“I WATCHED HIM WORK with a feeling of dread,” said Gore Vidal of his first biographer. Walter Clemons, a critic and journalist, struggled through Vidal’s papers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then fell ill and died. Fred Kaplan took over but did not please. Vidal published his much-praised memoir, Palimpsest, in 1995; Kaplan’s biography followed four years later. The unhappy book became a regular object of its subject’s derision. “I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship,” Kaplan recently wrote in a long letter to The Times Literary Supplement. Vidal’s behavior, Kaplan continued, amounted to a catalog of “arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception.”
Since his death in 2012, Vidal’s vice has been further disclosed in splashy books by Tim Teeman (In Bed with Gore Vidal) and Michael Mewshaw (Sympathy for the Devil). Jay Parini’s Empire of Self, however, is a new and full biography. Parini became a friend of Vidal’s in the mid-1980s and edited a fine collection of essays about him in 1992, so anticipation builds at the prospect of a good book. Perhaps this is, as the publishers claim, the biography that Vidal “has long needed.” When, however, Parini announces that he will tell “the story of Gore Vidal’s extraordinary life and writing,” a feeling of dread begins to fester once more, for it’s not as if this story hasn’t been told before. Versions of it can be found in each of the accounts already mentioned; variations abound in sundry other essays, anecdotes, movies, memoirs. The skeptical reader will justly ask: What is left to say about Gore Vidal’s life and writing? Does Parini do anything new?
He speeds through the early years. Born in 1925, Vidal was brought up in Washington, DC, at the heart of high society. He had a senator grandfather and a difficult mother; he attended a flurry of expensive schools; and he grew accustomed to being waited on by nannies, maids, cooks. Palimpsest is expansive on the childhood, and Parini deploys the memoir frequently but carefully. He is usefully skeptical about the figure of Jimmy Trimble, whose status as a loved but lost half of Vidal’s whole became a leitmotif in later life.
When Parini establishes Vidal as a postwar writer in New York, the virtues of the book begin to emerge. Vidal launched his literary career in 1946 with Williwaw, a tightly controlled story of sailors at war, but he always found New York difficult. He attended parties, saw agents, slept around; he also felt emptiness in the city. These are less familiar years, in which Vidal wrote a few forgettable novels as well as the more memorable The City and the Pillar, but Parini deals with them deftly. Many of his sentences achieve a well-poised balance between proximity and distance. For instance, discussing Vidal’s financial position in the late 1940s, Parini notes that “Gore was not a rich young man. Indeed, sometimes he didn’t know where the next bottle of champagne might come from. But he was resourceful … Living well meant a great deal to him, even at this tender age.” He soon moved to a large house on the Hudson, and eventually to Italy.
Parini’s voice is strongest in the brief accounts of encounters with Vidal that he inserts between the chapters, which break up the narrative with nice bits of first-person bathos. “Gore and Isaiah Berlin in Oxford,” for instance, finds an older Vidal struggling in the presence of the philosopher, who “seems to have read everything, exuding a wisdom and calm that Gore has rarely encountered.” At dinner Vidal is quiet, Parini nervous. They all retire to the Senior Combination Room, where Berlin holds forth on John Locke, whose portrait hangs on the wall. Vidal ventures a remark about ending organized religion. “No!” says Berlin. “We need the Church.” Parini tries to smooth things over; Vidal gives up. “Gore seems out of witticisms, and he slouches into the deep cushions of the chair and holds out his glass for another Scotch.” These palimpsests work well and show Vidal in moods that are variously vulnerable, generous, and impossible. They sketch a sensibility in which habitual elegance, stretched thin, could snap.
Here, then, Vidal is “Gore,” but the imperial self is kept under control. Parini respects Vidal’s intelligence and exhibits his extravagance, but he doesn’t chronicle vice for the sake of indiscretion. When aggression and depression come to consume Vidal’s last years, Parini’s account of the senescence is not scandalous but sad. His story amounts to a careful character of a demanding subject, which differs from previous attempts in its consistently graceful judgments and in its well-earned mixture of affection and diffidence. From it Vidal emerges as remarkably self-aware. Quick to sting but easily stung, he flew away from problems he couldn’t solve and people he didn’t like. But this agility also generated versatility, from which grew a corpus that spans many genres and very many subjects.
So what does Parini do with the writing? There’s a lot to get through: 29 novels, several dozen essays, scattered scripts, a clutch of stories, and a couple of memoirs. Of the novels, Parini prefers the histories to the inventions, though he is also among those who prefer the essays to the fiction. His tendency is to summarize rather than analyze, so there are lacunae. Vidal’s politics, for instance, are mostly treated as “Tory populism,” and no strenuous attempt is made to understand his complicated relationship with American liberalism, whether in the form of politicians like the Kennedys, or movements like the New Left, or thinkers like Richard Hofstadter, whom Vidal reviewed and admired. Vidal’s writing shows a consistent interest in the representation of political power and an attraction to the idiom of republicanism, but these political thoughts are little interrogated here.
Parini identifies Vidal’s major literary contribution as the “biographical novel” and names Julian, Burr, and Lincoln as books that will last. These are plausible choices, and it’s certainly true that Vidal had an affinity for biography. His writing often focuses on the character and meaning of particular historical individuals, and, in an early essay on Suetonius, he argued that “the role of the individual in history” mattered much. “For in our insistence on the surrender of private will … to a conception of the human race as some sort of virus in the stream of time, unaffected by individual deeds,” Vidal pressed,
we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom, to that sense of meaninglessness which more than anything else is characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarean certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.
Yet given his flair for nonfiction and emphasis on the urgency of the biographical, it is curious to remember that Vidal never wrote a straight biography. Why not? He could do the necessary research; indeed, he did it, more or less, for the historical novels. And he enjoyed the idea of a good match between author and subject. Near the end of Empire, he winks at the life of Aaron Burr that Henry Adams had written but thrown on the fire:
[S]omething in Burr’s character or life had made Henry uneasy; he had decided that Burr was not a “safe” scoundrel to deal with, and if he were let out of the history books where he had been entombed alongside Benedict Arnold, he might cheat the world all over again.
Rather, Vidal’s dread seems to have been literary. His “biographical novels” are notable for their evasions of familiar narrative difficulties in biography. None performs a third-person march from cradle to grave or records each and every birthday and begetting. Instead, they use the narrative ambiguity afforded by fiction to attack conventional wisdom, while avoiding the finality of judgment that the rhetoric of nonfiction demands from historical prose. Julian, for instance, is a story about scholars commenting on the very unreliable memoir of the emperor. “I must say I find it impossible to describe what I really felt,” says Julian at one point. “Only historians can ever be certain of one’s motives!” Similarly, Burr uses the fictional Charlie Schuyler to record the fading memories of the ex-vice president, whose recollections of Jefferson undermine the reputation. Lincoln has a more straightforward structure, but the presidential protagonist is never given a consciousness of his own, only observed from a variety of clashing perspectives across Civil War Washington. “Nonlinear lives,” wrote Vidal in his final memoir, complaining of Kaplan, “make for awkward biographies by those who do not easily grasp the apparently conflicting identities — or masks — on view.”
Parini’s biography is mostly linear, but far from awkward. He sees through Vidal’s masks and does much to reconcile the conflicting identities. If this is the biography Vidal has “needed,” then the necessity has grown from an excessive focus on the glamorous extravagance of Vidal’s narcissism, a focus which has lately threatened to become exclusive. Parini’s deflation does not diminish Vidal’s life and writing, but it deftly narrates the former while creating a more hospitable space for discussing the latter. Surprisingly but successfully, Empire of Self is an exercise in modesty.