August 1st, 2012
05:01 PM ET

Tribute: My friend, il maestro Gore Vidal

Editor's note: Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, biographer and critic. He is the author of more than 20 books, ranging from poetry and nonfiction to biographies as well as collections of essays. In 2009, his novel "The Last Station" was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. Film adaptations of "Benjamin’s Crossing" and "The Passages of H.M." are under way.

For a long time now I've been thinking about the day Gore Vidal would die, as we've been close friends for three decades. I knew I would miss him terribly, and I do – although he hasn’t been dead for a day yet.

We met a few decades ago in southern Italy, where I lived for a period in a small house overlooking the Amalfi Coast – a magical place, with astonishing views of the sea and a lemon grove behind us. I was writing a historical novel, set in the coal country of Pennsylvania, in the 1920s, and reading historical novels to get ideas, especially those by Vidal – he had been a favorite author of mine from my days in college, when I first read "Julian" and "Washington, D.C."

At the time, I didn't even know he lived on the Amalfi Coast, nor that - in fact - I had rented a house in a garden below his imposing villa, which perched on a cliff like a swallow’s nest. (Gore had lived there since 1972 with his lifelong companion, Howard Austen.)

By chance, soon after my arrival, I asked a local newsagent who lived in the big villa, assuming it was some feudal lord. He said: "Gore Vidal, il maestro!" He explained that Vidal stopped by every afternoon to buy a paper and have a drink next door. Somewhat taken aback, I left a note for him:
'Dear Mr. Vidal, I'm an American writer who has moved to town. If there is any chance to meet you, I would be delighted.' I left my address but hardly expected to hear from him. Much to my amazement, he knocked on my door a few hours later, saying: "Parini, come for dinner."

That night I went for dinner, and I kept going. Over time, we became close friends, and he would read a good deal of what I wrote and comment in detail, offering shrewd criticism and encouragement. I would read drafts of things that he wrote, too, and we talked endlessly about the craft of writing.

He really did seem to know everything there was to know about this. Once, for instance, I was sitting with him and said: “I'm writing a novel in which two characters talk about Kierkegaard for about 20 pages. Can I get away with this?" With a twinkle, after a slight pause, he replied, "You can do that. But only if these characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the seat."

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