Thursday, August 02, 2012

An obituary: Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

I was writing my op-ed piece on The Literary Fiction Debate when I heard on BBC 3 that Gore Vidal has died. He was my boyhood hero. I loved reading Gore Vidal when I was a teenager. Compared to him, Norman Mailer was a bore. (They didn't like one another either. He rubbed many people the wrong way, and he loved it.)

The story in the New York Times says, "Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86."

His works were primarily non-fiction, but the book I remember him most by is the one called Kalki, a work of fiction, albeit not one of his most popular. But I loved his storytelling. When Kalki comes riding his white horse, says the Hindu mythology, the world will come to an end. In Gore Vidal's book, Kalki comes in the form of a Vietnam War veteran, who comes riding a white horse (in a Hollywood-style extravaganza) to end the world,which he intends to re-populate by himself, ala Adam and Eve. It is hugely tongue in cheek, but when he did end the world, I was left gob-smacked. I like this writer, I decided. He was audacious as hell. And, the twist at the end was hilarious.

“Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

My first Gore Vidal book was Messiah (1954) about a reluctant religious 'teacher' who is forced to commit suicide by his followers to fulfil his destiny, and to become their messiah. Julian (1964), about the Roman philosopher emperor, Julian (also known as Julian the Apostate)(331-363AD), the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman empire, was my first non-fiction book by the author. Creation (1981) was a journey through the ancient lands of Persia, China and India that was part philosophy, part history and part fantasy (of the author). Lincoln was history like I had never read before until then. That warm fuzzy President of the United States who, we had been told in school, originated from the log cabins was no more; replaced by a ruthless political animal, a quasi tyrant with a mad wife to boot. In other words, a real person.

History never remained the same for me.

Gore Vidal was an important influence in my teenage and early years. While his are not exactly books I'm likely to revisit frequently, he did point out important directions; some of which I ended up taking.

Sleep well, you crochety old man.