Cultural Cohesion, p.52Clive James
As a Matter of Fact, Vidal rarely set out to write rubbish: he just got mixed up with a few pretentious projects that went sour. Summarizing, in the first of these essays, the Top Ten Best-Sellers, Vidal makes trash hilarious. But there is no need for him to pretend that he knows trash from the inside. He was always an outsider in that regard: the point he ought to make about himself is that he never had what it took to be a Hollywood hack. It was belief, not cynicism, that lured him to write screenplays. Even quite recently he was enthusiastically involved in a mammoth project called Gore Vidal’s Caligula, once again delivering himself into the hands of those commercial forces which would ensure that the script ended up being written by Caligula’s Gore Vidal.
Yet you can see what he is getting at. Invention, however fumbling, must always be preferred over aridity, however high-flown. In all the essays dealing with Matters of Fiction, Vidal is constantly to be seen paying unfeigned attention to the stories second-rate writers are trying to tell. His contempt is reserved for the would-be first-raters obsessed with technique. For the less exalted scribes honestly setting about their grinding chores, his sympathy is deep even if his wit is irrepressible. Quoting a passage from Herman Wouk, he adds: “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” Taken out of context, this might seem a destructive crack, but when you read it in its proper place there is no reason to think that the first half of the sentence has been written for the sole purpose of making the second half funny.
If this were not a nit-picking exercise we would be bound to take notice of Vidal’s exemplary industry. He has actually sat down and read, from front to back, the gigantic novels by John Barth and Thomas Pynchon for which the young professors make such claims. Having done so, he is in a position to give a specific voice to the general suspicion which the academic neo-theologians have aroused in the common reader’s mind. Against their religious belief in The Novel, Vidal insists that there is no such thing—there are only novels. In this department, as in several others, Vidal is the natural heir of Edmund Wilson, whose The Fruits of the MLA was the opening salvo in the long campaign, which we will probably never see the end of, to rescue literature from its institutionalized interpreters.
But Wilson is not Vidal’s only ancestor. Several cutting references to Dwight Macdonald are a poor reward for the man whose devastating essay “By Cozzens Possessed” (collected in Against the American Grain) was the immediate forerunner of everything Vidal has done in this particular field. It would be a good thing if Vidal, normally so forthcoming about his personal history, could be frank about where he considers himself to stand in relation to other American critical writers. In his introductory note to this book there is mention of Sainte-Beuve; in a recent interview given to the New York Times there was talk about Montaigne; but among recent essayists, now that Wilson is gone, Vidal seems to find the true critical temperament only among “a few elderly Englishmen.” Yet you have only to think of people like Macdonald or Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Hardwick to see that if Vidal is primus it is only inter pares: there is an American critical tradition, going back to Mencken and beyond, which he is foolish to imagine can be disowned. This is the only respect in which Vidal seems shy of being an American, and by no coincidence it is the only respect in which he ever sounds provincial.
Otherwise his faults, like his virtues, are on a world scale. In the Matters of Fact, which occupy the second part of the book, the emphasis is on the corrupting influence of power and money. Born into the American ruling class, Vidal is as well placed as Louis Auchincloss (about whom he writes appreciatively) to criticize its behaviour. He is angrily amusing about West Point, Robert Moses, ITT, the Adams dynasty and the grand families in general. Indeed it is only about Tennessee Williams and Lord Longford that he is unangrily funny—for the most part his humour about Matters of Fact is sulphuric. There is no question of Vidal’s sincerity in loathing what he calls the Property Party. On the other hand he is a trifle disingenuous in allowing us to suppose that all connections have been severed between himself and the ruling class. Certainly he remains on good terms with the ruling class of Britain—unless Princess Margaret has become as much of an intellectual exile from the British aristocracy as he has from the American.
As a Matter of Fact, Gore Vidal is a Beautiful Person who chooses his drawing rooms with care. He hobnobs with the rich and powerful. He hobnobs also with the talented, but they tend to be those among the talented who hobnob with the rich and powerful. He likes the rich and powerful as a class. He hates some of them as individuals and attacks them with an invective made all the more lacerating by inside knowledge. For that we can be grateful. But we can also wish that his honesty about his own interior workings might extend to his thirst for glamour. Speaking about Hollywood, he is an outsider who delights to pose as an insider. Speaking about the ruling class, he is an insider who delights to pose as an outsider. In reality he is just as active a social butterfly as his arch-enemy Truman Capote. But in Vidal’s case the sin is venial, not mortal, since his writings remain comparatively unruffled by the social whirl, whereas Capote has become a sort of court dwarf, peddling a brand of thinly fictionalized tittle-tattle which is really sycophancy in disguise. Vidal reserves that sort of thing for after hours.
