I was 18 when I first read Gore Vidal's novel "The City and the Pillar." It was the early '60s. I was reading a lot of Vidal and Mailer essays in the minor miracle that was Esquire Magazine at the time (it was, to many of us, the center of American literature).
The subject matter of "The City and the Pillar" was said to be verboten - always an attention-getter when you're 18 - and the book seemed a much more manageable length while at college than the late-'40s, early '50s novels of Norman Mailer or James Jones.
It was a shocking book for a straight teenager who'd spent the preceding six years at a private boys school where homosexuality would have been considered troublesome at the very least--if anyone had wanted to think about it at all (which they didn't, not publicly anyway).
What was shocking to me about the novel then was that it was about love, not sex. It was, in that regard, a very '40s book, despite subject matter which would remain radical for decades.
Nor was its tone the same as his magisterial essays, where the prevailing tone was increasingly becoming the impossible and wildly entertaining arrogance of a self-described "third generation celebrity." (Unlike the sneers of H.L. Mencken, said his near-contemporary John Updike, which "convince us that he has concretely, if squintingly, perceived objects in view, Mr. Vidal's seem in contrast quite abstract, rooted in nothing less airy than a belief that sneering becomes him").
"The City and the Pillar" was more radical than people knew at the time. We can see that now when, more than 60 years later, American society is just beginning to catch up to what Vidal treated as matter of fact.
If only we had the greatest Vidal - the one we knew in the '60s through '80s - back in action as America struggles to reconcile everything he always knew we'd have to figure out back in 1948.
In truth, we lost Vidal about a decade ago, when the man who was, for at least three decades, our greatest essayist (as well as an intermittently brilliant novelist - see "Myra Breckrenridge") had turned into more than a bit of a crank. But then Vidal lost his long-term life companion, Howard Austen, in 2003 and we are still, in America, unaccustomed to thinking about such losses the way we'd routinely think of loss of a partner in heterosexual marriage.
Though Vidal would no doubt sneer at such a maudlin notion, it has been my theory that Vidal's greatness declined sharply as he lost the life partner who may have been his first and best reader (along, of course, with a platoon of old friends too, including Paul Newman and Sue Mengers),
What an amazing act Vidal was in his prime, whether on paper or on a television talk show (you don't watch television, he sneered. You appear on it.) Let Mailer do John Garfield, said Vidal. He'd do George Arliss - a truly sublime wisecrack for those who know their Hollywood.
Grandeur was Vidal's merrily un-American business in his prime and no one did it better. He predicated much of his authority on his ancestry - his grandfather the senator, his father the aviator, his share of Jackie Kennedy's family tree. V. S. Pritchett said Vidal goes "romantically into action with one socialite tied behind his back."
But what Vidal, at his best, gave to his fellow writers was his joyous authority as a sovereignty of one, a lifelong conviction that one's greatest work could be done while safely ignoring the question we Americans are so trained to fear: "Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?"
Vidal always knew who he was. He was as divinely arrogant a writer in his way as Vladimir Nabokov (Whom he lovingly called "the Black Swan of Lac Leman").
Nothing could have been more fitting for the man who may turn out to be the last of his breed.