Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir
by Gore Vidal
Doubleday November 2006 272 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Winter has come to the lion. Gore Vidal is eighty years old, and his birthday present to us is Point to Point Navigation, his second memoir. His first, 1995’s weighty and well-received Palimpsest, covered his life until 1964, his first thirty-nine years. Readers might expect the newest (and surely last) to be a summing up from one of America’s greatest living writers, but, sadly, such is not the case.
Literary autobiography has the virtue of presenting a life as a narrative, with the author looking back over the years and finding a pattern in time’s forward march. Memoir is under no such responsibilities and, one could argue, presents the working of the mind more accurately, as one association calls up another, not in temporal order, but through connections deeper and less artificial than the march of years.
By these definitions, Point to Point Navigation is a memoir, yet it is neither a conclusion to nor a continuation of Palimpsest. Most kindly, one could say it’s a series of memories as vignettes, emerging in the text in no particular order, with no particular relevance other than evidence of the experiences of an exceedingly intelligent, vain man. Vidal has taken the freedom the memoir offers, but has delivered a text that is directionless, lumpy, and disconnected. However, if you approach the book as a series of post-prandial stories by a wicked, witty gossip, you won’t be disappointed.
Narcissist, homosexualist (his word), atheist, Vidal was born in 1925 into money and politics, grandson of a Senator and son of an aviation pioneer. Through a complex series of divorces and remarriages, he became related to a certain Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, and, perhaps, Al Gore, although as he notes, “I have never been able to remember what relation I am to Albert Gore Junior even though his father, a Tennessee senator, once explained it to me on television in San Francisco.”
Following wartime service, he eschewed college to become a writer and, by his third novel, he was famous, if not rich. Modest wealth would come between 1954 and 1964, with stints in television writing and Broadway. In 1963 Vidal moved to Ravello, Italy, with his partner, Howard Auster, where they lived until 2004. Now he spends his “hospital years,” following the death of Howard, in Hollywood Hills.
He laments the passing of Howard, his partner of 53 years, whom he kissed for the first time when Howard was near death. “Where the British—at least Bloomsbury—never ceased to have affairs with friends, colleagues, relatives, Americans of the same sort try to separate, wisely, I think, sex and friendship.” Vidal has preferred to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere and, according to him, this is the secret to their long relationship.
Although he has lived abroad, the “United States of Amnesia” has been his lifelong concern, along with classical Rome and Greece. His is an historian’s mind in a novelist’s body. However, Vidal has never been one to shrink from the spotlight, with multiple and unsuccessful campaigns for political office, acting jobs, television appearances, and interaction with celebrities.
Vidal shares wicked remembrances of Barbara Cartland and Jacqueline Susann, whose “large dark eyes [with] thick false lashes resembled a pair of tarantulas in a postcoital state.” We are entertained with glimpses of a retired Johnny Carson, a dying Rudolph Nureyev, and lots of stories about Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, and other writers.
But, as we have come to expect, center stage is occupied by the Man Himself. Despite fame, fortune, and respected erudition, Vidal is still anxious to let us know about his further contributions to civilization. Among them are being the first to conceive of the Peace Corps, the first to give Jack Kennedy the idea for space exploration, the man responsible for not only Francis Ford Coppola’s film career (he “forced” Ray Stark to read one of Coppola’s scripts), but also his interest in wine. Tennessee Williams’ nickname, “The Glorious Bird?” Paul Bowles’ publication of The Sheltering Sky? Nobody but Gore is responsible. One is struck by the neediness of the person behind the impressive body of work and enviable life.
Of biographies, Vidal says, “Nonlinear lives make for awkward biographies by those who do not easily grasp the apparently conflicting identities—or masks—on view.”
In Point to Point Navigation, Vidal has given us an account of a nonlinear life that, while an admirable production for an eighty-year-old, should have offered the reader a more organized peek into an extraordinary life.