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."

Gore left behind a shelf of books that astonishes, with 25 novels, plays, screenplays, short stories, memoirs, and - splendidly - the countless essays collected in volume after volume for half a century.

He was a great American essayist, a worthy successor to Emerson and Twain in this genre. And he never minced words, writing as an early advocate of gay liberation, as a political radical with ties to the American and European Enlightenment.

I think he was a necessary writer, an American patriot who took seriously the ideals of the Founding Fathers. He called a pothole a pothole. He was, perhaps, a natural scold, and he attacked all and sundry who refused to behave in a way that he considered right and proper.

He hated war-mongering, and he opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with his usual vengeance, horrified that Americans seem willing to trade the bodies of young American soldiers for oil. He scorned a political system that allowed rich people and wealthy corporations to buy off politicians in ways that would reduce their taxes - corporate and personal - and kill regulatory legislation. “We’re a country with only one party,” he said to me, “the party of property.”

He thought of the Republicans and Democrats as simply two wings of this single party, which had very little to do with the people. He seemed never to tire of noticing how badly things had gone, how the country had somehow slipped off the rails.

Anyone who wants to learn about American politics and history should read his amazing essays. They should also read his novels about the American past, such as "Burr" and "Lincoln" and "Empire." They might even click on one of his acerbic appearances on British and American talk shows, now easily accessed through YouTube.

His voice – in writing as in person - was singular, and there is nobody to replace him. Of course I will miss him personally – he was a friend I could call any time of the day or night with a problem, a joke, a good story - but the country will miss him more, even though they don't quite realize it now.

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soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Purplemate

    Although I'm not in agreement with the mans lifestyle, I must say I laughted out loud at his come back to Jay's question if it's ok to prolong a dialogue on Kierkegaard for about 20 pages. Never read the guys books, but I'm a sucker for quick wit !

    August 1, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Oh, because he was gay? When a person's whole life is reduced to who they slept with, and not the sum total of his being, it's a sad, sad day. Something like that does not define a person.

      August 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • ChowDown

      So you have to be in agreement with a lifestyle before you can find any other unrelated merit?

      August 2, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  2. Purplemate

    @ banasy©, I only follow God not man, sorry if I offended you. Then again we all have to follow our own conscience.

    August 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Oh, you didn't offend me at all.
    We are free to state our opinions here.
    I just don't think that the true mettle of a person is who that person prefers to love, that's all.
    I'm also fairly sure that GV's conscience was clear, although I cannot state that without 100% certainty; I can state with 100% certainty that mine is.

    August 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Purplemate

    No harm no foul between us then mate! 🙂

    August 1, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. raven

    I always say : she can do me, but I ain't touching her. Cuz I'm not gay.

    August 1, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I have no witty reply to that, raven...

      August 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Philip

    @Charles. What a lovely and fitting way you have expressed Gore Vidal to US. Thank you for this.
    But in defense of fmr. President of the United states of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I must add that Oppenheimer refused to honor FDR's generous order of machine tool diamonds to keep pace with those Oppenheimer had been providing to nazis building the Third Reich underground in secret military bases carved out of the rock by enslaved Jews. Gold is almost as vital as machine tool diamonds are when it come to building a War Machine quickly, dontcha know?

    August 2, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  7. williamhazlitt

    Gore Vidal was an arrogant fraud who looked down on his country as not being good enough for him. He was an antisemite and a communist sympathizer. So of course he was a favorite of the pseudo-intelligentsia in the US and Europe.

    August 2, 2012 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      On the other hand, it's not arrogant in the least to refer to Vidal's fans as the "pseudo-intelligentsia."

      August 2, 2012 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. Philip

    ...and Charles. Come on, now. Cicero? Vidal? Not in my book. Cicero defended a man whose own sons had stolen his furniture and labled dad as a terrorist. Big shoes to fill, to be sure.
    Had Vidal exposed Bush/carlyle Group/Cheney Energy Task Force for having Bridas Corporation employees (and those who know of Bridas v. Turkmenneft Supreme court case incidents and have proof) all thrown into GITMO labeled as terrorists, I would STILL give Thallius Marcus Cicero the nod. Even the Apostle to those nations, Paul of Tarsus.

    August 2, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    ...not to rain on your Gore Vidal parade more than previous, I don't recall Gore Vidal ever doing much to expose Bush appointed federal judges gagging FBI whistleblower Sibel D. Edmonds along with 24 Dept. of Defense employees whom discovered the names of the men both foreign and domestic who were involved in money laundering, drug traffiking, AND the finance of the now solved crime of 9/11.
    Do you?

    August 2, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. J-Man

    Thank you Charles, what a wonderful synopsis of a brilliant man's life. I too, felt his was one of those rare voices emanating from an unselfish soul who genuinely sought to improve the plight of humanity. This is indeed a great loss.

    August 2, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |

    @phillip and charles:
    I respectfully disagree with your comparisons of Vidal and Cicero's, IMHO opinion I always used Solon as an example.
    So much so that after listening to Mr. Vidals answers and views on Congress after they surendered their war making powers to Bush and then they complained about Being unable to stop Iraq invasion. his words were given even in the same metrics as those of Solons famous words.

    "If now you suffer, do not blame the Powers,
    For they are good, and all the fault was ours.
    All the strongholds you put into his hands,
    And now his slaves mist do as he commands.

    August 2, 2012 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
  12. Stan French

    I was very impressed with the writer, and in thought of his passing, I would think that he would be honored if I called him the Voltair of our time.

    August 2, 2012 at 5:35 am | Report abuse |
  13. haankzmith

    They could'nt remove the Gerbil quick enough.
    Gnawed half-way thru his spleen, I heard.

    August 2, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |