Tuesday, January 02, 2007


In Salon, Allen Barra, who usually is more judicious, dismisses Gore Vidal's entire oeuvre on the basis of his admittedly ill-considered and certainly narcissistic memoirs (Palimpsest and the apparently redundant exercise called Point-to-Point Navigation).

True, Vidal has always dotted his i's with boldface celebrity names and crossed his t's with his blueblood connections. And I agree with Barra that Vidal's "dogged insistence that there is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person, but merely 'heterosexualists' and 'homosexualists'" is a bit too twee for thee and me. (It would be shameless, yet appropriate, to pull a Vidal here: I've had to listen to Gore himself bloviate mindlessly and endlessly on this very topic at a cocktail party.)

Yet it's far too facile to dismiss, as Barra does, Vidal's entire literary career because the author can be, well, tiresome; it's akin to dismissing Ezra Pound for his fascism. I believe, for example, that Myra Breckinridge will survive the cannon of the canon. Barra asserts that it "is little read today" (and it does seem to have gone recently out of print), but that's hardly a barometer; it's too easy to remind him that Faulkner was completely out of print (and, by implication, "little read") when he won the Nobel Prize.

Similarly, I think several of Vidal's historical novels will continue to attract readers long after he's gone. In addition, I recently read The City and the Pillar for the first time; it is not a "masterpiece" by any means, but it is surely a significant work--an influential precursor to such works as Giovanni's Room and City of Night--that deserves more than Barra's curt dismissal. And I may be alone here, but Kalki and Duluth are deserving of rediscovery. Overall, I'm sure there are truly bad Vidal novels, but I guess I've been the lucky reader who has managed to avoid them.

I think Barra will eventually regret this seemingly petulant review. He surely knows that one shouldn't let an artist's personality get in the way of an assessment of the work. It's not easy (okay, okay--I can't bear to watch anything by Mel Gibson either), but it's the honorable thing to do.

Addendum: Speaking of narcissistic, dishy, name-dropping autobiographies by "homosexualist" authors, I should have noted that Tennessee Williams's Memoirs is back in print, with an introduction by John Waters (note to publisher: fabulously brilliant!). By coincidence, I recently read this book, and I found it hilarious, campy, and endearingly bitchy. Almost needless to say, you'll find Vidal in its pages, but more memorable are Williams's infrequent and catty encounters with Thornton Wilder, which are everything you'd expect when two titans from The Theatre collide.