I must have read a great deal of Vidal’s output over the years and am familiar with his of musings over his own life in ‘Palimpest’ and ‘Point to Point Navigation’. I was aware of Parini’s book but delayed reading it for unknown reasons. I am glad I got around to it as it is beautifully written (Parini is an acknowledged master of the biographical fiction genre (Tolstoy, Benjamin, Robert Frost, Faulkner and Herman Melville)). His not inconsiderable mastery of biographical writing is well applied in this case as he was a friend of Vidal and privy to his milieus in Italy and the US. He must have been no threat as he retained ‘friend’ status for a long time.
The book is also of particular interest to homosexuals as it includes far more explicit detail about Vidal’s not inconsiderable sex life as well as his somewhat peculiar relationship to his life long (50 years) partner Howard Auster (n). Vidal was always playfully indirect with regard to his sexuality and his relationships with such women as Anaïs Nin while writing one of the earliest modern gay novels (later revised) ‘The City and the Pillar’. He had life-long liaisons with other men as well as a ravenous appetite for ‘trade’ encounters off the streets – something he found symaptico with his time in Roma and the environs of his Amalfi home ‘La Rondinaia’. Probably he held his longest candle for a teen school love affair Jimmy Trimble who died on Iwo Jima and left Vidal with a long-term longing he was not shy to deny. There is some pretty amateurish psychology attempted in Parini’s coverage which is probably left alone so the reader can make up their own minds about this somewhat complicated psyche.
It is very possible to disagree with Vidal’s opinions (many going back to his time with his populist grandfather Senator Vidal from Oklahoma and his Rock Park Washington home but a lot of readers succumb to his wit and well-constructed language evidenced most clearly in his essays. I have not completed his imperial America novel cycle though I have sampled it. These works are notable not only for his usual facility with language but also his capacity to turn his detailed researches into intriguing and readable story lines. Most visitors remarked on the scale of his library and the fact that it was evidently well used and retained for conversational purposes.
Parini is somewhat worshipful in his attitudes and rendition but probably excusably so as, I for one, would probably have given a great deal to have dined at Vidal’s table and enjoyed his company even if it was probably a very one-sided affair against Princess Margaret and Rudolf Nureyev. This is probably the key dividing point for many readers. If you are not greatly interested in Vidal the presenter, stick to the sex and that might see you through the read.
Anyone who could have said “always a godfather, never a god” was just the kind of person who felt “Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside me Dies” (whether truly Vidal or Maugham). Love or loathe him, he was always stimulating, interesting and enjoyable as this book is in part.