Gore Vidal: His Life and Reputation

Frontpage250508_29267t Robert Chalmers talks to Vidal on his life and fights, in the Independent.

There can be no modern writer who has disregarded so enthusiastically George Orwell’s egalitarian advice to use an English word unless no alternative is available. Vidal is the only non-restaurateur I’ve ever heard employ the noun amuse-gueule, and the only person in any profession I’ve known who uses “cher confrère” as a verb. When he paces a room at midnight, he doesn’t do so like any run of the mill phantom, but “like Wilde’s Canterville Ghost”.

Gore Vidal gets away with this because of his brilliance, and because unashamed elitism, in matters of class as well as of intellect, has become part of his act. It’s no accident that he gets on so well with Melvyn Bragg, another man of extreme intelligence who for some reason feels compelled to wear his learning, if I can plagiarise Vidal just once, “like a plume”. I ask the American why this might be. “Well,” he says, “I believe Melvyn’s grandmother came from Bury.”

There is no doubting the courage with which Vidal has opposed certain individuals and causes, such as Richard Nixon, Martin Amis and Zionist expansionism. He spoke out against his distant relative Al Gore, when family loyalty might have prevailed, and was one of the very few Americans to understand – if not empathise with – the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged correspondence, and Vidal failed to attend McVeigh’s execution in Indiana, in 2001, only because he was given inadequate notice of its rescheduled date. For all that, Vidal is instinctively orthodox in outlook. He may once have declared “I am a political activist”, but in his lexicon this means exercising influence at the highest level of traditional US politics. This explains how, at the height of the acrimonious attacks launched by Hillary Clinton (who has known Vidal for years) against Barack Obama, he continued to support the former, regardless of her tactics. “I feel,” he says, “somewhat paternalistic towards the Clintons.”