Interviews

Gore Vidal, The Art of Fiction No. 50

Interviewed by Gerald Clarke

Gore Vidal lives in a run-down penthouse above Rome’s Largo Argentina: reconstructed temples from the pre-Augustan era are set incongruously in the middle of what looks to be Columbus Circle without the charm. It is August. Rome is deserted. The heat is breathtaking during the day, but at sundown a cool wind starts and the birds swarm in the blue-gold Tiepolo sky. He sits on a large terrace lined with plants in need of watering.

In photographs, or on television, Gore Vidal appears to be dark-haired and somewhat slight. He is neither. He stands six feet; his chest is broad and deep (a legacy of Alpine ancestors); despite constant attendance at a gymnasium, the once flat stomach is now reorganizing itself as a most definite paunch. He regards his own deterioration with fascination: “After all, in fifteen months I shall be fifty,” he declares, apparently pleased and disturbed in equal parts.

His hair is light brown, evenly streaked with white. His teeth are meticulously capped. The agate-yellow eyes are myopic, and when he does not wear glasses he tends to squint. The voice . . . well, everyone knows the voice. He sits now in a broken wicker armchair; the baroque dome of San Andrea della Valle appears to float above his head. He wears a blue shirt, gray trousers, sandals. Although he talks naturally in complete sentences, he is not at ease talking about his own work . . . he prefers that others be the subject of his scrutiny. An accomplished debater, he tends to slip away from the personal, the inconvenient.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start writing?

GORE VIDAL

I would suppose at five or six, whenever I learned how to read. Actually, I can’t remember when I was not writing. I was taught to read by my grandmother. Central to her method was a tale of unnatural love called “The Duck and the Kangaroo.” Then, because my grandfather, Senator Gore, was blind, I was required early on to read grown-up books to him, mostly constitutional law and, of course, the Congressional Record. The later continence of my style is a miracle, considering those years of piping the additional remarks of Mr. Borah of Idaho.

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin your first novel?

VIDAL

At about seven. A novel closely based on a mystery movie I had seen, something to do with “the blue room” or “hotel” (not Stephen Crane’s). I recall, fondly, that there was one joke. The character based on my grandmother kept interrupting everybody because “she had not been listening.” Merriment in the family during the first reading. It doesn’t take much to launch a wit. Then I wrote a great deal of didactic poetry, all bad. With puberty the poetry came to resemble “Invictus,” the novels Of Human Bondage. Between fourteen and nineteen I must have begun and abandoned six novels.

INTERVIEWER

How far did you get on these novels?

VIDAL

A few chapters, usually. I did get halfway through the one written before Williwaw. All about someone who deserted from the army—no doubt reflecting my state of mind, since I was in the army during the war (from seventeen to twenty). Unfortunately, my protagonist deserted to Mexico. Since I had never been to Mexico, I was obliged to stop.

INTERVIEWER

What were the other five about? School?

VIDAL

No. I began the first really ambitious one when I was fourteen or fifteen. I had gone to Europe in the summer of ‘39 and visited Rome. One night I saw Mussolini in the flesh at the Baths of Caracalla—no, he was not bathing but listening to Turandot. The baths are used for staging operas. I thought him splendid! That jaw, that splendid emptiness. After all, I had been brought up with politicians. He was an exotic variation on something quite familiar to me. So I started a novel about a dictator in Rome, filled with intrigue and passion, Machiavellian combinazione. But that didn’t get finished either, despite my close study of the strategies of E. Phillips Oppenheim.

INTERVIEWER

Finishing Williwaw at nineteen broke the barrier; it was published and you wrote three novels in quick succession.

VIDAL

Yes. Every five minutes it seemed. Contrary to legend, I had no money. Since I lived on publishers’ advances, it was fairly urgent that I keep on publishing every year. But of course I wanted to publish every year. I felt no strain, though looking back over the books I can detect a strain in the writing of them. Much of the thinness of those early novels is simply the pressure that I was under. Anyway, I’ve gone back and rewritten several of them. They are still less than marvelous but better than they were.

INTERVIEWER

What do you feel about going back and rewriting? Don’t you think in a way that you’re changing what another person, the younger Vidal, did?

VIDAL

No. You are stuck with that early self for good or ill, and you can’t do anything about it even if you want to—short of total suppression. For me, revising is mostly a matter of language and selection. I don’t try to change the narrative or the point of view, except perhaps toward the end of The City and the Pillar. I felt obligated to try a new kind of ending. But something like Dark Green, Bright Red needed a paring away of irrelevancies—the fault of all American naturalistic writing from Hawthorne to, well, name almost any American writer today. I noticed recently the same random accretion of details in William Dean Howells—a very good writer, yet since he is unable to select the one detail that will best express his meaning, he gives us everything that occurs to him and the result is often a shapeless daydream. Twain, too, rambles and rambles, hoping that something will turn up. In his best work it does rather often. In the rest—painful logorrhea.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that the test of a good work, or a perfect work, is whether the author can reread it without embarrassment. How did you feel when you reread your early books?

VIDAL

Sometimes less embarrassed than others. Rereading Williwaw, I was struck by the coolness of the prose. There is nothing in excess. I am still impressed by that young writer’s control of his very small material. When I prepared the last edition, I don’t suppose I cut away more than a dozen sentences. The next book, on the other hand, In a Yellow Wood, is in limbo forever. I can’t rewrite it because it’s so bad that I can’t reread it. The effect, I fear, of meeting and being “ensorcelled” by Anaïs Nin. Or Jack London meets Elinor Glyn. Wow!

