One of the world's great literary figures died in Los Angeles late last Tuesday. This report in the Irish Independent lists the things he is best known for. The news is not unexpected. He had clearly been ailing for some time, as he himself wryly observed to Melvyn Bragg in one of his last television appearances over here. It is to be hoped that all three of his "South Bank Show" features will be repeated now.
For me, his most considerable work was "Creation", a historical novel which queried the origins of religion and perhaps the reliability of history. It also highlighted a period when, Vidal observed, people started travelling (rather than migrating) in a big way for the first time. This treatment of large themes is the sort of thing that would normally attract the attention of the Nobel committee, but perhaps his other, more controversial writings deterred them from giving the accolade of the Literature prize for his whole body of work.
He famously had spats with many prominent figures in the US. There was an element of homophobia in some of the attacks on him, but the reason for his most visceral loathing, of Robert F Kennedy, remains mysterious. Vidal kept hinting that some day he would reveal what caused the final break-up with Camelot. As far as I know, he never got around to it.
Vidal was an American patriot of a rather complicated sort. He criticised the Establishment, whether Democrats or Republicans were in power. He inveighed against the "American Empire" using military might to extend its power like the barbarian hordes of old (he included the English of the nineteenth century in this category). Being born into the Establishment himself, Vidal's criticisms were all the more pointed - and resented. But I feel that they came out of a desire to save America as much as from a liberal concern for the rest of the world.
Looking for an appropriate footnote, a hurried scamper through Vidal's essays produces this (from "The Twelve Caesars", ?1960):
the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one, it's all the same. Up to a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars. But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous but dangerous. [...] we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom, to that sense of meaningless which more than anything else is characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.
Most of the world today is governed by Caesars. Men are more and more treated as things. Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote in his preface to Henri Alleg's chilling book about Algeria, "Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner." [Our] great moral task is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within - for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.