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The mind field

End of empire: vale Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal. David Shankbone

“Style,” Gore Vidal defined, “is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” And that is precisely how Vidal – daring, bawdy, an intellectual swashbuckler – lived his life, which ended in the Hollywood Hills on the evening of 31 July.

Vidal knew that to write well an inner daemon must be allowed to break free. He could always be counted on for a wicked aphorism (“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”), a devastating put down - necessarily unfair but not necessarily untrue - or a contemptuous critique of the day:

“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”

Or: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half”.

But Vidal could also hold a mirror – fleetingly at least – to his own shortcomings: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

He also called himself “the gentleman bitch” of American letters. “I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

Vidal’s oeuvre showcases, if barely contains, his dessicated humour and freewheeling intellect – few topics were beneath him – as well as his prodigious knowledge of politics and history and his will to live as he pleased.

Born in 1925 at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, Vidal wrote his first novel, Williwaw, when he was 19 years old and serving in the Army.

He went on to write more than 20 novels, notably the Narratives of Empire series – a heptology of historical novels, Lincoln: A Novel being the most distinguished – that chronicles the dawn of the “American Empire” to, in Vidal’s eyes, its decay.

Gore Vidal, centre, on the set of Gattaca.

But Vidal is most admired – and will likely be remembered into the future – for his essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for the collection United States: Essays 1952–1992. “Whatever his subject,” the judges extolled, “he addresses it with an artist’s resonant appreciation, a scholar’s conscience and the persuasive powers of a great essayist.”

In 1997 Vidal visited Australia as a guest of (then NSW Premier) Bob Carr, whom Vidal described in interview with Richard Glover “as terribly intelligent, and he reads a great deal”.

Similarly Vidal met Gough Whitlam in 1974 and considered him – in contrast to the “smooth lawyers with blow-dried hair who look wonderful on TV and don’t know anything except how to take orders from the corporations” – “far too well read for his position in life”.

Carr farewelled Vidal, describing him as a great polymath: “a thoughtful, ideologically consistent, extremely committed and an American isolationist”.

“Gore Vidal’s passing at age 86 is a loss to his country, to literature and to history,” Carr said.

“There won’t be another mind like his.”

Vidal will be buried in a plot he will share with his life partner of more than 30 years, Howard Austen, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.

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