Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vidal and Capote in one

I can picture the scene. There he is, the literary Tiberius in embroidered slippers, a rotund octogenarian man of letters seated in his "modest" mansion set in the Hollywood Hills, the azure of the Gulf of Salerno a recent nostalgia.

So there he is in a leather upholstered armchair and there's Vanity Fair magazine just arrived in the post. This issue holds a little more interest than usual to him: it features an excerpt from his second memoir Point To Point Navigation (due out November). He turns the silky scented pages (his eyes alight on a Kate Moss mug in every other ad - "silly bitch," he sighs). Suddenly the magazine falls from his grip, his face now a crimson, contorted mask of wrath at what he's just spotted in the glossy -"What?" he shouts. "What? Fuck me!"

Well, I imagine that's what Gore Vidal said to himself when he opened the November issue and discovered that the mag contained not just his piece of beautiful writing but also a fragment of exclusive lyrical prose by his old dead foe, Truman Capote. How they feuded over nothing in particular! And how cruel is life. Because while the photo of Gore betrays a noble ancient ruin before his typewriter, the pic of Truman is a product of the Tardis - a 1946 snapshot of a very young and pretty man arranged louchely on a chaise. How sweet is revenge from the grave.

I can't tell you what pleasure their two pieces gave me. Capote's is a very short memoir he wrote the day before he died 22 years ago and it's sadly unfinished. You might think from accounts of people who knew him that his mind was entirely addled by drink and drugs towards the end of his life, but nothing could be further from the truth on the evidence of this piece. He describes meeting his literary idol Willa Cather ... "Her eyes were the pale blue of a prairie dawn on a clear day," he writes. I won't quote more, but I hope you get a flavour of his style.

As for Vidal, is he not one of the greatest autobiographers that ever was? His first memoir Palimpsest stunned me with its grace and range: is there no one of significance in the past 60-odd years whom he has not met? Unusually for a master egotist he is quite capable of leaving the stage, as it were, and bathing his friends, acquaintances, enemies in a spotlight under his generous direction: hence the brilliant anecdotes. He removes himself but is ever present through depth and clarity of observation. And he's funny.

His VF piece on his friendship with Federico Fellini is a virtuoso illustration of this - "Although Fred was hardly a hermaphrodite," he writes of the Italian film director, "he was certainly a phallophobe in a culture rooted in phallophilia. He had even done a book of caricatures of phalluses with such labels as 'the happy cock', 'the snobbish cock', 'the angry cock'. He entertained ladies with these drawings".

At 81 he writes and recalls as well as he ever did. And though dead, Capote reminds us of what he could do - but did do all too sporadically.

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