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Thursday, 2 August 2012

Vidal was staunch in the service of the angels

Gore Vidal, literary eminence grise.
News of the passing into the oblivion that awaits us all of Gore Vidal, aged 86, has been slightly immature: swift arriving and also copious. There are the detailed summaries and there are the partisan judgements, like the one by Greg Sheridan, a right-wing hack who writes with depressing regularity for a Murdoch broadsheet, and who mocks and insults the writer who "perfected the art of mocking and insulting" forgetting, the while, that he himself has written no novels. And never shall. But his piece underscores the main point: that Vidal was a champion of the progressive side of politics.

It will be for that, and not for the bulk of his novelistic output, that people like myself will remember Vidal: as someone reliably and wittily in your own corner. A standout among his books was Myra Breckinridge, which deals with sexuality inasmuch as it dealt with contemporary interpersonal politics. This novel rises above the bulk of Vidal's output because of the originality of its conception and the ingenuity of its ideas.

Vidal was part of the routine experience of my generation in the same way that Garcia Marquez was, or Joyce. But his fecundity and his obsession with America had the tendency to moderate that influence. Rather than concentrating on developing a new style, Vidal spent his time in conversation with his peers. He was topical but not groundbreaking, relevant in terms of his subject matter but not in terms of the purely novelistic aspirations that can set a writer apart and ensure his or her fame in perpetuity. Or at least for a generation or two. But regardless, he was one of us and we appreciated the efforts he made to change society.

Whether Vidal will be read any more widely in his posthumous existence is uncertain. What is sure is that he will be remembered by progressives as a champion to rely on in the unceasing battle with the agents of conservatism. If his stylistic solutions were not as radical as his political views were we can hardly accuse him of being dull. With the death also of Christopher Hitchens, the baton passes to the next generation - although Vidal had not been as visible in his final years as he had previously been - who will draw on his strength of character and unwillingness to back down in the fight. Vidal's future readers may be those who go out seeking inspiration and community among the ranks of progressive writers.

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