INTERVIEWER

What about your first “successful” novel, The City and the Pillar?

VIDAL

A strange book because it was, as they say, the first of its kind, without going into any great detail as to what its kind is. To tell such a story then was an act of considerable moral courage. Unfortunately, it was not an act of very great artistic courage, since I chose deliberately to write in the flat, gray, naturalistic style of James T. Farrell. Tactically, if not aesthetically, this was for a good reason. Up until then homosexuality in literature was always exotic: Firbank, on the one hand; green carnations, on the other. I wanted to deal with an absolutely ordinary, all-American, lower-middle-class young man and his world. To show the dead-on “normality” of the homosexual experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t know too many lower-middle-class, all-American young men—except for those years in the army when I spent a good deal of time blocking out my fellow soldiers. So I made it all up. But the result must have had a certain authenticity. Tennessee Williams read it in 1948 and said of the family scenes, “Our fathers were very much alike.” He was surprised when I told him that Jim Willard and his family were all invented. Tennessee also said, “I don’t like the ending. I don’t think you realized what a good book you had written.” At the time, of course, I thought the ending “powerful.”

INTERVIEWER

Now you’ve changed the ending to have the young man—Bob—not killed by Jim, as he was originally.

VIDAL

Yes. Twenty years ago it was thought that I had written a tragic ending because the publishers felt that the public would not accept a happy resolution for my tale of Sodom, my Romeo and his Mercutio. But this wasn’t true. The theme of the book, which, as far as I know, no critic has ever noticed, is revealed in the title, The City and the Pillar. Essentially, I was writing about the romantic temperament. Jim Willard is so overwhelmed by a first love affair that he finds all other lovers wanting. He can only live in the past, as he imagined the past, or in the future as he hopes it will be when he finds Bob again. He has no present. So whether the first love object is a boy or girl is not really all that important. The novel was not about the city so much as about the pillar of salt, the looking back that destroys. Nabokov handled this same theme with infinitely greater elegance in Lolita. But I was only twenty when I made my attempt, while he was half as old as time. Anyway, my story could only have had a disastrous ending. Obviously, killing Bob was a bit much even though the original narrative was carefully vague on that point. Did he or didn’t he kill him? Actually, what was being killed was the idea of perfect love that had existed only in the romantic’s mind. The other person—the beloved object—had forgotten all about it.

INTERVIEWER

What is the procedure once a book is revised? Do publishers accept this with grace? Are the old books recalled from libraries?

VIDAL

Williwaw and Messiah were only slightly altered, The City and the Pillar was much revised. The Judgment of Paris was somewhat cut but otherwise not much altered. Dark Green, Bright Red was entirely rewritten. Except for The City and the Pillar, the new versions first appeared in paperback. Later the revised Messiah and The Judgment of Paris were also reissued in hardcover. I have no idea what the publishers thought of all this. It is not wise to solicit the opinions of publishers—they become proud if you do. As lovers of the environment, I suspect they were pleased that the new versions were so much shorter than the old, thus saving trees. The original editions can also be found in the libraries, margins filled with lewd commentaries, and the worms busy in the binding.

INTERVIEWER

Has anyone else done such a wholesale revision of his past work?

VIDAL

I shouldn’t imagine that any American writer would want to do anything that reflected on the purity and the spontaneity of his genius at any phase of his sacred story. In the land of the free, one sentence must be as good as another because that is democracy. Only Henry James set out methodically to rewrite his early books for the New York editions. Some works he improved; others not. Tennessee, come to think of it, often rewrites old plays, stories . . . it’s sort of a tic with him. Returning to an earlier time, different mood.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that The Judgment of Paris was your favorite of the early books.

VIDAL

It was the first book I wrote when I settled in on the banks of the Hudson River for what proved to be twenty years of writing, my croisée. . . . Certainly The Judgment of Paris was the novel in which I found my own voice. Up until then I was very much in the American realistic tradition, unadventurous, monochromatic, haphazard in my effects. My subjects were always considerably more interesting than what I was able to do with them. This is somewhat the reverse of most young writers, particularly young writers today.

INTERVIEWER

You mean they’re proficient technically but don’t have much to say?

VIDAL

They appear to rely on improvisation to get them to the end of journeys that tend to be circular.

INTERVIEWER

Which works and which authors are you thinking of?

VIDAL

Well, as I was talking I was thinking of a book—any book—by someone called Brautigan. I can never remember the titles. The last little book I looked at is about a librarian. Written in the see-Jane-run style. Very cheerful. Very dumb. Highly suitable for today’s audience. But he’s not exactly what I had in mind. There is one splendid new—to me—writer. Robert Coover. He, too, is circular, but the circles he draws enclose a genius of suggestion. Particularly that story in Pricksongs and Descants when the narrator creates an island for you on the page. No rude art his. Also Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass. A case of language doing the work of the imagination, but doing it very well.

INTERVIEWER

What is there in writing except language?

VIDAL

In the writing of novels there is the problem of how to shape a narrative. And though the search for new ways of telling goes on—I’ve written about this at terrible length*—I don’t think there are going to be any new discoveries. For one thing, literature is not a science. There is no new formula. Some of us write better than others; and genius is never forced. There are signs that a number of writers—university or U-writers, as I call them—are bored with the narrative, character, prose. In turn they bore the dwindling public for novels. So Beckett stammers into silence, and the rest is cinema. Why not?

INTERVIEWER

But in the forties. . . ?

