Gore Vidal was famously waspish or infamously nasty, depending on your point of view. Most outspoken (and successful) writers divide opinion, but Vidal does so more than most. His distinctive prose and the righteous fashion in which he expressed his liberal opinions are not for everyone; one man’s crusading iconoclast is a preachy monomaniac to those of different inclinations.
In all the dense weight of recollections and memorials published since Vidal’s death on Tuesday, I have not seen a sharper criticism of his writing and its preoccupations than that made by Spectator reader Walter Taplin in a letter to the magazine in 1982.
‘Sir, On page 13 of the Spectator 23 October there was a cartoon of Mr Gore Vidal holding a cane. On page 16 there was another cartoon, of Mr Auberon Waugh with his trousers round his ankles. The obvious inference, supported by your cover headline, was that Mr Waugh had been chastised. But anyone who stuck at it and, eventually, reached the end of Mr Vidal’s article knows that that is a false inference. In fact, Mr Vidal had bored the pants off him.’
(For those who are interested, Vidal had written a piece in response to his entrenched critics in England, among whom Auberon Waugh was particularly vehement.)
It is sometimes said of Vidal that his best days were gone by the early ‘70s; that he was a victim of his popularity and persona. Certainly, this view is supported by Spectator reviewers of that era. Peter Ackroyd wrote in 1976 of Vidal’s historical novel 1876:
‘1876 represents all that Mr Vidal thinks that politics ought to be: gossip, corruption, and all the tacky panoply of power. Mr Vidal has now become the great chronicler of power, and in the course of these books (historical novels on American politics) he has pinned himself to the wall so that he is now all but indistinguishable from the surroundings.’
Ackroyd went on to describe the ‘accomplished’ novel as ‘pure bourgeois entertainment’. Vidal, Ackroyd wrote, ‘was not always like this’.
Vidal’s earlier work possesses some of the qualities of Classical satire. The City and the Pillar (1948) has the distinction of being the first American novel to reject traditional sexual roles in fiction openly by subverting the notion that homosexuals are effeminate by definition. Washington D.C. (1967) is a riot – funny, affectionate in parts and coruscating in others, and morally superior throughout. It’s a serious joke. Likewise, ‘The Best Man’, Vidal’s uproarious 1960 play about (among other things) Richard Nixon, was a commercial and critical success. Taken to extremes, the implication in Ackroyd’s criticism is that the writer who had threatened to be a great satirist had merely become a dazzling humourist.
But, even as Vidal’s reputation for bitchy quips solidified into a celebrity for outright savagery, he did not abandon seriousness. Yet his more challenging work did not always succeed commercially. ‘An Evening With Richard Nixon’, severely written in the severe climate of 1972, is one incendiary play that failed to ignite American theatre-goers, and it closed after just a few performances.
Did the punters want cheap jokes from Vidal, or had they come to expect them? Al Capp, the satirist and the Spectator’s occasional American correspondent in the mid-‘70s, compared Vidal’s two Nixon plays and concluded that ‘An Evening With’ is the better drama by far – a full-blown ‘tragedy’ written by a man rather than a boyish ‘opinion’. Capp argued that the failure of ‘An Evening With’ was even more bizarre given that ‘Best Man was produced at a time when perhaps half the country was pro-Nixon, whereas An Evening With Richard Nixon came at a time when the only pro-Nixon vote you could count on was his daughter Julie’s’.
More telling than this, Capp described Vidal as a ‘writer so talented’ that readers devour him even ‘when he chooses to write rubbish’. And a writer who wrote as much as Vidal did is bound to have written a lot of rubbish. If Richard Nixon’s tragedy, as Vidal saw it, was to be serious at all, then perhaps Vidal’s tragedy was not to be serious enough.Tags: America, drama, Fiction, homosexuality, Politics, Sex