Gore Vidal, October 3, 1925 – July 31, 2012
I was trying to find the audio from Gore Vidal's 2006 appearance in San Francisco. He was onstage at the Herbst Theatre as part of the City Arts & Lectures series. I had asked to help out that evening - another outpost of ye olde bookshoppe sells the books for City Arts when an author is involved - but I was not in the best of moods because all my copies of Mr. Vidal's books, especially the seven novels comprising his Narratives of Empire series, were lost in the dozens of book boxes jumbled throughout our garage. Such is the life of a bookseller - too many books, not enough shelves, and can't get his hands on his first edition of Burr when its author is in town.
I wanted to find the audio to refresh my memory of the evening. In my recollection, I'm equal parts angry and disappointed that I wasn't able to find Mr. Vidal's books in time to get them signed. Those feelings were tempered by my excitement on hearing him interviewed - by Scott Shafer. And I only know the name of the interviewer because I saved the flier from the night.
I save too many things.
But I was excited because - after all - this was Gore Vidal. We have so few giants of literature left. So few names that are recognized outside the little world that is Arts and Letters. Gore Vidal was one. Probably the last.
Mr. Vidal did not look well. Did not look like the urbane wit who dueled with so many of his contemporaries - most famously Norman Mailer and William Buckley. And when I say he did not look well, all I mean is he looked old - when of course he was simply in the final round of his bout with that bully, Time. But even though he looked drained of the vitality he had worn like a cape, when he spoke it was all different.
I remember closing my eyes during his interview as I stood off there to the side in a dark back corner of Herbst Theatre. And with my eyes closed that eloquent baritone of Mr. Vidal's filled the hall. All I have, though, is a vague notion of what the exchanges may have been comprised of that night. Politics, yes. Literature, certainly. I remember the audience laughing at every quip - much like reporters do in front of a ballplayer if he makes even the weakest joke, much like an audience does at a concert when the singer makes the slightest attempt at humor.
Why do we laugh so hard at these times? Is it because we're surprised that a baseball player, nimble on the field, can't possibly be funny as well, and so when he tries to joke we laugh like it's George Carlin? That's patronizing, isn't it? And so I felt a little of that, that night. A little bit like we were laughing too hard at his jokes. This was Gore Vidal - he didn't need propping up by our laughter.
Or, hell, maybe he was just really funny and I've forgotten.
So I wanted to find audio from the night, to hear that voice again, place myself in his presence again. Turns out that although KQED - our local public radio station that broadcasts the interviews from City Arts and Lectures - purports to have an archive of past shows, Mr. Vidal was not to be found. There was a clip from Vidal Sassoon talking about hair, but not quite what I was looking for.
What I did find, though, was the fact that Michele Bachmann - you remember her, right? For about five minutes she was going to be the Republican nominee for President. She had read Burr, my favorite of Mr. Vidal's novels. Fancy that.
Turns out that she didn't like it much. She credits it for turning her into a Republican. The novel I read? It was fascinating because it didn't describe history from the winner's perspective. History is always told from the perch of those who won, right? But here was an example of history told by a loser. And Aaron Burr? One of the biggest losers in our history. From his pinnacle - almost President of the US (though when has the word 'almost' carried such weight?) - to being tried for treason, dying in obscurity, unheralded, here was a life that so often received little mention.
Aaron Burr? Oh sure, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, right?
And Mr. Vidal took that dark life and illuminated it. This was history told from a different perch. George Washington wasn't the lionized hero. Jefferson wasn't the cherubic angel who loved his wife and played the violin. The novel made me question the role I had assigned to these men. Mr. Vidal had taken the most inglorious of our bastards and given him a voice - and oh, what a voice.
Unless you're Michele Bachmann. Her take-away? Gore Vidal was merely mocking our Founding Fathers. Because of this, she decided she wasn't a Democrat (she doesn't explain the causality of her party-switch any more than that, but such clarification might be expecting too much of Representative Bachmann).
What struck me most about her comments today - less than 24 hours after the passing of Mr. Vidal - was her insistence on describing him as snotty and mocking. I thought there was a day-long moratorium on pissing on someone's grave, but that doesn't apply to politicians with the class and grace of the Representative from Minnesota.
If I could, I'd thank Mr. Vidal for being the catalyst that sent Representative Bachmann packing. But of course I can't do that because he's dead. Just yesterday.
Instead, I'll reread one of his books. Maybe Empire. My copy of Empire was given to me by a young man who worked at City Arts and Lectures back in 2006. Unlike me, he had a small handful of Mr. Vidal's books that Mr. Vidal was gracious enough to sign that night. When the young man - why can't I remember his name? - suggested I take the book, I begged off. I couldn't possibly.
Why not? he asked. He'd been listening to me complain about not having my own books with me that night. He wasn't near the fan that I was - he'd feel better if I had something to take home.
I declined again, but he said, No really. It's yours. Really.
So I'll pick up Empire tonight. Be thrown back into the political world of the US circa 1900. And if I disagree with the treatment of some of its historical figures, I won't stop reading. I won't throw it against the wall because it doesn't faithfully align with my own thinking. Lord, can you imagine how boring life would be if the only things you read were mere props? If you refused to read words that weren't creaky supports of exactly your own world view?
Thanks, Mr. Vidal. Thanks for your words. Thanks for your works. Intelligent readers everywhere mourn your passing.