VIDAL

In the forties I was working in the American tradition of straight narrative, not very different from John P. Marquand or John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway. For me it was like trying to fence in a straitjacket. In fact, my first years as a writer were very difficult because I knew I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, and I didn’t know how to do what I ought to be doing. Even interestingly conceived novels like Dark Green, Bright Red or A Search for the King came out sounding like poor Jim Farrell on a bad day. It was not until I was twenty-five, had moved to my house in the country, was poor but content, and started to write The Judgment of Paris, that suddenly I was all there, writing in my own voice. I had always had a tendency to rhetoric—Senator Borah, remember? But fearing its excess, I was too inhibited to write full voice. I don’t know what happened. The influence of Anaïs Nin? The fact that I had stopped trying to write poetry and so the poetic line fused with the prose? Who knows? Anyway, it was a great release, that book. Then came Messiah. Unfortunately, my reputation in ’54 was rock bottom. The book was ignored for a few years, to be revived in the universities. Dead broke, I had to quit writing novels for ten years—just as I was hitting my stride. I don’t say that with any bitterness because I had a very interesting ten years. But it would have been nice to have gone on developing, uninterruptedly, from Messiah.

INTERVIEWER

What voice are you using now?

VIDAL

My own. But I confess to a gift for mimicry. The plangent cries of Myra are very unlike the studied periods of Aaron Burr, but the same throat, as it were (deep, deep), sings the song of each. I envy writers like Graham Greene who, year in and year out, do the same kind of novel to the delight of the same kind of reader. I couldn’t begin to do that sort of thing. I have thrown away a number of successful careers out of boredom. I could have gone on after The City and the Pillar writing shocking John Rechy novels, but chose not to. My first two Broadway plays were successful, and I could have continued for a time to be a popular year-in, year-out playwright. Chose not to. Chose not to keep on as a television playwright. Then once Julian did well, I could have gone on in that genre. The same with Washington, D.C., when I, inadvertently, captured the mind and heart of the middle-class, middle-aged, middlebrow lady who buys hardcover novels—not to mention the book clubs. But then I let Myra spring from my brow, armed to the teeth, eager to lose me ladies, book clubs, book-chat writers—everything, in fact, except her unique self, the only great “woman” in American literature.

INTERVIEWER

And Burr? You seem to have got them all back again.

VIDAL

Doubtless a misunderstanding. I had assumed that Burr would be unpopular. My view of American history is much too realistic. Happily, Nixon, who made me a popular playwright (the worst man in The Best Man was based on him), again came to the rescue. Watergate so shook the three percent of our population who read books that they accepted Burr, a book that ordinarily they would have burned while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that you were thinking of putting out Myra Breckinridge under a pseudonym?

VIDAL

No. Oh, well, yes. I wanted to make an experiment. To publish a book without reviews or advertising or a well-known author’s name. I wanted to prove that a book could do well simply because it was interesting—without the support of book-chat writers. Up to a point, the experiment worked. The book was widely read long before the first reviews appeared. But for the experiment to have been perfect my name shouldn’t have been on the book. I didn’t think of that till later. Curious. Twenty years ago, after Messiah was published, Harvey Breit of The New York Times said, “You know, Gore, anything you write will get a bad press in America. Use another name. Or do something else.” So for ten years I did something else.

INTERVIEWER

Why will you always get a bad press?

VIDAL

That’s more for you to determine than for me. I have my theories, no doubt wrong. I suspect that the range of my activity is unbearable to people who write about books. Lenny Bernstein is not reviewed in The New York Times by an unsuccessful composer or by a student at Julliard. He might be better off if he were, but he isn’t. Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life. Then, of course, I am the enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys—as well as the American empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land. They knew I was wrong, but since they don’t read foreign or old books, they were forced to write things like “Vidal thinks Victor Hugo is better than Faulkner.” Well, Hugo is better than Faulkner, but to the residents of book-chat land Hugo is just a man with a funny name who wrote Les Misérables, a movie on the late show. Finally, I am proud to say that I am most disliked because for twenty-six years I have been in open rebellion against the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see the dictatorship start to collapse. I now hope to live long enough to see a sexual democracy in America. I deserve at least a statue in Dupont Circle—along with Dr. Kinsey.

INTERVIEWER

You often refer to critics.

VIDAL

Reviewers . . . actually newspaper persons who chat about books in the press. They have been with us from the beginning and they will be with us at the end. They are interested in writers, not writing. In good morals, not good art. When they like something of mine, I grow suspicious and wonder.

INTERVIEWER

One of the comments sometimes made is that your real position—your greatest talent—is as an essayist. How would you answer that?

VIDAL

My novels are quite as good as my essays. Unfortunately, to find out if a novel is good or bad you must first read it, and that is not an easy thing to do nowadays. Essays, on the other hand, are short, and people do read them.

INTERVIEWER

You once said the novel is dead.

VIDAL

That was a joke. What I have said repeatedly is that the audience for the novel is demonstrably diminishing with each passing year. That is a fact. It is not the novel that is declining, but the audience for it. It’s like saying poetry has been declining for fifty years. Poetry hasn’t. But the audience has. The serious novel is now almost in the same situation as poetry. Eventually the novel will simply be an academic exercise, written by academics to be used in classrooms in order to test the ingenuity of students. A combination of Rorschach test and anagram. Hence, the popularity of John Barth, a perfect U-novelist whose books are written to be taught, not to be read.

INTERVIEWER

As long as we’re on Barth, let me ask you what you think of your contemporaries, people in your generation, people in their forties?

