Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays 1973 - 1976 by Gore Vidal
(Heinemann, London, and Random House, New York)
Nobody dissents from marking Gore Vidal high as an essayist, not even those – especially not those – who would like to mark him low as a novelist. His Collected Essays 1952 – 192 was rightly greeted with all the superlatives going. Since one doesn’t have to read far in this new volume before realising that the old volume has been fully lived up to and in some respects even surpassed, it becomes necessary to either wheel out the previous superlatives all over again or else to think up some new ones. Rejecting both courses, this reviewer tends to pick nits and make gratuitous observations on the author’s character, in the hope of maintaining some measure of critical independence. Gore Vidal is so dauntingly good at the literary essay that he is likely to arouse in other practitioners an inclination to take up a different line of work. That, however, would be an excessive reaction. He isn’t omniscient, infallible or effortlessly stylish – he just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose. There is no need to deify the man just because he can string a few thoughts together. As I shall now reveal, he has toenails of clay.
Always courageous about unfolding himself, Vidal sometimes overcooks it. He is without false modesty but not beyond poor-mouthing himself to improve a point. ‘The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of . . .’ But wait a minute. It might remain a necessary task to point out that the nuttier film-buffs are no more than licensed illiterates: the ability to carry out a semiotic analysis of a Nicholas Ray movie is undoubtedly no compensation for being incapable of parsing a simple sentence. But some of those bad movies were, after all, quite good. Vidal himself had his name writ large on both The Left-Handed Gun and The Best Man, neither of which is likely to be forgotten. It suits his purposes, however, to pretend that he was a dedicated candy-butcher. He wants to be thought of as part of the hard-bitten Hollywood that produced the adage: ‘Shit has its own integrity.’
As a Matter of Fact, Vidal rarely set out to write rubbish: he just got mixed up with a few pretentious projects that went sour. Summarising, in the first of these essays, the Top Ten Best Sellers, Vidal makes trash hilarious. But there is no need for him to pretend that he knows trash from the inside. He was always an outsider in that regard: the point he ought to make about himself is that he never had what it took to be a Hollywood hack. It was belief, not cynicism, that lured him to write screenplays. Even quite recently he was enthusiastically involved in a mammoth project called Gore Vidal’s Caligula, once again delivering himself into the hands of those commercial forces which would ensure that the script ended up being written by Caligula’s Gore Vidal.
Yet you can see what he is getting at. Invention, however, fumbling, must always be preferred over aridity, however high-flown. In all the essays dealing with Matters of Fiction, Vidal is constantly to be seen paying unfeigned attention to the stories second-rate writers are trying to tell. His contempt is reserved for the would-be first-raters obsessed with technique. For the less exalted scribes honestly setting about their grinding chores, his sympathy is deep even if his wit is irrepressible. Quoting a passage from Herman Wouk, he adds: ‘This is not at all bad, except as prose.’ Taken out of context, this might seem a destructive crack, but when you read it in its proper place there is no reason to think that the first half of the sentence has been written for the sole purpose of making the second half funny.
If this were not a nit-picking exercise we would be bound to take notice of Vidal’s exemplary industry. He has actually sat down and read, from front to back, the gigantic novels by John Barth and Thomas Pynchon for which the young professors make such claims. Having done so, he is in a position to give a specific voice to the general suspicion which the academic neo-theologians have aroused in the common reader’s mind. Against their religious belief in The Novel, Vidal insists that there is no such thing – there are only novels. In this department, as in several others, Vidal is the natural heir of Edmund Wilson, whose The Fruits of the MLA was the opening salvo in the long campaign, which we will probably never see the end of, to rescue literature from its institutionalized interpreters.
