Under His Spell: Dreaming of Gore Vidal

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Gore Vidal was the first living writer to get under my skin — for good and ill, but mostly for good. With his death last week, I am still puzzling out how I fell under his spell and what it might mean.

I came of age in Virginia in the 1960s and first knew Vidal as a TV personality. It was the age of talk show intellectuals and he appeared regularly on television along with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and others. He was memorably smooth, articulate and witty. He was also very handsome, but I was a repressed gay teenager and not ready to acknowledge that. A copy of Myra Breckinridge made the rounds at study hall (along with Valley of the Dolls and The Harrad Experiment), but I didn’t read him yet, only the reviews of his work in Time.

I witnessed his most famous TV appearance, his confrontation with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. I was 16 and home from the Boy Scout camp where I worked as a counselor. The two men provided commentary each night, Vidal from the left, Buckley from the right. They were very testy even before the rioting broke out.

When Buckley called the student protestors crypto Nazis, Vidal said the only crypto Nazi he saw was Buckley. Buckley exploded: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” Vidal remained remarkably calm. He broke into a boyish smile, as if he thought Buckley were only joking. Then the smile wavered when he understood how angry the man was.

I sat there open-mouthed, uncertain I’d heard right. One did not hear grown men call each other fags on live TV in those days. People talked about it the next day, but the newspapers couldn’t print the word. “Queer” was considered an obscenity. Of course, the accusation made Vidal only that much more interesting to me.

Two years later I actually met Vidal — by proxy anyway. I met a distant cousin, an adult Scout leader who was my date for the Eagle Scout banquet. Each new Eagle was paired with a grown-up who worked in a field the boy wanted to enter. By this time everybody knew I wanted to be a writer, and so they looked for somebody with a literary connection. And all they could find was old Bill Vidal.

Looking back on it, I am amazed the Boy Scouts of America would think a Gore Vidal surrogate was suitable. This was after the publication of Myra Breckinridge and the fight with Buckley. But the fact of the matter is that my adult leaders knew Vidal only as a famous name and occasional guest on TV talk shows. They did not know his books. They certainly didn’t know The City and the Pillar. Bill Vidal confessed over dinner that he’d never met his famous cousin, only heard stories about him. However, he did tell me good stories about growing up in upstate New York, including the first time he ever saw an automobile.

I didn’t get to The City and the Pillar myself until college. I can’t say I liked it. I was a  gay neophyte looking for sex scenes and the novel opens with a great one: two teenage boys have hot sex on a camping trip. But Jim, the protagonist, spends the rest of the novel longing for his buddy until he finally meets up with him years later and finds he’s straight. So he kills him. (This was the original 1948 version. When Vidal rewrote it in 1965, he relented and Jim merely rapes the poor guy.)

But shortly afterward, I discovered Vidal’s essays and that’s when I really began to read him — passionately. The first book was Homage to Daniel Shays. His range of subject matter was glorious: Roman history, American history, French literature, the Kennedy family, Anaïs Nin , and yes, sexuality. The prose of his essays is erudite, surprising, and very funny. He had a stand-up comedian’s gift for placing a startlingly rude phrase in the midst of an otherwise civilized sentence. For example, in his damning review of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, he launches into a riff about the myth of monogamy and another book’s advice for how to keep a husband excited. “Nevertheless, by unexpectedly redoing the bedroom in sexy shades, a new hairstyle, exotic perfumes, ravishing naughty underwear, and an unexpected blow job with a mouth full of cream of wheat, somehow a girl who puts her mind to it can keep him coming back year after year after year.”

People who don’t actually read Vidal know him as only a curmudgeon, a scold, a hater. But his essays could praise as well as mock, celebrate as well as condemn. He wrote warmly and appreciatively about Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, and his own father, aviation pioneer Eugene Vidal.

His fiction can’t help looking pale in comparison to the essays. His friend and editor Jason Epstein said he was too egotistical to be a good novelist, and there is some truth in that. But Vidal was able to navigate around that difficulty by giving his egotism to his strongest characters: Julian the Apostate, Myra Breckinridge, and Aaron Burr. They are the protagonists of his best novels.