Yet even with these nits picked, it must still be said that Vidal is an outstanding writer on political issues. “The State of the Union,” the last essay in the book, is so clear an account of what has been happening in America that it sounds commonplace, until you realize that every judgement in it has been hard won from personal experience. Only one of its assumptions rings false, and even there you can see his reasons. Vidal still assumes that any heterosexual man is a culturally repressed bisexual. This idea makes a good basis for polemical assault on sexual intolerance, but as a Matter of Fact it is Fiction. As it happens, I have met Gore Vidal in the flesh. The flesh looked immaculately preserved. In a room well supplied with beautiful and brilliant women, he was as beautiful as most and more brilliant than any. I was not impervious to his charm. But I examined myself in vain for any sign of physical excitement. He might say that I was repressing my true nature but the real reason was simpler. It was just that he was not a female.
Not even Gore Vidal is entirely without self-delusion. On the whole, though, he is among the most acute truth-tellers we possess. Certainly he is the most entertaining. The entertainment arises naturally from his style—that perfectly disciplined, perfectly liberated English which constitutes all by itself a decisive answer to the Hacks of Academe. Calling them “the unlearned learned teachers of English” and “the new barbarians, serenely restoring the Dark Ages,” he has only to quote their prose against his and the case is proved. A pity, then, that on page 260 there is a flagrant (well, all right: barely noticeable) grammatical error. “Journalists who know quite as much or more than I about American politics . . .” is not good grammar. There is an “as” missing. But the other 281 scintillating pages of error-free text go some way towards making up for its loss.
New Statesman, 1977; later included in
From the Land of Shadows, 1982
A quarter of a century has gone by but I would not now write any less enthusiastically about the virtues of Gore Vidal’s easy-seeming fluency. Indeed there is one stricture that I would take back, or at least tone down. It was true that he had a thirst for glamour, but it was also true that he did his best to make sure it would not sap his strength. His self-exile in Ravello got him away from a too-constant presence in New York, Los Angeles and London. When he was in those places, he dined in grand company several nights a week. It was on just such a night that I first met him, and you couldn’t count the countesses. Of the men, those he did not insult hung on his words, and those he did wanted to hang themselves afterwards. He was in demand like Talleyrand. Had he not banished himself for long periods of solitary concentration, he would have dined at the same altitude every night of the year. His powers of self-discipline were proved by
He is as sure as John Foster Dulles ever was that American power is decisive anywhere in the world. He warns us against it, but he takes it as a fact. In 2001 he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement to expound his conviction that the United States had tricked Japan into World War II. With great reluctance I opposed this view in the letters column of the same paper, and incurred his wrath by doing so. The sorcerer did not like to see the apprentice concocting spells of his own. But the apprentice had good reason. Born on the eve of the Pacific War, and in a country which might well have shared the fate of Nanking, I had cause to remember the devastation which was initiated by Imperial Japan for its own purposes, and with a strength that was all its own. The Japanese right wing is still a force, and likes nothing better than to hear illustrious figures from abroad promoting the seductive theory that the U.S. was entirely responsible for the whole event. With an eye to the future as much as to the past, the first duty of any Australian capable of getting his views on the subject published is to buttress liberal opinion in Japan, where the most elementary truths about Japan’s Imperial adventure are still struggling to get into the school textbooks.
Admirably alert to the discrepancy between entrenched financial interest and democratic ideals, Vidal has always seen it as his first duty to warn America against itself, and hence the world against America. But the “hence” is suspect. There are things of this world that are decided without America’s say-so—the September 11 attack was only the most spectacular—and to argue otherwise is to exemplify the very imperialism that he condemns. How well he condemns it, though. He sounds like an oracle even when he is wrong: the drawback of oracles.
EVELYN WAUGH’S LAST STAND
The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Mark Amory
Unless the telephone is uninvented, this will probably be the last collection of letters by a great writer to be also a great collection of letters. It could be argued that the book should have been either much shorter, so as to be easily assimilable, or else much larger, so as to take in all of the vast number of letters Waugh wrote, but even at this awkward length it is a wonderfully entertaining volume—even more so, in fact, than the Diaries. Here is yet one more reason to thank Evelyn Waugh for his hatred of the modern world. If he had not loathed the telephone, he might have talked all this away.
“Would you say I was a very ill-tempered and self-infatuated man?” he asked Nancy Mitford in 1947, and added, answering his own question: “It hurts.” Waugh was unhappy about himself, and on this evidence he had every right to be. People who want to emphasize his repellent aspects will find plenty to help them here. For one thing, he revelled in his contempt for Jews. In his correspondence he usually spelled the word “Jew” with a small “j” unless he was being polite to one of them for some professional reason. In a 1946 letter to Robert Henriques he asks for information about the Wandering Jew to help him in writing Helena. “Please forgive me for pestering you in this way. You are the only religious Jew of my acquaintance.” In the letter to Nancy Mitford printed immediately afterwards, the Jews are back in lower case. “I have just read an essay by a jew [Arthur Koestler] which explains the Mitford sobriety and other very peculiar manifestations of the family.” If there was ever anything playfully outrageous about this behaviour the charm has long since fled.