VIDAL

You must realize that anything I say (as opposed to write) about other novelists is governed by my current mood of jaunty disgust—which is quite impartial, cheerful, even loving. But totally unreliable as criticism—putting me in the great tradition of American journalism, now that I think of it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your contemporaries? Do you read their new works as they come out?

VIDAL

I wouldn’t say that I am fanatically attentive. There’s only one living writer in English that I entirely admire, and that’s William Golding. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Italian and French writers. I particularly like Italo Calvino.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think Golding good?

VIDAL

Well, his work is intensely felt. He holds you completely line by line, image by image. In The Spire you see the church that is being built, smell the dust. You are present at an event that exists only in his imagination. Very few writers have ever had this power. When the priest reveals his sores, you see them, feel the pain. I don’t know how he does it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever met him?

VIDAL

Once, yes. We had dinner together in Rome. Oxford don type. I like his variety: Each book is quite different from the one before it. This confuses critics and readers, but delights me. For that reason I like to read Fowles—though he is not in Golding’s class. Who else do I read for pleasure? I always admire Isherwood. I am not given to mysticism—to understate wildly, but he makes me see something of what he would see. I read P. G. Wodehouse for pleasure. Much of Anthony Burgess. Brigid Brophy. Philip Roth when he is at his most demented. I like comic writers, obviously. I reread Evelyn Waugh. . . .

INTERVIEWER

Were you influenced by Waugh?

VIDAL

Perhaps. I was given Scoop in 1939 and I thought it the funniest book I’d ever read. I used to reread it every year. Of the American writers—well, I read Saul Bellow with admiration. He never quite pulls off a book for me, but he’s interesting—which is more than you can say for so many of the other Jewish Giants, carving their endless Mount Rushmores out of halvah. Calder Willingham I’ve always liked—that frantic heterosexuality. There must be a place for his sort of thing in American literature. I’ve never understood why he was not an enormously popular writer.

INTERVIEWER

You have known a good many writers. Is there anything to be got from knowing other writers personally?

VIDAL

I don’t think so. When I was young I wanted to meet the famous old writers that I admired. So I met Gide, Forster, Cocteau, and Santayana. I sent Thomas Mann a book. He sent me a polite letter with my name misspelled. I never expected to “learn” anything from looking at them. Rather it was a laying on of hands. A connection with the past. I am perhaps more conscious of the past than most American writers, and need the dead for comfort.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy being with other writers? Henry James once said, for example, that Hawthorne was handicapped because he was isolated from other writers.

VIDAL

Yes, I like the company of other writers. Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles have been friends. But I am not so sure James meant that Hawthorne’s isolation had to do with not knowing other writers. I think James meant that the American scene was culturally so thin that it was hard to develop intellectually if you had nobody to talk to. This explains the solipsistic note in the work of so many American writers. They think they are the only ones in the world to doubt the existence of God, say—like Mark Twain, for instance.

INTERVIEWER

Who was the first writer you ever met?

VIDAL

Well, growing up in Washington, a lot of journalists came to the house. Walter Lippmann, Arthur Krock, Drew Pearson . . . but I did not think much of journalists. I was more interested in Michael Arlen, who used to come and play bridge. A splendid, rather ornate, Beerbohmesque dandy. And by no means a bad writer. I was fascinated recently by Exiles, his son’s book about him. One summer before the war we were all at the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, where Michael and Atalanta Arlen were much admired by everyone, including my mother and her husband, Hugh Auchincloss. But to my astonishment, I now read that the boy was embarrassed by them—they were too dark, flashy, exotic, not pink and square like the American gentry. Like us, I suppose. Life is odd. Michael’s son wanted for a father a stockbroker named Smith, while I would’ve given anything if his father had been my father—well, stepfather.

INTERVIEWER

But later, on your own, whom did you meet, know. . . .

VIDAL

I was still in uniform when I met Anaïs Nin in 1945. I refer you to the pages of her diary for that historic encounter. I thought she was marvelous but didn’t much like her writing. Years later, reading her journals, I was horrified to discover that she felt the same about me. In ’48 I met Tennessee in Rome, at the height of his fame. We traveled about in an old Jeep. I have never laughed more with anyone, but can’t say that I learned anything from him or anyone else. That process is interior. Paradoxically, in the ten years that I wrote for television, theater, movies, I learned how to write novels. Also, writing three mystery novels in one year taught me that nothing must occur in narrative which is not of use. Ironic that the lesson of Flaubert—which I thought that I had absorbed—I did not really comprehend until I was potboiling.

INTERVIEWER

You have described meeting E. M. Forster at King’s College. . . .

VIDAL

I met him first at a party for Isherwood. London ’48. Forster was very excited at meeting Tennessee and not at all at meeting me—which I considered unfair, since I had read and admired all his books while Tennessee, I fear, thought that he was in the presence of the author of Captain Horatio Hornblower. Part of Tennessee’s wisdom is to read nothing at all. Anyway, Forster, looking like an old river rat, zeroed in on Tennessee and said how much he admired Streetcar. Tennessee gave him a beady look. Forster invited us to King’s for lunch. Tennessee rolled his eyes and looked at me. Yes, I said quickly. The next day I dragged Tennessee to the railroad station. As usual with Tennessee, we missed the first train. The second train would arrive in half an hour. Tennessee refused to wait. “But we have to go,” I said, “He’s sitting on one of the lions in front of the college, waiting for us.” Tennessee was not moved by this poignant tableau. “I can’t,” he said, gulping and clutching his heart—when Tennessee does not spit blood, he has heart spasms. “Besides,” said Tennessee primly, wandering off in the wrong direction for the exit, “I cannot abide old men with urine stains on their trousers.” I went on alone. I have described that grim day in Two Sisters.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to still see this scene vividly. Do you think of the writer as a constant observer and recorder?