In addition to his essays I regularly read his interviews. He gave brilliant interviews. More than one person has said that Gore Vidal’s public persona — a thing of imperious authority, omniscience and dry wit — was his best fictional creation.

I almost never dream about writers, but sometime while I was writing a first novel, I dreamed about Gore Vidal. We were at a family reunion (apparently we were related) and he and I sat side by side on a log. He had just finished reading my manuscript. He told me, quietly but firmly, that the book didn’t work and there was nothing for me to do but put it aside and start a new novel. I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking: No, no, I can fix it. I can make it work — before I remembered I was not related to Vidal, we hadn’t even met, and he hadn’t read my novel. Incidentally, his dream self was right: I never was able to publish that novel.

But finally, in 1987, I did publish a novel. More novels followed, about a broad range of topics — coming of age in the 1970s, New York in the 1940s, AIDS in the 1980s — with only a gay milieu in common. Not until my fourth novel, Almost History, about a gay man in the State Department, did I notice how often I wrote about politics and history. I was as obsessed with them as Vidal was. I wrote about them differently: they were more background than foreground. But I joked that I was the low-rent Gore Vidal — or even the gay Gore Vidal. A couple of reviewers compared us, though not in my favor.

It might have produced a debilitating anxiety of influence, except I stopped thinking about Vidal around this time. Maybe that was just my way of dealing with the anxiety. And I was very busy writing my books. But the fact is Vidal became less interesting as a writer in the late 1980s and the 1990s. And his public persona became more difficult, often impossible. He grew crankier, less witty, less winning. His jokes became stale, his political positions, such as his defense of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, unsettling.

But when I wrote Eminent Outlaws, my history of gay American writers after World War II, I found myself going back to the Vidal who first won my admiration. I was surprised by how important he was to the first half of the book, valuable not only for himself but as connecting link with many other writers. He knew everybody and he liked more of his peers than we give him credit for. He took a lot of brutal knocks as a gay writer at the start of his career, knocks that left his contemporaries, Truman Capote and James Baldwin, unhinged. Vidal remained calm, centered, and sane for much longer than they did. He really was an amazing man and an excellent writer. I was glad to rediscover that before he died.

You don’t have to read a writer to be influenced by him. Sometimes you fall in love first and don’t begin to read him until afterwards. It’s as irrational as love at first sight. Sometimes you learn that the love is deserved; sometimes it isn’t. But influence is trickier than most people think. It’s not simply a matter of one artist copying another. It can be as mysterious as the influence of the stars in astrology: they can affect our lives from a distance, as if by gravity.

I didn’t copy Gore Vidal and I never took anything from him directly. But I took great satisfaction in his prose and I learned from his example. It’s not so much the anxiety of influence or even what Jonathan Lethem calls the ecstasy of influence. No, it’s more like a feeling of kinship, a distant genealogical bond, a family relationship. Maybe, as in my dream, we are related after all.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Magician’s Forgotten Brother

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Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, the Russian emigre and American professor, a literary magician in two different languages, left behind a younger brother when he fled Europe to the United States on the eve of World War II. Sergey Nabokov experienced the same confusion of moneyed privilege followed by penurious exile as his famous brother. But Sergey was an artist without an art, a lover of music, ballet, sex, and men. At one point he became an opium addict. He was stranded in Berlin during the last years of the Third Reich.

Novelist Paul Russell has taken this forgotten figure, a footnote in the biography of a twentieth century genius, and brought him back from the shadows in a remarkable novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. It is fiction built on fact, a Nabokovian exploration of the slanted truths of fiction. The title’s echo of Nabokov’s novel about biography, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is no accident. Sergey narrates his own story here in a voice that’s a cousin of his brother’s brilliantly freaky ESL English, and not a poor cousin either. The book is an homage to Vladimir Nabokov that also functions as a work of literary criticism (Sergey reads his brother’s early novels with intense familial understanding) and, like the best art, a work of life criticism, too.

Unreal Life is Russell’s sixth novel. His other books, which include Boys of Life, Sea of Tranquillity, and The Coming Storm, touched on some of the themes he explores here: love, art, beauty, and same-sex desire. But Unreal Life is Russell’s first historical novel, his most ambitious work, and his most epic. He has taken his old themes and put them at the center of the tragedy of modern European history.

