How the Beast mourns Beauty: A few words on Gore Vidal

August 1, 2012

This piece is based on, among other things, my review of Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest, from 1995.

“This is America. Virtue always prevails.”
— Gore Vidal as Senator Brickley Paiste in Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts

A palimpsest is a scrap of parchment or a tablet that has been written upon or inscribed a number of times, with the previous text partially or imperfectly erased so that some of it remains readable.Gore Vidal called his memoir that, seeing it as a metaphor for the “archaeological layers of a life to be excavated like the different levels of old Troy, where, at some point beneath those cities upon cities, one hopes to find Achilles and his beloved Patroclus.”

And in that book the old rake rapidly reveals, a forever young man named Jimmie Trimble was his own Patroclus — the impatient author’s revealed “Rosebud.”

Trimble, a beautiful schoolboy athlete and Vidal’s first lover and singular love, was killed at Iwo Jima in the Pacific in 1945. The story of their affair weaves in and out of Vidal’s sardonic memories, with sentiment never quite impinging on the book’s hollow, booming heart.

No doubt the ghost of Jimmy Trimble haunted Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar.Published in 1948, it is regarded by many critics, including Anthony Burgess, as the first serious book about homosexuality. It was so frank about its subject matter — its young hero Jim Willard obsesses about a school chum whom he eventually rapes and murders —that New York Times critic Orville Prescott famously refused to review it or any of Vidal’s subsequent books.

Ever mindful of the possibilities of self-mythography, Vidal revised this Ur-novel in 1965, eliminating the killing. He has never quite denied the rumor that his publisher in 1948 insisted upon the murder as a cautionary fable.

But you didn’t have to read Vidal to know of him, he was of a curious breed of celebrity intellectuals — like William Burroughs and his nemesis Norman Mailer — who were liable to pop up anywhere from The New York Review of Books to cornflakes commercials. Having been predeceased by the much younger Christiopher Hitchens, Vidal might have been the last of this breed.

Nominally a novelist, Vidal was better known for words applied to non-fiction circumstances — he delighted in snotty patrician gossip that is Gore Vidal’s stock-in-trade. In his memoir, He raced his elegant fingers through the social register, stopping now and again to settle old scores and mark up old enemies.

He made it clear he cares not for Anais Nin or John Updike; he feels the country was betrayed by the Kennedys — he has no use for convention or conventional people.

He even took revenge upon his mother, Nina Kay Gore, about whom he rattles on for rather too long. While he never comes close to expressing regret at his treatment of her — he virtually banished her from his life — he does concede that he is puzzled by their relationship.

Vidal wonders why he “bothered with her at all.”

“I am beginning to think she knew how to play on a sadistic streak in me,” he writes, and he even goes so far as to imply that it is possible that he may have been damaged by her withholding of “motherly love.”

But Vidal doesn’t quite fall for this, as he himself points out, it comes too close to a Freudian analysis, a practice he always loudly denounced as misguided.

To explain his own psychology, Vidal refers us to Plato’s “Symposium,” in which Aristophanes tells his dinner companions that there were once three sexes — each shaped like a globe — male, female and hermaphrodite. Each was split by the gods for behaving offensively, and each has ever after sought reunion, to make itself whole again.

Vidal reveals that he found his male other half in the person of Trimble, his classmate at St. Alban’s school.

He preens and coos at his reflection, recounting his conquests with a certain chilly satisfaction. As Martin Amis once observed, Gore Vidal’s love affair with Gore Vidal is not just infatuation, it is the real thing.

Yet, he protests overmuch. “I am not my own subject,” he insists, yet Vidal’s greatest gift has always been his ability to insinuate his own life into his work — particularly his nonfiction works on American politics and history. His aristocratic insider’s view was often chilly, yet never superfluous.

Yet surprisingly, the memoir Palimpsest turns out to be, at its heart, a oddly tender book. As it unwinds, we whisk past all the familiar and naughty provinces of Vidal, only to end up back with two boys wrestling in the woods by campfire. Vidal cannot escape the long shadow of Jimmie Trimble.

“I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared but a love story,” Vidal muses at book’s end.

Indeed, and a silky, wrenching one at that. For all the rattling and posing, Palimpsest is an ultimately touching book; it is how the Beast mourns Beauty.

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