When I heard that Gore Vidal died July 31 at the age of 86, my first thoughts were of my sister, Jennifer. She discovered him when we were teenagers during the Carter Administration and fell in love with his novels hard. Her devotion to his work was nearly Twihard in scope, except Vidal’s books were about real live (now permanently dead) people, had believable character development and sustainable plot lines. I was 13 or 14 and only reading “serious” stuff, like Chariots of the Gods, but my sister convinced me to read Burr. It changed my relationship to fiction completely.
The only person I could think of who might offer fitting tribute to the late Gore Vidal was my sister, Jennifer Robinson, who is keenly feeling his absence. So I emailed her.
Here’s part of her reply to me:
“When I was a junior in high school I read my first Gore Vidal book, Burr. A lot of the history zoomed right by me at the time, but the transformation of the Founding Fathers from demigods to recognizable human beings (hilariously venal) was an unexpected blast of fresh air that filled me with the hope that there were actually fun adults out there with genuinely interesting things to say. Quite simply, he became my education. I’d check out what he enthused over in his essays — Suetonius, Daniel Shays, Dawn Powell; I’d reread his American Chronicles to see if I understood any more of it since the last time; I’d go over his musings on the state of the union and on nature (Are we straight or gay? Nope, neither: We have tendencies. I’ll buy that — now let’s talk about something important); I’d laugh at his bon mots, but also at his cute trick (maybe too cute) at lifting the scene of Brutus and Cassius in the tent from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar line-for-line in meaning between two characters in his Judgment of Paris. For the rest of my adult life, I’d do some living then come back to Gore.
“It’s been so satisfying to have turned my friends into fans. One dear friend fell so in love with Vidal’s treatment of the subject that he went off and wrote his own screenplay about Aaron Burr. Another fellow returned Creation to me, partially read, unimpressed saying, ‘He can’t write.’ We didn’t see much of each other after that. The guy I married counts Creation as one of his favorite novels of all time. Just saying.
“I’m not a literary critic; I’m a reader. If I were a writer, I’d have noticed a long time ago that a lot of his novels’ characters sounded the same (like him); that some of his pronouncements sounded just wrong; or that most of his writing excited me intellectually, but seldom emotionally (though I don’t think anyone could finish Lincoln without a lump in the throat). But he wrote for me — the ‘reader’ he used to bemoan was dwindling out of existence, and who I’m reasonably certain still exists as a certain kind of sub-species. And I’m mourning our loss pretty thoroughly.”
Thank you, Gore Vidal, for Julian, for true snark, and for teaching my sister and me to look deeper into and beyond the books we read.
Photo by: david_shankbone via Flickr