VIDAL

Well, I am not a camera, no. I don’t consciously watch anything and I don’t take notes, though I briefly kept a diary. What I remember I remember—by no means the same thing as remembering what you would like to.

INTERVIEWER

How do you see yourself in an age of personality—writers, promoting themselves and their work? For instance, Capote says he is an expert at promoting books and gaining the attention of the media.

VIDAL

Every writer ought to have at least one thing that he does well, and I’ll take Truman’s word that a gift for publicity is the most glittering star in his diadem. I’m pretty good at promoting my views on television but a washout at charming the book-chatters. But then I don’t really try. Years ago Mailer solemnly assured me that to be a “great” writer in America you had to be fairly regularly on the cover of the Sunday New York Times book section. Nothing else mattered. Anyway, he is now what he wanted to be: the patron saint of bad journalism, and I am exactly what I set out to be: a novelist.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you place Nabokov?

VIDAL

I admire him very much. I’m told he returns the compliment. We do exchange stately insults in the press. Shortly after I announced that I was contributing a hundred dollars to the Angela Davis defense fund in Nabokov’s name—to improve his image—he responded by assuring an interviewer from The New York Times that I had become a Roman Catholic. It is curious that Russia’s two greatest writers—Nabokov and Pushkin—should both have had Negro blood.

INTERVIEWER

Have you read Ada?

VIDAL

No one has read Ada. But I very much admired Transparent Things. It is sad that the dumb Swedes gave their merit badge to Solzhenitsyn instead of Nabokov. Perfect example, by the way, of the unimportance of a writer’s books to his career.

INTERVIEWER

How about some of the younger writers? What do you think of John Updike, for example?

VIDAL

He writes so well that I wish he could attract my interest. I like his prose, and disagree with Mailer, who thinks it bad. Mailer said it was the kind of bad writing that people who don’t know much about writing think is good. It is an observation that I understand but don’t think applies to Updike. With me the problem is that he doesn’t write about anything that interests me. I am not concerned with middle-class suburban couples. On the other hand, I’m not concerned with adultery in the French provinces either. Yet Flaubert commands my attention. I don’t know why Updike doesn’t. Perhaps my fault.

INTERVIEWER

Are there others of the younger generation who are perhaps less well known whom you like?

VIDAL

Alison Lurie. Viva’s autobiography . . .

INTERVIEWER

Andy Warhol’s superstar?

VIDAL

Yes. And it’s marvelous. Part fiction, part tape recording, part this, part that, gloriously obscene. Particularly interesting about her Catholic girlhood in upstate New York. Her father beating her up periodically beneath the bleeding heart of Jesus. And those great plaster Virgins that he had all over the lawn, lit up at night with three thousand candles. That kind of thing appeals to me more than stately, careful novels.

INTERVIEWER

You came out of the Second World War. What do you think of the writers of the previous generation—Hemingway, for example?

VIDAL

I detest him, but I was certainly under his spell when I was very young, as we all were. I thought his prose was perfect—until I read Stephen Crane and realized where he got it from. Yet Hemingway is still the master self-publicist, if Capote will forgive me. Hemingway managed to convince everybody that before Hemingway everyone wrote like—who?—Gene Stratton-Porter. But not only was there Mark Twain before him, there was also Stephen Crane, who did everything that Hemingway did and rather better. Certainly The Red Badge of Courage is superior to A Farewell to Arms. But Hemingway did put together an hypnotic style whose rhythm haunted other writers. I liked some of the travel things—Green Hills of Africa. But he never wrote a good novel. I suppose, finally, the thing I most detest in him is the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Madox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.

INTERVIEWER

What are your feelings about the so-called great writers of the twentieth century, Hemingway aside? You didn’t like Faulkner, I take it.

VIDAL

I like mind and fear rhetoric—I suppose because I have a tendency to rhetoric. I also come from a Southern family—back in Mississippi the Gores were friends of the Faulkners, all Snopeses together. In fact, when I read Faulkner I think of my grandfather’s speeches in the Senate, of a floweriness that I have done my best to pluck from my own style—along with the weeds.

INTERVIEWER

How about Fitzgerald?

VIDAL

If you want to find a place for him, he’s somewhere between Maurice Baring and Evelyn Waugh. I like best what he leaves out of The Great Gatsby. A unique book. Incidentally, I think screenwriting taught him a lot. But who cares what he wrote? It is his life that matters. Books will be written about him long after his own work has vanished—again and again we shall be told of the literary harvest god who was devoured at summer’s end in the hollywoods.

INTERVIEWER

You said you thought you had been influenced by Waugh but weren’t quite sure how. Who else has influenced you? Either now or years ago.

VIDAL

Oh, God, it’s so hard to list them. As I said, by the time I got to The Judgment of Paris I was myself. Yet I’m always conscious that literature is, primarily, a chain of connection from the past to the present. It is not reinvented every morning, as some bad writers like to believe. My own chain or literary genealogy would be something like this: Petronius, Juvenal, Apuleius—then Shakespeare—then Peacock, Meredith, James, Proust. Yet the writers I like the most influenced me the least. How can you be influenced by Proust? You can’t. He’s inimitable. At one point Thomas Mann fascinated me; thinking he was imitable, I used to compose Socratic dialogues in what I thought was his manner. One reason for rewriting The City and the Pillar was to get rid of those somber exchanges.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you think college English courses can influence a career? Or teach one about The Novel?

