The woman smiled at me.
‘I’m looking for a book – it came out recently – about the Vichy regime in France.’
The plough work in my forehead deepened. Some seedling of an idea stirred, but it had been planted upside-down and run into a layer of permafrost.
The next woman in the queue, seeing me struggle, spoke up: ‘It’s called Bad Faith.’
The man behind her said, ‘By Carmen Callil.’ Then by way of rubbing salt in the wound, he added, ‘She founded Virago Press.’
Nick Nack would have been a giant to me by now. I stumped off, muttering that I thought we had it.
It was bookshop customers at their worst, and best; the kind of customers you hope to have – erudite, informed, articulate. Of course, many of them probably are – they just aren’t quite so open about it. Or line up in threes, with impressively good timing for verbal put downs.
Erudite or not, most bookshop customers know what they’re looking for and can find it themselves, or are happy to browse until they do find something which takes their fancy. Offers of assistance are almost always turned down; hard-selling often repaid with a hard stare.
For this reason, passive selling carries its own quiet satisfaction: getting a title you personally cherish into stock, knowing no-one else will bother, sticking a blurb on it and watching it sell itself reliably month after month. My first choice was always Gore Vidal’s essay collection United States.
The spiel ran something like this: ‘A one-volume university education: politics, history, sex, literature, class and corruption, all of it delivered in the inimitable, dry, witty Vidal voice. My copy has done me over ten years and I still go back to it for reference and pleasure – and so will you.’
It is now getting on for twenty years, and in some sense I have never put the book down. Partly this is a question of erudition, or the lack thereof: I knew I was missing a lot on that first read. For example, the first essay, ‘Every Eckermann his Own Man’, was written as a play on Edmund Wilson’s essay ‘Every Man his Own Eckermann’, which appeared in an early edition of The New York Review of Books. Not only had I not read the original (a forgivable omission), I didn’t even know who Edmund Wilson was. (The Eckermann, by the way, is Johann Peter Eckermann, best known for his Conversations with Goethe; both the White and Vidal essays are written as mock self-interviews). Wider reading and the passage of time have made the experience of re-reading Vidal a richer one; also, finding this stuff out is a lot easier since the internet came along.
This sort of literary game-playing is fun, if your sense of fun tends that way; even if it doesn’t, reading Vidal (and Wilson) may seriously improve your prose style or at least make you less patient with bad writing. But Vidal as primer and companion for life is no less impressive: his much-reprinted essay on The Twelve Caesars is a cold and clear-eyed analysis of political power and what it does to the people who wield it; he was decrying the irrationality of religion years before Dawkins, Hitchens, et al; he is equally clear and cold-eyed on sex and the human animal.
Then there’s America, his one true subject: its history, politicians and writers, its national talent for venality, its bellicose foreign policy. Of course, some of his Cassandra statements are overdone: generic doxycycline people do still read novels (always a minority activity) and the American Empire did not run out of gas even as it became a debtor nation and ‘the yellow man’s burden’ in 1986. Yet even when he is wrong he is informative, and often very funny. The worst of it is that he could never admit to being wrong.
Does Vidal need this kind of promotion? You’d think not: he was a popular and acclaimed novelist, one of the best essayists of the century, a fixture on chat and politics TV shows from the 1960s until his death, and a public speaker greatly in demand, even in a wheelchair. Why try to do for Vidal what he could do so well for himself – continues to do, posthumously, thanks to the afterlife of YouTube?
Therein lies the problem: the overlap of Vidal’s life with the spread of the internet, during which time he was more likely than ever to be filmed. Graham Greene said of his cousin Robert Louis Stevenson that his reputation had ‘suffered perhaps more from his early death than from any other cause.’ Given the last ten years of Gore Vidal’s life – at least to judge from his televised appearances – one suspects that he died too late.
The novels were in the past. The essays had become increasingly sclerotic and repetitive. His lifelong partner Howard Austen died in 2003. That left television and other public engagements, and quite understandably, people still wanted to see and hear from Vidal as the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were stolen, and America came under the control of the ‘Bush-Cheney oil-gas junta’. Yet both friends and enemies attest, whether in sorrow or resentment, to his declining powers, to the increasing thinness and acidity of the public persona, the rage which was petulant rather than authoritative.
Reading obituaries, eulogies, memories of Vidal online, one is struck by the impossibility of summing up his, or anyone else’s, life. He was kind, he was cruel; he was generous, he was mean; he was supportive, he was spiteful. You can find people who will say the same of any of us. Remembering Vidal in this way is important for those who actually knew him, and meaningless to anyone else. We will never have the pleasure, or otherwise, of spending an evening in his company. There are the documentaries, the filmed speeches and interviews, but they are performances, often constructed to a narrative, and designed to entertain.
On this subject, let us hear from the man himself, in a review of Ray Lewis White’s Gore Vidal (1968), an analysis of Vidal’s writing up to that point:
‘The inner life will come later – inevitably, since all that is apt to be remembered of any mid-20th century author is his life. Novels command neither interest nor affection but writers do, particularly the colourful ones who have made powerful legends of themselves. I suspect that eventually novels will be read only to provide clues to the author’s personality; and once each of his characters has been satisfactorily identified, each of his obsessions duly noted, each key turned in its giving lock, the books may then be put aside for good, leaving us with what most concerns this artless time: the story of the author as monster most sacred, the detritus of his life enriched by our fascinated gaze, the gossip of his day our day’s gospel.’
Hear the chorus from the wings: read him, read him!