Guilty (reading) pleasure: Gore Vidal’s ‘Palimpsest’


Gore Vidal was never a writer in my small writing universe. The reason had nothing to do with his genius or pedigree; it had to do with my non-in depth knowledge of the man. He was, I may admit, there on the society pages of the late 1960s and 1970s more but as a celebrity, not a literary man. Until I came across an old paperback, Julian, in a second-hand bookshop.

Written in 1964, Julian is a historical fiction about the life of the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus. He was popularly known as Julian the Apostate. The account begins some 20 years after the demise of Julian, with the book incorporating the correspondence between Libanius, who is considering writing a biography of Julian, and Priscus, who has Julian’s personal memoir. At this point in historical time, Christianity is the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Even when the narrative of Julian takes the center, Priscus and Libanius appear with their comments, their positions sometimes contradicting the perspectives of the emperor. This is history assuming a bit of a gossip column.

Assassinations, the Nicene Creed (it has historicity) and Christianity labeled as a “death-cult” (you know, the Crucifixion) and churches seen as “charnel houses” for their obsession with bones as sacred relics, proliferate in this depiction of a period as exciting as our contemporary periods of political intrigues, backstabbing and corruption.

I was hooked.

The name “Gore Vidal” became for me the ultimate in intellectual seduction. Overnight, literary and archival scholarship was transformed into a sensual exercise, not the somber, dull discipline universities had made of the past civilizations.

Thus, I began my diggings into anything that had to do with Gore Vidal. And where else do we locate the wellspring of a person but in his biography or autobiography. Was I lucky to get hold of Vidal’s memoir, a form he defined as “how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research dates, facts double-checked.”

And knowing how this writer promised to share with us facts that are not checked at all is more promising than daunting. Which supports what writer Susan Cheever has said of memoirs being “the novel of the 21st century.” Fiction.

Gore Vidal begins his memoir by defining the title he gives it: Palimpsest. Listen to him: “I have just now looked up the earliest meaning of palimpsest. It is even more apt than I thought: ‘Paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and writing out again, like a slate’ and a parchment, etc., which has been written upon twice; the original writing having been rubbed out.”

Vidal continues: “This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life; makes a text; then a re-vision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought, erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text.”

This ready promise of the tentative and the possibility of future erasures assured those who were at the end of Vidal’s withering wit and wise cracks. No one was spared. Not even the family. And family for Gore Vidal, as we all well know, included John and Jackie Kennedy.

Of a marriage in a family, Vidal wrote: “The marriage of Nini and Newt was, of course, a disaster. Family tradition must be observed.”

Vidal quoted his favorite writer, Montaigne: “Lying is an accursed vice.” This line led to more lines about lies: “There are, of course, liars and liars. There are those who must lie constantly for expediency, like the Kennedys and their apologists.”

Of all the women writers, Vidal, it seemed, had reserved the vile for Anaïs Nin. In Mexico, the diarist secretly dated a young man who was there to see Vidal. A long tirade followed this tale: “She [Anais Nin] should have known by then that sexual jealousy was—and is—an emotion denied me. I calculated, at 25, that I had had more than a thousand sexual encounters, not a world record [my near contemporaries Jack Kennedy, Marlon Brando, and Tennessee Williams were all keeping up] but not, considering that I never got a venereal disease like Jack and Marlon or suffered from jealousy like Tennessee.” For the coup de grace, Vidal wrote: “But Anaïs could not resist intrigue; in fact, I now think that deception was more important to her than sex.”

A whole chapter of Gore Vidal’s memoir is devoted to Tennessee Williams, who became his friend despite their protean temper and ego ex aequo. That chapter is called “Rome and the Glorious Bird,” for Vidal called Williams “Bird.”

Of the playwright, Vidal spoke of an artist who was so compulsive that “he would have the play produced so that he could, at relative leisure, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his.”

Of the name he had given Tennessee Williams, Vidal remembered: “I had long since forgotten why I called him the Glorious Bird until I came to read his stories for a preface that I would write. The image of the bird is everywhere in his work.” Vidal went on: “In his last story, written at 71, The Negative, he wrote of a poet who can no longer assemble a poem. ‘Am I a wingless bird?’ he writes; and soars no longer.”

Gore Vidal had many enemies, or experienced knowing writers and critics who considered him their enemy. His dislike of Truman Capote, however, was legendary. If an insult can qualify as a literary genre, then Gore Vidal had developed put-downs he applied to Capote that are mordant masterpieces. Read this one: “After Rome, I saw him only once again, in 1968, when, without my glasses, I mistook him for a small ottoman, and sat down on him….”

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