, whether he writes about war or sex or Charles Lindbergh. ‘For Vidal politics is sexier than love,’ writes Dennis Altman.
Vidal’s literary efforts fall into two major categories: the historical novels that offer a ‘close reading of what actually happened,’ such as Lincoln (1984) or Empire (1987), and a ‘series of “inventions”, in which he subverts and re-imagines reality,’ such as The City and the Pillar (1948) or Myra Breckenridge (1968). Vidal ‘embodies’ a particular critique of American society and politics, and, as part of this seeks to subvert both the triumphalist view of American history and the mainstream assumptions of sex and gender. His third novel, the one best remembered from his early years, was 1948’s The City and the Pillar, which explored or, as Vidal likes to say, ‘meditated on’ the sexual attraction of two young men. Later Myra Breckenridge, often considered his best by many, is an eclectic novel that tells the story of a proto-feminist, transsexual protagonist’s adventures in Hollywood. Vidal believed, like Jean Genet, in what he considered a ‘natural’ arrangement for human being, ‘homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime... despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality’ he wrote in 1969. His belief in alternative reality allowed him to freely maintain his very personal lifestyle, be it living in with Howard Austen in Italy for four decades a fact that may have kept him unduly outside the literary canon in America itself, or be it bombastically criticising the government of George Bush and predicting the decline and fall of the great American Empire from within way ahead of its time. Speaking of ‘the United States of Amnesia,’ a term which figures in the subtitle of his Imperial America (2004), Vidal argues that orthodoxy in politics with its inescapable influences on all spheres of public culture will see the end of America that has ignorantly chosen to strike a complete break with the past. His deconstructive understanding of America and contemporary culture makes him an Oscar Wilde or a Bernard Shaw of our times.
Vidal’s reception as a literary figure remains ambiguous. On the one hand he enjoys the fame of a popular celebrity and, on the other, he is esteemed on critical merits. For his unfailing wit, bleak sense of humour and an influential presence as a literary artist who mastered numerous genres, Vidal needs to be recognised by mainstream academia, like Hemingway or Susan Sontag, to honour a literary voice that deserves a memorable attention.
The writer is Assistant Professor, English Department, Deshdandhu College, Delhi University.