“My goal in writing this book,” Jay Parini explains in the introduction to Empire of Self, his new biography of Gore Vidal, “has been to look at the angel and the monster alike.” There is — it’s safe to say after reading the book — plenty of grist to back up either point of view. Vidal was, on one hand, a biting and controversial personality and a paradox of sexual openness and ambivalence. On the other hand, he was one of the hardest-working writers of his era, he was faithful to his friends, and he was a relentless and preternaturally eloquent critic of elitist power. Thankfully, Vidal’s contradictions are on vivid display in Parini’s book, which is among the best literary biographies of the year. Flavorwire spoke to the author about Empire of Self, Vidal’s legacy as a public intellectual, and the choice to tell the story of a close friend’s life.
Flavorwire: You are candid in the introduction about knowing Vidal personally, but you make a strong case for your own objectivity. And you made it clear that you would only publish the book after Vidal’s death. But there is the other question of, why do it? It must have been daunting. I can’t remember reading a biography of a writer, for example, who moved around so much.
Jay Parini: I was just not going to do this book, but when Gore died, I was torn up by it because we were close friends. I’d gotten used to talking to him, to counseling him on the phone. If anything would go wrong in my life, I would call Gore, and we’d talk. He was a real friend. He had been saying, “I want you to write this book about me.” I kept saying, “I probably will write something.” I thought it’d be more of a memoir. And I also told him that I would try to take a serious look at his writing. We talked about that, even almost at the very end. Then I got back here after he died, at my desk in Vermont. In my gray filing cabinet, there were 20 folders that said “Vidal.” I looked and said, “Holy shit.”
For nearly three decades I had been collecting material. I’d written long passages of what I thought would be maybe a biography or a memoir or something. I’d interviewed him countless times. I’d interviewed Howard [Austen], and George Armstrong — just all these people. And I had endless notebooks. So I just took a big sigh, and I thought, “What am I going to do with this stuff? Am I going to waste it?” I’m compulsive, and I don’t like to waste things.
Also, it would be a little bit of working my way through the grief of him dying and the loss of that friendship in some weird way because with Gore you always have mixed emotions — Gore could be such an asshole at times. That’s just the truth of it.
Still, despite your closeness with him, you’re pretty frank about Vidal and his work.
I thought, “Well, he told me to write frankly about him, and he always wrote frankly about other people.”
I wanted to try to blend my love for the guy, my fondness, my friendship, with a genuine appreciation of his essays and half a dozen of his novels, which I think are wonderful pieces of American fiction, and my total enthusiasm for his political thinking, which jived my own thinking about the Iraq War the Vietnam War, about what’s become of the American democracy. How we’re a country that really has socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. This just jives with my own stuff. And, well, Gore had been a mentor. He’d read drafts of my books, I’d read drafts of his books. We’d criticized each other. Meanwhile it was a professional relationship as well. I should have never said in the book that it was a father-son thing. I kind of regret that, although early on there might have been a bit of that.
So I was working my way through this, and I stitched in pieces that had been written 25 years ago with pieces that had been written right away. I tried to make the style blend and flow together, I went over and over and over it. So hopefully it doesn’t read like a crazy quilt of writing.
One of the more fascinating figures from Vidal’s youth is Jimmie Trimble, a school friend with whom he seems to have had a proto-romantic relationship or friendship. [Vidal apparently considered Trimble, in some ways, his first and only true love.] But it also may be the case that they were never close in that way at all, and that he’s more of an extended symbol of something else. Was the relationship real?
Who knows? You have no idea how much time I spent trying to think that through. How do I know what happened to Gore 50 years ago? I don’t doubt that Gore had a fantastic crush on this guy, that seems obvious. But then there is also the fact that he disappears from his life for so long and then comes back to haunt him in late middle age. That’s all we can say. There could be some weird combination of invention and reality, but there is no denying that this memory, slashed in Gore’s mind, took on wild significance.
