The towering ego, serrated wit and prodigious literary output of Gore Vidal

D4adac9f-1079-4c35-8e4b-3591da7ce1c0Sarah Churchwell at the Financial Times:

It is common practice for books to be given different titles in the US and the UK, but rarely do those titles express each country’s cultural character as clearly as the two given to Jay Parini’s new biography of Gore Vidal. In America, it is called Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. In the UK, one of Vidal’s more famous quips has been commandeered into a very British title: Every Time a Friend Succeeds, Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal.

That switch from indefinite to definite article in the subtitle is also telling. There have been several biographies of Vidal, mostly written by their protagonist, notably in the remarkable memoir Palimpsest (1995), as well as a less remarkable authorised 1999 biography by Fred Kaplan that pleased few, including its subject. Comparisons are inevitable, and inevitably invidious: how do you compete with a consummate raconteur of razoring wit and sumptuous style, whose egotism famously shouldered everyone else out of the room?

Vidal’s output was also prodigious — some 50 published volumes, encompassing fiction, history, plays, essays, memoirs, and film and television screenplays. Most readers now agree that Vidal’s greatest legacy comprises the seven novels about America from 1776 to 2000 that make up the Narratives of Empire (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire,Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age) and his collected essays, most of which were published in the gargantuan United States: Essays 1952—1992(1994). Retelling the story of a nation in these works, Vidal justly described himself as America’s biographer.

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