It sounds funny to say this about a writer who has had as long and successful a career as Gore Vidal, but there are times I suspect that he is the most under/rated of our writers: He is quite simply a master novelist and the finest writer of essays of the last half century. Point To Point Navigation is a lovely, understated summing up of a long and varied life. If one cares about effortless prose- and a clear-eyed overview of the last few deacdes, you owe it to yourself to read P To P Navigation.
Yes there's the charm, the wit, the astonishing offhand stories about his friendships with a diverse crowd of 20th century legends, but in a nutshell: read Palimpsest instead! He actually repeats a couple stories from that book here. A few good new stories, but not many. If you have already read Palimpsest, this is something of an addendum.
Wide Ranging Thoughts and Experiences Recalled
Vidal starts with his views on the future of the novel which got me wondering about the future of memoirs. Since books like this are not usually converted to film, sadly, it may be the memoir that publishers drop from their lists.
Later in the book Vidal writes of Paul Bowles who's agent needs celebrity names and corresponding anecdotes in order to shop a memoir, which Bowles will reluctantly write. Celebrity anecdotes are not problem for Vidal, who has plenty of names (of both US and European royalty) to drop. From lunch in Thailand with Barbara Cartland to dinner with Princess Margaret to being airbrushed out of his proximity to JFK and being cryptically greeted by his widow in an elevator, this book meets any agent's celebrity anecdote quota.
The book's totality is more than any of its name-dropping parts. Vidal's interesting life, view of the world, and literary style make it a worthwhile read.
When Character Was King
My grandfather had it; nowadays those without it talk about it--and have no idea what it is, and wouldn't know it if they encountered it. But Gore Vidal has it. And in a stream of consciousness memoir that interweaves the public and the private; the political and the aesthetic; the psychological and sociological, Gore Vidal demonstrates that he is one of the few Americans who not only has it, but demonstrates its value. And that is CHARACTER. Gore Vidal is not afraid to opine on a number of sacred cows--and providing his version of the truth which may discomfort some but he has the merit, I believe, to not give a damn. He is a man of letters who is serious about politics, and is frank in his assessment of politics and politicians is extremely rare and more rare because he speaks in a voice of eloquence. Perhaps he can afford to be frank because he is a man of talent, who, so long as he has been able to earn a comfortable living from his opinions, does not have to fear being voted out of office. His observations are mixed with a blend of historicity and reason and with an emotional intution: isn't that how most people form their political traits? Gore Vidal's self-discipline allows him to call upon his reading and his experience to make reasonable assertions that might seem radical to some. For example, he notes how 'motherhood' as a sanctified position in American society is a recent value, and no one made much of George Washington's unkind view of his own mother. However, Americans, for whom history is a high school subject, rarely understand the historical perspective, favoring, unfortunately, the hysterical perspective. Gore Vidal may be wry and jaded, but any idealist would who has studied the history of a nation founded by intellectuals who were required to--in order to graduate from college-- translate Greek into Latin and vice-versa. Imagine if they were to see our government now with bureaucrats incapable of running a decent lemonade stand.
That would be my memory, not Vidal's. His memory speaks - both precisely and compassionately in this book, as in "Palimpsest."
It took me years to appreciate Vidal's work - it was the "American Empire" series that turned that corner for this disciple of the great American historian William Appleman Williams. Since then, I've read most of his essays and a number of his novels. "Point to Point" is a fitting closure to a great and honourable body of work.
Back in the 90's, I had the (never-realised)idea of writing a book on William Blake and the American poet, Joel Barlow. Part of the theme was to relate "serious" and "mock" epic poetry. I couldn't imagine whom else better to write for insight than Gore Vidal. During a very short-lasting, hand-written correspondence, he did, indeed, share an excellent insight or two, in a tone both respectful and witty ("I memorized yards of Pope when I was young"). He also offered encouragement and respect. More to the point of "Point," he also offered personal memory. He wrote that, on his blind Grandfather Gore's return to the Senate, it was a Senator Kilgore who guided him to his seat. That was a piece of my own (very-extended) family's history I'd not known, and a moving piece at that.
So it was not news to me, as it has seemed to be to some, that Vidal is a flesh-and-blood person as well as a sharp tongue and penetrating intellect. I once wrote a thesis on a nineteenth-century figure, Parson Brownlow of Tennessee (about whom Vidal knew, of course). I called him "a public bastard and a private saint." Vidal would no doubt more-easily accept the first characterisation than the second. But I offer both. Read his two memoirs and see for yourself.