One thing that should be obvious to a surveyor of Vidal’s literary output is that he wrote a lot of books, but it never occurred to me until I read the biography that he was actually one of the hardest-working writers of his era. Clearly Vidal was proximate to the upper class from birth, but he did take full advantage of his connections by way of his work ethic.
That’s what I tried to get across. I knew because of my friendship with him. I knew how hard he worked. When I’d go to stay with him a couple of weeks at a time at his house at Ravello — believe me, there was no nonsense. You’re up at the crack of dawn, and he’s in there taking notes on all these history books. Maybe the briefest pause for lunch, and he’s still working. Sometimes at night after dinner he’d say he was going to go read proofs or take more notes — he worked all the time. Hard, hard, hard work is what lies behind Gore Vidal’s success. He was obviously brilliant. But hard work. You need the two of them.
Many readers may know Vidal from his famous debates with William F. Buckley, Jr., but it wasn’t obvious to me until I read the book that they debated eight times.
There were ten, but two of them weren’t actually debates.
That just strikes me as impossible today. And I’m wondering if it simply speaks to Vidal’s oratorical skills, or the respect afforded to him as a public intellectual. Or was it just a sign of the times?
It was an extraordinary time, and I think there were fewer media outlets. There was the mechanical possibility of getting the public focused on a couple of guys arguing right and left. But also there was still a tradition of public intellectuals, where you’d expect someone who was a novelist, like Gore, to appear on television and have opinions. What’s happened with that now, does one expect Jonathan Franzen to weigh in about the Syrian refugee crisis? Not really. Frankly, I’m one of the few people who does this. I have a piece on CNN today about guns. That’s in many ways Gore’s example for me. But there are very few public intellectuals left. You have pundits and hack politicians, like Huckabee or someone like that. People whose thinking is hopelessly devoid of any depth. As a result we’re getting public debates — you watch these debates and it’s an embarrassment. Gore would have been shrieking. At least in the old days you’d expect substance from people who go before the public, now you expect nothing. And you’re getting nothing.
You are forthright in Empire of Self that Vidal wrote too many books too early in his life, but you are also an eloquent defender of the books you admire. Which books of Vidal’s will last? What is his literary legacy?
I think Julian is the best. There is a great historical novel which shows the richness of Gore’s learning and his vivid command of history. I think Burr is another astonishing book, it’s really a kind of essays-as-novel, where Gore’s essayistic voice gets into the voice of Burr. I think Burr and Julian are two novels that will stand the test of time. Two great novels is pretty good. Then you’re looking at Lincoln, which is a superb portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Myra Breckinridge stands as a challenge, Gore was certainly in advance of anyone else in taking on issues of transsexuality. So he’s way ahead of his time about sex and politics — sexual politics. He anticipated a lot of the movement of sexual politics even before Kate Millett wrote her book in 1970.
This year, one of his pseudonymous pulp novels, Thieves Fall Out, was published. What would Vidal have thought about its publication?
He didn’t want those republished. He told me that. I don’t think it matters one way or the other, frankly, but he didn’t want them published. He had so much writing energy that in addition to writing 25 mainstream novels, he wrote a bunch of pulps. And he’s writing as other people. He’s writing a hundred film scripts, hundreds of essays and reviews. I mean, who could do it? Television shows….
At the end of The United States of Amnesia, a recent documentary about Vidal’s life (that you’re also in), he’s asked, in the final scene, about his cumulative legacy — as a writer, public intellectual, orator or politician — and he says, plainly, “I don’t care.” Was he telling the truth?
He’s lying through his teeth. He cared deeply about what people will think of him down the road. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to such trouble to preserve his legacy, to make sure his papers were at Harvard, to get people like me to write about him. I talked to him enough to know that he cared deeply about what people thought. I think what he’s saying there, in many ways, is that he’ll be dead at that point. He won’t know. So who gives a shit.