VIDAL

I don’t know. I never went to college. But I have lectured on campuses for a quarter century, and it is my impression that after taking a course in The Novel, it is an unusual student who would ever want to read a novel again. Those English courses are what have killed literature for the public. Books are made a duty. Imagine teaching novels! Novels used to be written simply to be read. It was assumed until recently that there was a direct connection between writer and reader. Now that essential connection is being mediated—bugged?—by English departments. Well, who needs the mediation? Who needs to be taught how to read a contemporary novel? Either you read it because you want to or you don’t. Assuming, of course, that you can read anything at all. But this business of taking novels apart in order to show bored children how they were put together—there’s a madness to it. Only a literary critic would benefit, and there are never more than ten good critics in the United States at any given moment. So what is the point to these desultory autopsies performed according to that little set of instructions at the end of each text? Have you seen one? What symbols to look for? What does the author mean by the word “white”? I look at the notes appended to my own pieces in anthologies and know despair.

INTERVIEWER

How would you “teach” the novel?

VIDAL

I would teach world civilization—East and West—from the beginning to the present. This would occupy the college years—would be the spine to my educational system. Then literature, economics, art, science, philosophy, religion would be dealt with naturally, sequentially, as they occurred. After four years, the student would have at least a glimmering of what our race is all about.

INTERVIEWER

If you were teaching one of those “desultory” courses, how would you describe your style?

VIDAL

As a novelist I have a certain mimetic gift. I can impersonate a number of characters. In Myra Breckinridge there are two different voices. One for Buck Loner, one for Myra—neither mine. On the other hand, when I write an essay, the style is my own—whatever that is, for the subject often imposes its own rhythm on my sentences. Yet I can usually spot my own style, and tell if a word’s been changed.

INTERVIEWER

Two Sisters is hard to categorize and put in any tradition. You call it a memoir in the form of a novel, or a novel in the form of a memoir. What led you to write in that form?

VIDAL

It created its own form as I went along. I didn’t feel that a straightforward memoir would be interesting to do. On the other hand, I don’t like romans à clef. They’re usually a bit of a cheat. You notice I keep talking not about the effect my writing is going to have on others but the effect it has on me. I don’t really care whether I find a form that enchants others as much as I care about finding something that can delight me from day to day as I work it out. I was constantly fascinated and perplexed while writing that book. It’s done with mirrors. One thing reflects another thing. Each of the three sections is exactly the same story, no different, but each section seems to be different. Each section contains exactly the same characters, though not always in the same guise.

INTERVIEWER

It’s typical of your newer novels that you make such use of interjected letters, tape recordings, and diaries. Do you find that technique easier, or better, or preferable to a straight narrative?

VIDAL

It makes for immediacy. I know how difficult it is for the average American to read anything. And I’m speaking of the average “educated” person. It is not easy for him to cope with too dense a text on the page. I think the eye tires easily. After all, everyone under thirty-five was brought up not reading books but staring at television. So I am forced to be ingenious, to hold the reader’s attention. I think I probably made an error using the screenplay form for part of Two Sisters.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

VIDAL

I’m told it was hard to read. Poor Anthony Burgess, following me, has just made the same mistake with Clockwork Testament. Also, I kept saying all through the book what a bad screenplay it was. Predictably, the reaction was, well, if he says it’s a bad screenplay, why, it really must be a bad screenplay and so we better not read the bad screenplay. One must never attempt irony this side of the water.

INTERVIEWER

But you do in your work, on television . . .

VIDAL

Yes. And it has done me no good. In America the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you’re a great writer, you must say that you are. Some will disagree, of course, but at least everyone will know that you’re serious about your work. Speak of yourself with the slightest irony, self-deprecation, and you will be thought frivolous—perhaps even a bad person. Anyway, the playing around with letters and tapes and so on is just . . . I keep coming back to the only thing that matters: interesting myself.

INTERVIEWER

What about writing in the third person?

VIDAL

I wonder if it is still possible—in the sense that Henry James used it. Washington, D.C. was my last attempt to write a book like that—and I rather admire Washington, D.C. After all, that was the time I got into the ring with Proust, and I knocked the little fag on his ass in the first round. Then I kneed old Leo T. the Great and on a technical KO got the championship. Funny thing, this being the best. . . . But even the world champ had a tough time licking Washington, D.C. The third person imposed a great strain on me, the constant maneuvering of so many consciousnesses through the various scenes while trying to keep the focus right. It was like directing a film on location with a huge cast in bad weather.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel more at home with the first-person novel now? Do you think you’ll continue with it?

VIDAL

Since I’ve done it recently in Burr and again in Myron, I’ll probably not do it again, but who knows? The second person certainly holds few charms. Perhaps no pronouns at all!

INTERVIEWER

What sets you apart, do you think, from other American writers?

VIDAL

My interest in Western civilization. Except for Thornton Wilder, I can think of no contemporary American who has any interest in what happened before the long present he lives in, and records. Also, perhaps paradoxically, I value invention highly, and hardly anyone else does. I don’t think I have ever met an American novelist who didn’t, sooner or later, say when discussing his own work, “Well, I really knew someone exactly like that. That was the way it happened, the way I wrote it.” He is terrified that you might think he actually made up a character, that what he writes might not be literally as opposed to imaginatively true. I think part of the bewilderment American book-chat writers have with me is that they realize that there’s something strange going on that ought not to be going on—that Myra Breckinridge might just possibly be a work of the imagination. “You mean you never knew anyone like that? Well, if you didn’t, how could you write it?”

