Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lunch with Gore Vidal

I am probably infringing some sort of copyright law by pasting here this extremely amusing interview with Gore Vidal, published in this weekend's edition of the Financial Times , but, anyway.

I'd feel worse by preventing people from freely reading this. And honestly, I guess so would Mr. Vidal.

Lunch with the FT: Gore Vidal
By Victor Mallet

Published: May 18 2007 18:51 | Last updated: May 18 2007 18:51

Gore Vidal is ensconced in his wheelchair in a corner of the Mandarin Grill, Martini at his elbow, by the time I run up the stairs of Hong Kong’s most venerable hotel to meet him. Daren Simkin, his young assistant, has got there before me with his charge and is nursing a beer on the far side of the table.

I am eager to know what the famously witty Vidal is really like, but his clothes - grey suit, Paisley tie - and his imperturbably regal manner, disturbed only by a loose quiff of white hair, give nothing away. His first words do not help. As if to put the journalist interviewer at ease, Vidal launches unprompted into a series of reminiscences about his late friend Gavin Young, correspondent for the Observer during the Vietnam war. ”He was absolutely fearless because he was drunk all the time,” drawls Vidal.

Somewhat nonplussed - I never knew Young - I turn the conversation to Hong Kong. ”The one thing I most hate in the world is shopping,” Vidal replies promptly. ”I have no interest in retail goods. What draws most people here repels me.” I think we are going to get on.

The 81-year-old American writer has a curious reputation among Europeans born a generation later: he is the famous author that people feel they ought to have read but usually have not. I had struggled to find his works in Hong Kong, but in Melbourne I was luckier and found him represented in almost every section of a bookshop, including history, politics, fiction and biography.

Vidal the author thus resists pigeonholing. Vidal the political and social commentator is easier to pin down. Scion of a political family and a failed politician himself, he can be guaranteed to be colourfully scathing about George W. Bush and to defend liberal values: among other achievements, he wrote The City and the Pillar (1948), one of the first post-war novels to deal with homosexuality.

The author is in town to publicise Point to Point Navigation, his new memoir, at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. He orders half a dozen oysters, a Bloody Mary and Dover sole, while I opt for an artichoke soup, the sole and a glass of wine.

Vidal explains that he is taking a break from campaigning in the US for the Democrats, although campaigning against the Republicans would be a more accurate description, given his low opinion of both sides. Surely, I ask, President Bush cannot be as stupid as many foreigners believe?

Vidal is adamant that he is, that the American right effectively staged a coup d’etat after 9/11, that there is a constitutional crisis in which the republic has been replaced by an empire, and that there is a case for impeaching Bush. ”Once you’re imperial you have an emperor and once you have that you’re finished,” he says, recalling his recent reading of Aristotle’s Politics. ”And that has been our condition, taken advantage of by a bunch of sleazy gas and oil hustlers.”

If there is one thing that incenses Vidal about his fellow Americans it is ignorance. Bush, he says, ”knows nothing and he doesn’t want to know anything. He has no curiosity. Have you watched him speak? That little-boy face, mouth ajar, dazed eyes. The rumour round Washington is that he’s gone back to drinking. Well, thank God, he might make a little more sense. A group of us each vowed we would send him a bottle of whisky, but I think it’s heroin probably that he would need.”

He pauses briefly to ask the chef, who has approached our table with an amuse-gueule of truffled lobster and avocado, if he remembers Gavin Young. The young Scotsman is even more bemused than I.

Then it is back to politics, the crisis facing America and the folly of detention without trial. ”A few weeks ago, the administration got rid of Magna Carta and habeas corpus... That is Mr [Alberto] Gonzales, our Attorney-General, who thinks he’s Attorney-General of Mexico. Where he belongs. No, that is not a racist remark. But it’s on the edge.”

This offensive remark is deliberate, calibrated. Vidal sometimes gives the impression of trying too hard to deliver the perfect bon mot for a dictionary of quotations. I can almost see him placing inverted commas around his own words. Asked a little later whether he wants to be remembered as a writer or a political figure, he explicitly offers me something to quote: ”I couldn’t care less how I’m remembered. People who go in for posterity have none.” By the evening, speaking from a stage at the University of Hong Kong, Vidal has polished his answer to the posterity question. ”As far as I can tell, posterity has done nothing for me. I’m going to do nothing for it.”

But Vidal the lunchtime orator is beginning to warm up as his oysters arrive. Not for nothing did Howard Austen, his recently deceased friend of more than half a century, call him Me Me.

”Since I’ve known most of the American historians, I never took seriously anything they wrote. Therefore I wrote 20 novels based on American history because I wanted it to be accurate,” Vidal says. ”I address the crisis facing us, that we are the most hated nation on earth, and I am one of the big explainers of what we have done. Other writers can’t do it because they don’t know anything about the history of the United States, much less Islam, Saladin, Genghis Khan, Mao Zedong.”