Russell lives in an old farmhouse in Rosendale, New York — he teaches literature and creative writing at Vassar College on the other side of the Hudson. I recently spoke with him there about Sergey and Vladimir and the uses and abuses of fiction.

The Millions: When did you first think about writing a novel about Sergey Nabokov?

Paul Russell: My answer should be, “Ever since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov back in the early ‘80s.” I was certainly aware that Nabokov had a gay brother about whom he had very mixed feelings; he writes candidly — albeit briefly — about those mixed feelings in his autobiography Speak, Memory. But it wasn’t until I read Lev Grossman’s essay “The Gay Nabokov” in Salon that I realized here was a subject that had been lying in plain sight for years, and I somehow hadn’t seen it. So I’m very grateful for Lev’s work for making visible certain possibilities for story-telling that should have been obvious; I’m rather embarrassed they had to be pointed out to me like that!

TM: Why a novel? Did you ever consider doing a biography instead?

PR: I don’t really have the patience or talent or temperament to do the kind of research you’d have to do to write a proper biography. It seemed much more congenial to forge Sergey’s memoirs rather than have to track down real life, reluctant sources.  I’m a very shy person in many respects; if I can’t do a project while sitting at my desk in my study, chances are I won’t do it. I’m not so good at uncovering facts, but have become quite skilled at dreaming my way toward them. Besides, when I asked Lev if there was other material he’d come across in his extensive detective work but left out of the published essay, he told me he’d put in everything he had. The farther Sergey’s life strayed from his brother’s, the fainter the trail becomes.

TM: This is your first novel about a real person, right? Did you feel trapped or liberated by writing about someone who actually existed?

PR: A little of both. In one sense I had the plot, the basic trajectory of Sergey’s life: his unhappy boyhood in Russia, the family’s flight into exile after the revolution, his Cambridge education, his years in Paris, his Austrian boyfriend, his death in a labor camp outside Hamburg. In another sense, I didn’t have the plot at all — by which I mean the day-to-day details and concerns and preoccupations, all the various eddies that roiled the larger current as it swept him inexorably along toward his fate. I knew about Hermann Thieme, the Austrian, but I had to invent all the other love interests. I knew the famous people Sergey was friends with, but most of our daily lives aren’t lived among famous people. I had the skeleton; I had to invent the organs and musculature and flesh.

TM: When I wrote Gods and Monsters about movie director James Whale, I first felt freed by having facts to draw upon. Later, however, I became frustrated knowing that no matter what I invented, my protagonist would still have to end up at the bottom of his swimming pool. “Quit complaining,” my agent told me. “Most writers don’t know where their story will go, but you’ve been given a great ending.”

PR: I think it was Hemingway who said, “Follow any life far enough, and it ends badly.” For me, the great looming end was Sergey’s death in a concentration camp. This presented a number of difficulties, especially since, from the beginning, I wanted to write in the first person. I felt it important to give a voice — quite literally — to the silenced brother. To have the fiction of that voice somehow continue into the abyss of the camp seemed not only impossible, but in some way indelicate, even obscene. For a while I toyed with the notion of switching to the third person in order to follow him into the camp; in the end I chose to include a brief Afterword summarizing what happened to him after his arrest by the Gestapo in December, 1943 (he died in January, 1945).

TM: Sergey is not the only historical figure here. You also include Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein. What was it like using famous figures fictionally?

PR: Great fun, actually. Stein and Cocteau, paradoxically, intimidated me less than some of the minor characters whom I invented out of thin air. They practically wrote themselves in that their fictional incarnations often quote or at least paraphrase their real life counterparts in dialogue.

TM: What are the legal issues with writing about real people? What are the moral issues?