INTERVIEWER

Two Sisters, however, does invite that intense search for clues you abhor. You meant for it to, didn’t you? You wonder who is who and what’s what.

VIDAL

It would be unnatural if people didn’t. After all, it is a memoir as well as a novel. But mainly it is a study in vanity and our attempts to conquer death through construction or through destruction. Herostratus does it in one way, and I do it in another—at least, the self that I use in the book. Eric does it in yet another way. Those girls, each has her own view of how she’s going to evade death and achieve immortality. And it’s all a comedy from the point of view of a stoic writer like myself.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me about your work habits? You must be enormously disciplined to turn out so much in such a relatively short time. Do you find writing easy? Do you enjoy it?

VIDAL

Oh, yes, of course I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. Whenever I get up in the morning, I write for about three hours. I write novels in longhand on yellow legal pads, exactly like the First Criminal Nixon. For some reason I write plays and essays on the typewriter. The first draft usually comes rather fast. One oddity: I never reread a text until I have finished the first draft. Otherwise it’s too discouraging. Also, when you have the whole thing in front of you for the first time, you’ve forgotten most of it and see it fresh. Rewriting, however, is a slow, grinding business. For me the main pleasure of having money is being able to afford as many completely retyped drafts as I like. When I was young and poor, I had to do my own typing, so I seldom did more than two drafts. Now I go through four, five, six. The more the better, since my style is very much one of afterthought. My line to Dwight Macdonald, “You have nothing to say, only to add,” really referred to me. Not until somebody did a parody of me did I realize how dependent I am on the parenthetic aside—the comment upon the comment, the ironic gloss upon the straight line, or the straight rendering of a comedic point. It is a style which must seem rather pointless to my contemporaries because they see no need for this kind of elaborateness. But, again, it’s the only thing I find interesting to do.

Hungover or not, I write every day for three hours after I get up until I’ve finished whatever I’m doing. Although sometimes I take a break in the middle of the book, sometimes a break of several years. I began Julian—I don’t remember—but I think some seven years passed between the beginning of the book and when I picked it up again. The same thing occurred with Washington, D.C. On the other hand, Myra I wrote practically at one sitting—in a few weeks. It wrote itself, as they say. But then it was much rewritten.

INTERVIEWER

Do you block out a story in advance? And do characters ever run away from you?

VIDAL

When I first started writing, I used to plan everything in advance, not only chapter to chapter but page to page. Terribly constricting . . . like doing a film from someone else’s meticulous treatment. About the time of The Judgment of Paris, I started improvising. I began with a mood. A sentence. The first sentence is all-important. Washington, D.C. began with a dream, a summer storm at night in a garden above the Potomac—that was Merrywood, where I grew up. With Julian and with Burr I was held to historical facts. Still, I found places where I could breathe and make up new things. My Burr is not the real Burr any more than Henry Steele Commager’s Jefferson is the real Jefferson. By and large history tends to be rather poor fiction—except at its best. The Peloponnesian War is a great novel about people who actually lived.

INTERVIEWER

In your novel Messiah . . .

VIDAL

I didn’t know the end of the book when I started writing. Yet when I got to the last page I suddenly wrote, “I was he whom the world awaited,” and it was all at once clear to me that the hidden meaning of the story was the true identity of the narrator, which had been hidden from him, too. He was the messiah who might have been. When I saw this coming out upon the page, I shuddered (usually I laugh as I write), knew awe, for I had knocked both Huxley and Orwell out of the ring. Incidentally, ninety percent of your readers will not detect the irony in my boxing metaphors. And there is nothing to be done about it.

INTERVIEWER

Except for me to interject that you are playing off the likes of Hemingway and Mailer in the use of them. Shall I go on? Do you keep notebooks?

VIDAL

I make a few pages of notes for each novel. Phrases. Names. Character descriptions. Then I seldom look again at the notes. At the end of each workday I do make notes on what the next day’s work will be. I’ve a memory like a sieve. Under a pseudonym (Edgar Box) I wrote three mystery books in 1952—I was very broke. Halfway through the last one I forgot who the murderer was and had to find a substitute.

INTERVIEWER

What do you start with? A character, a plot?

VIDAL

Myra began with a first sentence. I was so intrigued by that sentence that I had to go on. Who was she? What did she have to say? A lot, as it turned out. The unconscious mind certainly shaped that book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find any difficulties in writing about America and Americans when you are out of the country so much?

VIDAL

Well, I think others would notice my lapses before I did. Anyway, I come back quite often and my ears are pretty much attuned to the American . . . scream. But then I’ve been involved in one way or another with every election for nearly twenty years. And I spend at least two months each year lecturing across the country.

INTERVIEWER

Besides the pleasures of living, are there any advantages in terms of perspective for the writer who lives outside the country?

VIDAL

For me, every advantage. If I lived in America, I would be a politician twenty-four hours a day, minding everybody else’s business and getting no work done. Also, there are pleasures to this sort of anonymity one has in a foreign city. And it’s nice to be always coping with a language you don’t speak very well. Occasionally I regret it when I’m with someone like Moravia, who speaks so rapidly and intricately in Italian that I can never follow him.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think generally about the writer engagé? Should a writer be involved in politics, as you are?