But Wilson is not Vidal’s only ancestor. Several cutting references to Dwight Macdonald are a poor reward for the man whose devastating essay ‘By Cozzens Possessed’ (collected in Against the American Grain) was the immediate forerunner of everything Vidal has done in this particular field. It would be a good thing if Vidal, normally so forthcoming about his personal history, could be frank about where he considers himself to stand in relation to other American critical writers. In his introductory note to this book there is mention of Sainte-Beuve; in a recent interview given to the New York Times there was talk about Montaigne; but among recent essayists, now that Wilson is gone, Vidal seems to find the true critical temperament only among ‘a few elderly Englishmen’. Yet you have only to think of people like Macdonald or Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Hardwick to see that if Vidal is primus it is only inter pares: there is an American critical tradition, going back to Mencken and beyond, which he is foolish to imagine can be disowned. This is the only respect in which Vidal seems shy of being an American, and by no coincidence it is the only respect in which he ever sounds provincial.
Otherwise his faults, like his virtues, are on a world scale. In the Matters of Fact, which occupy the second part of the book, the emphasis is on the corrupting influence of power and money. Born into the American ruling class, Vidal is as well placed as Louis Auchincloss (about whom he writes appreciatively) to criticise its behaviour. He is angrily amusing about West Point, Robert Moses, ITT, the Adams dynasty and the grand families in general. Indeed it is only about Tennessee Williams and Lord Longford that he is unangrily funny – for the most part his humour about Matters of Fact is sulphuric. There is no question of Vidal’s sincerity in loathing what he calls the Property Party. On the other hand he is a trifle disingenuous in allowing us to suppose that all connections have been severed between himself and the ruling class. Certainly he remains on good terms with the ruling class of Britain – unless princess Margaret has become as much of an intellectual exile from the British aristocracy as he has from the American.
As a Matter of Fact, Gore Vidal is a Beautiful Person who chooses his drawing-rooms with care. He hobnobs with the rich and powerful. He hobnobs also with the talented, but they tend to be those among the talented who hobnob with the rich and powerful. He likes the rich and powerful as a class. He hates some of them as individuals and attacks them with an invective made all the more lacerating by inside knowledge. For that we can be grateful. But we can also wish that his honesty about his own interior workings might extend to his thirst for glamour. Speaking about Hollywood, he is an outsider who delights to pose as an insider, Speaking about the ruling class, he is an insider who delights to pose as an outsider. In reality he is just as active a social butterfly as his arch-enemy Truman Capote. But in Vidal’s case the sin is venial, not mortal, since his writings remain comparatively unruffled by the social whirl, whereas Capote has become a sort of court dwarf, peddling a brand of thinly fictionalized tittle-tattle which is really sycophancy in disguise. Vidal reserves that sort of thing for after hours.
Yet even with these nits picked, it must still be said that Vidal is an outstanding writer on political issues. ‘The State of the Union’, the last essay in the book, is so clear an account of what has been happening in America that it sounds commonplace, until you realise that every judgment in it has been hard won from personal experience. Only one of its assumptions rings false, and ever there you can see his reasons. Vidal still assumes that any heterosexual man is a culturally repressed bisexual. This idea makes a good basis for polemical assault on sexual intolerance, but as a Matter of Fact it is Fiction. As it happens, I have met Gore Vidal in the flesh. The flesh looked immaculately preserved. In a room well supplied with beautiful and brilliant women, he was as beautiful as most and more brilliant than any. I was not impervious to his charm. But I examined myself in vain for any sign of physical excitement. He might say that I was repressing my true nature but the real reason was simpler. It was just that he was not a female.
Not even Gore Vidal is entirely without self-delusion. On the whole, though, he is among the most acute truth-tellers we possess. Certainly he is the most entertaining. The entertainment arises naturally from his style – that perfectly disciplined, perfectly liberated English, which constitutes all by itself a decisive answer to the Hacks of Academe. Calling them ‘the unlearned learned teachers of English’ and ‘the new barbarians, serenely restoring the Dark Ages’, he has only to quote their prose against his and the case is proved. A pity, then, that on page 260 there is a flagrant (well, all right: barely noticeable) grammatical error. ‘Journalists who know quite as much or more than I about American politics . . .’ is not good grammar. There is an ‘as’ missing. But the other 281 scintillating pages of error-free text go some way towards making up for its loss.
(New Statesman, 1977)