PR: The legal issues, at least in the US, are simple: you can say anything you want about the dead. The moral issues are, obviously, more complex. In terms of famous people like Cocteau, Stein, or Vladimir Nabokov, I think they’ve ceded any claim to privacy. Sergey presents a different case. He didn’t call attention to himself. He didn’t inscribe his heart on a page for all to see. Some people will feel I shouldn’t have written about Sergey at all, that I’ve stolen something that isn’t mine, that I’ve violated a privacy that, by virtue of the unassuming life he led, he still should retain his right to. Did I struggle with this question a lot? Not really. That may seem profoundly or perversely strange, but in order to write Sergey I had to become Sergey. For instance: I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but in order to write about Sergey’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, I had enter as deeply and seriously into the mystery of faith as I could. Ballet doesn’t interest me at all, but I had to become a balletomane—or at least try to understand what it is to be a balletomane. Does that sound like madness? It’s the reason I write: to live more abundantly as others than it’s possible to live as myself. Because in writing about Sergey I was also writing about myself — not the self I had previously been, but the expanded self I was forced (or privileged) to become through the very act of imagining Sergey. There’s that line from Rimbaud: “I am someone else.” That’s what I strive for — at least in my writing. Maybe in my life as well.

But back to Sergey, and my violation or consecration of him. I knew from the beginning that, however complicated he might turn out to be as a human being, I wanted to honor the memory of this gay man who was silenced in so many different ways — by his chronic stutter, by his outré sexuality, by the labor camp, and finally by his brother, who failed to mention Sergey’s existence until the third version of Speak, Memory. I think Nabokov, to his credit, eventually regretted that — but it took him a long time to come to terms with his own collusion in that silencing.

TM: What would Sergey have thought of this book?

PR: Part of me suspects he’d have hated it. The Nabokovs were, in general, a reserved lot. But then I remember a letter he wrote to his mother, one of the very few instances of his correspondence that survives. In it he talks eloquently and openly about his love for Hermann Thieme:
There is such light in my soul, my entire life now is such [unprecedented] happiness that I can’t help but tell you about it. There are people who would not understand it, who do not understand such things at all. They would prefer to see me in Paris, barely making it by giving lessons, and at the end, a deeply unhappy creature. There are some talks about my “reputation” etc. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me. I wanted to tell you all this and, most importantly, I want you to accept my present life seriously — it is so extraordinary and fairy-like that  one has to [think] about it; and the way how many people do it — one can come to a completely wrong conclusion.
So I’d like to think that Sergey would have wanted his story — especially the story of his and Hermann’s love — to be told, and told forthrightly.

Readers will have to make up their own minds.

TM: Your most important famous figure, of course, is Sergey’s brother, Vladimir. What is your history with Nabokov? He is a very important writer for you, right? When did you first discover him? How has your relationship changed over the years?

PR: My first encounter with Nabokov’s work was beautifully Nabokovian. I was a junior in high school, and had checked Pale Fire out of the library. It didn’t have a dust jacket, so I had no warning of what I was getting myself into. As I began to read it, I couldn’t figure out whether John Shade was a real poet, and whether the poem was a real poem (whatever that might mean) and whether I was supposed to take the increasingly erratic commentary by Charles Kinbote (a real scholar?) seriously. I soon put the book down with a shudder — as if I’d stumbled on something monstrous. But as with all things monstrous, I couldn’t stay away for long. The next year, knowing a bit more about it, I read it through, and was delighted, especially by Kinbote’s wild and swooning erotic commentary, with which I completely identified. Then a few months later I happened to come across a description of Kinbote as the novel’s “mad narrator” and was once again thrown for a loop. It hadn’t occurred to me that Kinbote was mad. And of course, now I have enough confidence in my own powers as a reader that I can see that dismissing Kinbote as merely mad misses the point entirely.

By the time I’d finished college I’d read all Nabokov’s novels, and wrote my honors thesis on him. I was at the same time trying to become a fiction writer by imitating the master. That was of course a terrible idea, though it took me a long time to realize that. In graduate school I intended to write my dissertation on Dickens, but ended up returning to Nabokov — unfinished business, I guess. By the time I completed my dissertation I’d freed myself of his influence — in fact, I never wanted to think about him again, which is the way I imagine many people feel about their dissertation subjects. When I started teaching at Vassar, I realized I didn’t want to do scholarly work but instead write novels, so that’s what I did. Most readers would probably agree that, up till now, my work has been distinctly un-Nabokovian (a reviewer in The Village Voice once described me as a cross between E.M. Forster and Jean Genet!) I do think there’s something poetic in having finally learned how to write like Nabokov — only not the genius Nabokov, but the forgotten Nabokov of modest and dissipated talents.