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Saturday, 26 July 2014

Book review: Point to Point Navigation, Gore Vidal (2006)

Having read through Edmund White's books about Paris (you can see the reviews on this blog) it occurred to me how American expatriates sooner or later return to their homeland, and because I knew about Gore Vidal - another lettered, gay American living in Europe out of preference to his native country - it behooved me to visit this memoir.

It was published three years after Vidal's partner of many decades, Howard Auster, died as a result of a lifetime of smoking. Those chapters are devastating for someone, like me, who recently gave up the habit. Vidal never wrote another memoir; he himself died six years after this book came out. It's clear that one of the main reasons for Vidal's moving back Stateside was in order to access the superior health system that country offers. (Although this depends; when White returned to teach at a US university with his lover, the lover, who had AIDS, had a health crisis; the two had to return to France because the lover was not American and did not have health cover.) Like Vidal, White moved back to the US eventually - after 16 years in Paris , in his case, far less than Vidal clocked up in Italy - and he now teaches there.

Vidal's memoir was supposed to start in the mid-sixties and go on from there; there had been a previous memoir, Palimpsest, which was published in the 90s. But it doesn't. It starts with his childhood, so people curious about what the author got up to in, say, the 90s might be disappointed with this book. There is a part of the memoir where Vidal matches his movements to his publishing of novels - having just arrived in Rome, he spends a month writing Myra Breckinridge, one of the novels he is most famous for - but this case is the exception rather than the rule. If there was a determined pattern for the author to follow it eludes me. The memoir is episodic and surprising. So what can it offer the reader who is not the sort of person who reads absolutely everything by and about Gore Vidal?

There's the amusing voice, full of laughter and the wisdom of age, for a start. Vidal saw a lot of American history in the 20th century first-hand due to his family connections, his politicking, and his work for TV, cinema and in publishing books. He was a regular on TV shows in his heyday (say, in the 60s and 70s) and his almost permanent absence overseas seems not to have dimmed his appeal for the public. In short, Vidal was a player, but also a liberal and an ambitious, talented man. So I think he's worth listening to, if you can find a couple of days to read through his final memoir.

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