But when your stomach has finished turning over it is worth considering that Waugh was equally nasty about any other social, racial, or ethnic group except what he considered to be pure-bred, strait-laced, upper-class Catholic English. In addition to yids, the book is stiff with frogs, dagoes, Huns, coons, chinks, niggers, and buggers. Of necessity Waugh numbered not a few homosexuals among his acquaintances, but it should also be remembered that he knew some Jews too, and that they, like the homosexuals, seem to have been willing enough to put up with his jibes. In other words they drew a line between the essential Evelyn Waugh and the Evelyn Waugh who was a hotbed of prejudice. It wouldn’t hurt us to do the same. Waugh was far too conservative to be an anti-Semite of the Nazi stamp. When he carried on as if the Holocaust had never happened, he wasn’t ignoring its significance, he was ignoring it altogether. He wasn’t about to modify his opinions just because the Huns had wiped out a few yids.
At the end of the Sword of Honour trilogy anti-Semitism is specifically identified as a scourge. The whole closing scene of the third book can confidently be recommended for perusal by anyone who doubts Waugh’s emotional range. Anti-Semitism is also one of the things that Gilbert Pinfold finds poisonous about his own mind. Waugh was perfectly capable of seeing that to go on indulging himself in anti-Semitism even after World War II was tantamount to endorsing a ruinously irrational historical force. But Waugh, with a sort of cantankerous heroism, refused to let the modern era define him. He retained his creative right to interpret events in terms of past principles nobody else considered relevant. When the facts refused to sit, they were simply ignored. (It is remarkable, however, how many of them did sit. Re-reading his work, one is continually struck by how much he got right. He guessed well in advance, for example, that the Jews would not necessarily be much better liked by the Communists than they had been by the Nazis.)
Behaving as if recent history wasn’t actually happening was one of Waugh’s abiding characteristics. It is the main reason why his books always seem so fresh. Since he never fell for any transient political belief, he never dates. In the 1930s, far from not having been a Communist, he wasn’t even a democrat. He believed in a stratified social order and a universal Church, the one nourishing the other. The stratified social order was already crumbling before he was born and the universal Church had disappeared during the reign of Henry VIII. His ideal was largely a fantasy. But it was a rich fantasy, traditionally based. Sustained by it, he could see modern life not just sharply but in perspective. When people say that Waugh was more than just a satirist, they really mean that his satire was coherent. It takes detachment to be so comprehensive.
Waugh seems to have been born with his world view already intact. Even for an English public school boy he sounds unusually mature. The social side of his personality was all set to go. What he had to do was make the facts fit it, since he was neither well off nor particularly well born. In view of these circumstances it is remarkable that he rarely sounds like a parvenu—just like someone waiting to come into his inheritance. If he had not been a writer he might never have made it, but there was no doubt about that side of his personality either. While still at school he was interested in the technicalities of writing and already capable of the first-class practical criticism which he lavished free of charge on his friends’ manuscripts throughout his life. At Oxford he was awarded a gentleman’s Third but this should not be taken to mean that he was a bad student. He was merely an original one, who absorbed a wide knowledge of history, literature and the fine arts without appearing to try. As he told Nancy Mitford a long time later, it takes a knowledge of anatomy to draw a clothed figure. Waugh’s mind was well stocked.
“I liked the rich people parts less than the poor,” he wrote to Henry Yorke (“Henry Green”) about Yorke’s early novel Living. This was probably a comment about accuracy, or the lack of it. Waugh’s preference for the upper classes did not preclude his noting how the lower orders behaved and spoke. Falling for the Plunket Greenes and the Lygon sisters, Waugh was soon able to satisfy his craving for smart company. It would be easy to paint him as an arriviste, but really the success he enjoyed at one level of society seems to have sharpened his response
The misery he was plunged into when his first wife left him still comes through. In the pit of despair he finished writing Vile Bodies, which remains one of the funniest books in the world. The connection between work and life is not to be glibly analysed in the case of any artist and least of all in Waugh’s. “It has been infinitely difficult,” he told Henry Yorke, “and is certainly the last time I shall try to make a book about sophisticated people.” This is a salutary reminder that he didn’t necessarily like the Bright Young Things—he just found them interesting.
Asking whether Evelyn Waugh was a snob is like asking whether Genghis Khan was an authoritarian. The question turns on what kind of snob, and the first answer is—open and dedicated. During the war he was horrified to find himself sharing the mess with officers of plebeian background, “like young corporals.” (In the Sword of Honour trilogy Guy Crouchback puts up stoically with such affronts. In real life Waugh was probably less patient.) He was under the impression that no Australian, however well educated, would be able to tell a real Tudor building from a false one. (Lack of background.) He doubted whether Proust (“Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective”) ever really penetrated to the inner circles of French society: as a Jew, or jew, all Proust could have met was “the looser aristocracy.”
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