Book review: The life and loves and feuds of Gore Vidal

Written by Jay Parini, a friend of the author's until the end, this biography is too determined to treat Vidal as a serious writer and passes over some of the fun of his life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 8:00am


In the introduction to his new book about Gore Vidal, Jay Parini writes: "I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son."

In a memoir, this would be a powerful inducement to read on, signalling precisely the kind of complicated relationship one wants in that form. But this is not a memoir. Parini, a novelist and academic, has written a traditional biography; his personal recollections of Vidal are limited mostly to the rather stagey first-person vignettes that precede each chapter. His talk of his closeness to Vidal, moreover, soon starts to seem like something of an exaggeration.

By his own telling, Parini played a rather courtly role in Vidal's realm. His subject was famous for his feuds. He and Parini, however, remained pals right until the end, perhaps for the straightforward reason that his awed biographer knew better than ever to disagree with him.

This is not to say that this is a whitewash. Parini, who first met Vidal in the 1980s when he was living near the older writer's vast Amalfi home, La Rondinaia, is certainly too soft when it comes to his novels, praising even some of the bad ones. But about the man he is mostly clear-eyed, as content to detail the spite and the sulking as the generosity, wit and cleverness.

If he has an Achilles' heel, it is his attitude towards Vidal's sexuality. Obsessed in a quite prurient way with the degree to which Vidal was bisexual, Parini's cod psychology is outdated and frequently patronising. Oh, well. The great thing about Vidal is that his story survives all retellings, whether by himself - his memoir Palimpsest, for all its exaggerations and untruths, is unputdownable - or by a tin-eared biographer.

Parini takes us through the familiar territory: the teenage love affair with Jimmy Trimble, who was killed in the battle of Iwo Jima; his mother's second marriage to Hugh D Auchincloss, whose stepdaughter, Jacqueline, would go on to marry John Kennedy; the astonishing braveness of his publishing, in 1948, a gay coming-of-age novel, The City and the Pillar; the final kiss he gave his long-term companion Howard Austen as he lay dying in 2003 (Vidal would follow him nine years later). The book has a cast of thousands: Paul Newman, Christopher Isherwood, Claire Bloom, Tennessee Williams. The feuds with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William Buckley are all present and correct, and there are detailed accounts of his various (unsuccessful) efforts to seek election.

But Parini's determination to treat Vidal above all else as a serious writer pushes out a lot of the Gore gaiety, the sheer magnificence that came with a sensibility such as his.

Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Little, Brown)

The Guardian