He interrupts his self-praise briefly with praise for his Bloody Mary (”Bliss, absolute bliss, fresh tomato”), before returning to his theme. ”I said [Bush] would be the most hated president in our history. It didn’t take much prescience to do that, and still people come up to me in airports and say, ’How did you know that about him?’ And I always say, ’By the pricking of my thumbs, I can tell that evil this way comes.’ Americans are very superstitious” - Vidal is joking now, after his misquotation from Macbeth - ”and I am a witch.”

So is Bush stupid, or evil? Surely there’s a difference? ”He has acted in an evil way is the most I can say about him. Anybody who has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East is an evil man. If he was suddenly called up at Nuremberg, which I would love to see happen, he’d say, ’I don’t know. They didn’t tell me that.’”

Do any of the likely presidential candidates offer more hope? ”Nobody’s any good. Hillary’s the brightest.” Barack Obama? ”He’s pretty... he could very well sweep the election. The country is so anti-black and is dying to vote for one as a form of redress.”

The arrival of the two Dover soles for Vidal and me, and a giant ribeye steak for Daren, marginally lightens the mood at the table. US politics, I suggest, seem a bit depressing. ”More than a bit,” replies Vidal, then adds in mitigation: ”Perfect asparagus.” But does he have anything cheerful to say about the world, Mandarin Grill aside? Was he always this dyspeptic?

”I wrote a book called The Golden Age, which was about 1945 when we all got out of the army. There was a burst of energy in all the arts and I thought finally America’s going to develop a civilisation, and how wonderful it is to be at the beginning of it. And then we didn’t. The Korean war started, and we’ve been in war ever since. That cooled my sincerity about optimism.”

Vidal may be an egotist but he has carefully avoided talking about his own feelings. I suggest cautiously that he seems rather British in the way he conceals his emotions. He puts it down to class, not country. We talk about how Jackie Kennedy was criticised for not weeping at her husband’s funeral and about the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren (another old friend) plays Queen Elizabeth as she comes under fire for not grieving publicly at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I venture that the most moving part of his latest book is his description of Austen’s death, a chapter that ends with the nurse weeping and the tearless Vidal writing: ”I envied him - the WASP glacier had closed over my head.” So he would like to weep, but cannot? ”Yes,” he concedes. ”I feel like it, but I don’t, I can’t. People who weep, I envy. After all, I spent most of my life in Italy... They get rid of everything, they weep all the time.”

Neither religion (he is appalled by it and is a fan of the atheist Confucius) nor sex (he claims he never did it with friends anyway) provides much comfort for the ageing Vidal, famous for advising people never to miss a chance to have sex or appear on television. ”It’s a joke, but my jokes are taken literally because I come from a literal country,” he says. ”Aids has disabused me of the values of casual sex.”

Dessert arrives, followed by cognac for him and calvados for me. Simkin hurriedly passes a pill to the diabetic Vidal as his spoon hovers over a sugary hazelnut creme brulee. As the restaurant empties, our two-and-a-half-hour lunch drifts pleasantly on with anecdotes from Vidal about a beautiful Indian Maharani in Jaipur, a bridge-playing British diplomat in Mongolia and a Hennessy brandy heiress.

Later that day - when talking at the university - he says something that I recognise as quintessential Gore Vidal. Asked about the greatest moment of his life, he replies: ”The one thing Cassandras like to be is right. The numerous times I’ve been able to say, ’I told you so’ - that is joy.”

At lunch I ask him whether he regrets not going to university after the war. ”Are you crazy? Would you rather be a published author, lecturing at Harvard, than going to Harvard?” he replies. ”All my ex-classmates were majors in the air force, that sort of thing, and there they were, juniors at Harvard. I went up there to speak, and half the audience were people I’d been at school with a few years before - and the waves of hatred that I felt coming up towards me from the audience! It was the highest moment of my life.”

It is, of course, another Gore Vidal joke. But, like a lot of his jokes, it is laced with venom, arrogance and a hefty dose of truth.

Victor Mallet is the editor of the FT’s Asia edition.

Mandarin Grill, Hong Kong

6 oysters
1 x artichoke soup
1 x organic salad
2 x Dover sole
1 x Australian ribeye steak
2 x hazelnut creme brulee asparagus, mashed potato
1 x apple crumble
1 x dry Martini
1 x Bloody Mary
2 x glasses of Sauvignon Blanc
1 x Tsingtao beer
1 x cognac
1 x calvados
mineral water

Total: HK$4,273.50 (₤277.93)

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