VIDAL

It depends on the writer. Most American writers are not much involved, beyond signing petitions. They are usually academics—and cautious. Or full-time literary politicians. Or both. The main line of our literature is quotidian with a vengeance. Yes, many great novels have been written about the everyday—Jane Austen and so on. But you need a superb art to make that sort of thing interesting. So, failing superb art, you’d better have a good mind and you’d better be interested in the world outside yourself. D. H. Lawrence wrote something very interesting about the young Hemingway. Called him a brilliant writer. But he added he’s essentially a photographer and it will be interesting to see how he ages because the photographer can only keep on taking pictures from the outside. One of the reasons that the gifted Hemingway never wrote a good novel was that nothing interested him except a few sensuous experiences, like killing things and fucking—interesting things to do but not all that interesting to write about. This sort of artist runs into trouble very early on because all he can really write about is himself and after youth that self—unengaged in the world—is of declining interest. Admittedly, Hemingway chased after wars, but he never had much of anything to say about war, unlike Tolstoy or even Malraux. I think that the more you know the world and the wider the net you cast in your society, the more interesting your books will be, certainly the more interested you will be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your novels as political novels?

VIDAL

Of course not. I am a politician when I make a speech or write a piece to promote a political idea. In a novel like Burr I’m not composing a polemic about the founding fathers. Rather, I am describing the way men who want power respond to one another, to themselves. The other books, the inventions like Myra, are beyond politics, in the usual sense at least.

INTERVIEWER

Are you interested in the other arts at all? In painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance?

VIDAL

Architecture, for one. I’m fascinated by the ancient Roman Empire among whose ruins I live. I’ve been in every city and town of Italy, and I suppose I’ve been into nearly every Roman church. I particularly like mosaics. I am not musical. This means I very much like opera. And baroque organ music, very loud. I like ballet, but in Rome it’s bad. In painting, I’m happiest with Piero della Francesca. I hate abstract painting. In sculpture, well, the Medici tombs—I had a small talent for sculpture when I was young.

INTERVIEWER

Does it help a writer to be in love? To be rich?

VIDAL

Love is not my bag. I was debagged at twenty-five and turned to sex and art, perfectly acceptable substitutes. Absence of money is a bad thing because you end up writing “The Telltale Clue” on television—which I did. Luckily, I was full of energy in those days. I used to write a seventy-thousand-word mystery novel in ten days. Money gives one time to rewrite books until they are “done”—or abandoned. Money also gave me the leisure to become an essayist. I spend more time on a piece for The New York Review of Books than I ever did on, let us say, a television play. If my essays are good it is because they are entirely voluntary. I write only what I want to . . . except, of course, in those moneymaking days at MGM—composing Ben-Hur.

INTERVIEWER

But how about the movies? You’re still writing for movies, aren’t you?

VIDAL

Yes. I love movies, and I think a lot about movies. Recently I thought I would like to direct. More recently, I have decided it’s too late. I am like the Walter Lippmanns. I saw them a few years ago. They were euphoric. Why? “Because,” she said, “we have decided that we shall never go to Japan. Such a relief!”

INTERVIEWER

Why do you prefer movies to the theater?

VIDAL

I’m embarrassed by live actors. They’re always having a much better time than I am. Also, few plays are very interesting, while almost any movie is interesting—if just to watch the pictures. But then I’m typically American. We weren’t brought up with theater like the English or the Germans. On the other hand, I saw every movie I could in my youth. I once saw four movies in one day when I was fourteen. That was the happiest day of my life.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever thought of acting, as Norman Mailer does?

VIDAL

Is that what he does? I have always been curious. Well, I appeared briefly in my own The Best Man. I also appeared in Fellini’s Roma, as myself. I made no sense, due to the cutting, but the movie was splendid anyway. I have been offered the lead in Ustinov’s new play for New York. To play an American president. What else? I said no. For one thing, I cannot learn dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

Has your writing been influenced by films?

VIDAL

Every writer of my generation has been influenced by films. I think I’ve written that somewhere. Find out the movies a man saw between ten and fifteen, which ones he liked, disliked, and you would have a pretty good idea of what sort of mind and temperament he has. If he happened to be a writer, you would be able to find a good many influences, though not perhaps as many as Professor B. F. Dick comes up with in his recent study of me*—a brilliant job, all in all. Myra would’ve liked it.

INTERVIEWER

What did you see between ten and fifteen?

VIDAL

I saw everything. But I was most affected by George Arliss. Particularly his Disraeli. I liked all those historical fictions that were done in the thirties. Recently I saw my favorite, Cardinal Richelieu, for the first time in thirty years on the late show. Absolute chloroform.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you seem to have had an enormous knowledge of movies for Myra. Did you have to go back and research any of that?

VIDAL

I saw all those movies of the forties—in the forties. At school and in the army. They’re seared on my memory. There wasn’t anything in the book that I did not see first time around. Also—to help the Ph.D. thesis writers—almost every picture I mentioned can be found in Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies. A work which has to be read to be believed.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever had any trouble with writer’s block?

VIDAL

No.

INTERVIEWER

When you get up in the morning to write, do you just sit down and start out with your pen? You don’t have any devices you use to . . . ?

VIDAL

First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t sharpen pencils or anything like that?

VIDAL

No. But I often read for an hour or two. Clearing the mind. I’m always reluctant to start work, and reluctant to stop. The most interesting thing about writing is the way that it obliterates time. Three hours seem like three minutes. Then there is the business of surprise. I never know what is coming next. The phrase that sounds in the head changes when it appears on the page. Then I start probing it with a pen, finding new meanings. Sometimes I burst out laughing at what is happening as I twist and turn sentences. Strange business, all in all. One never gets to the end of it. That’s why I go on, I suppose. To see what the next sentences I write will be.


* “French Letters: The Theory of the New Novel,” Encounter (December 1967). Also, collected in Homage to Daniel Shays (Random House, 1972).

* Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. (Random House, 1974).

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton