Saturday, June 2, 2012

Gore Vidal, Political Populist and Literary Snob

Gore Vidal's essays on politics and those in the form of memoir are glorious, but he more than makes up for it with his literary essays, which basically consist of contempt for writers and their readers who are not of his aristocratic class and or, among contemporary writers, his personal friends. In the essay collection At Home there is a Part I, consisting, oh boy oh boy! of delightful telling of anecdotes from Vidal's amazing life, peppered with good angry funny political populism, and a Part II consisting, oh Jesus, oh no, of Vidal pompously and dully lecturing the reader about American writers who have had the nerve to win more awards than he has, and to make ends meet by teaching, instead of from coming from a wealthy family like he did, the barbarians who *cringe* went to public schools -- the bad American kind, not the good English kind which produced some of Vidal's friends who it's an outrage they didn't get the Nobel Prize cause it's all a conspiracy of mediocrity among people who weren't taught the classics and have an (understandable, of course) envious rage against the cool kids like Gore.


Except that one of the essays in Part I belongs in Part II because it mostly consists of spleen against those of us who waste our lives with trash like Gaddis and Gass, and, oh dear, even uncouth types such as Pynchon, instead of having the common decency to love Louis Auchincloss for having continued the tradition of George Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton. (Never mind that Gaddis and Pynchon are just as upperclass as Vidal, Pynchon maybe even a little more, but Gaddis committed the crime of becoming good buds with that professor Gass, who lives in St Louis, my God! and Pynchon, worse still, often convincingly writes in the cadences of us regular folks.) I'm talking about the essay "Frederic Prokosch: the European Connection." Prokosch was cool with Vidal because he came from that same American boarding-school background, was an expat like Vidal is part-time, and, most important of all, because he dripped with the same instinctive contempt for non-snobbish writers.

I just want to talk about the end of the essay: Vidal has taken his friend Prokosch (why??) to a party chock-full of his bêtes noires, American poets who have won awards and who teach college classes. Vidal's description of these people is petty and gratuitously cruel, and, twenty-some years after first having read it -- pardon me, folks, sometimes I'm slow -- it only now occurs to me to wonder how accurate his descriptions of the persons are. (His descriptions of their books are pretty much completely worthless.) He writes that all these boors have just agreed that the classics are worthless -- Did they? It occurs to me, unforgivably late, that this is the sort of thing I tend to encounter in Vidal's depictions of writers he hates, and nowhere else; for instance, nowhere in the writing of those writers -- which inspires Prokosch to the classy act of reciting some lines of Vergil, after which he will calmly inform these tenured unwashed where he used to read them every day, carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese "at Rome," so there! And he will go on to say, "I'd think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries."

The implication, which of course Prokosch was too cultured to say, and Vidal too cultured to write, being that centuries after the world had forgotten this entire roomful of college-teachin' boors, the best people would continue to read Vergil and Prokosch and Vidal.

Yeah, maybe so. Vergil, anyway. But as I said, I wonder whether those people Gore Vidal hates so much really did say anything like "The classics are worthless." It has been known to happen that a party guest was so choked with booze and bile that it affected his hearing. According to Vidal, as Prokosch began to recite Vergil, a "full professor" murmured to his "full wife," "It's Dante." (Hey, Gore, you're fat too! Sometimes you act like you don't know it.) Cause he wuz just what passes for a full professor in Amurrka these days, and ain't never even been to no public school and cain't even tell no Latin from no Eye-talian! hyuck hyuck hyuck...

This was the point and peak of Vidal's punchline in the joke he made of these partygoers. But maybe in reality it was all very different. Maybe these professors and their spouses -- according to Vidal it was all professors and their wives, as if there were no female professors and no gay professors to be found in the Hudson Valley in the 1980's. Add that to the list of unrealistic details in Vidal's portrait of American academia and American prizewinning literature -- maybe they appreciated the classics very much, and were also bright enough to perceive Vidal's and Prokosch's misguided disdain, although too polite to return it in a manner pointed enough that Vidal could perceive it. (Why were the two of them there? Is it completely farfetched to wonder if they might go to a party full of American professor-poets solely in order to wallow in their own disdain?) Maybe that man knew quite well that Prokosch was reciting Vergil, and what he really whispered to that woman was something actually quite witty, like, "We're officially going to Hell now. I feel like Dante."

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