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Novelist, screenwriter and preppy gadfly Gore Vidal has died. He was 86 and had pneumonia. Michael Dirda writes an appropriately long account of Vidal’s successful life of contrarianism, from his early days as a novelist to his television and movie writing, to his later decades as a professional burr in the mainstream’s saddle.
Everything and anything could be skewered with stiletto-like finesse, and nothing was sacred: Vidal maintained that various prominent Jewish intellectuals acted as an Israeli fifth column, argued that the family was largely a means of keeping workers in their exploited place and concluded that in American democracy, “numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”
For all his goading, though, Dirda says, Vidal was “an old-fashioned bookman,” a critic who loved “rediscovering the unfashionable.”
Over the years, he produced exemplary appraisals — composed in ballpoint pen on yellow legal pads — of dozens of once-undervalued writers, such as Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, William Dean Howells, Logan Pearsall Smith, Paul Bowles, Thomas Love Peacock, Louis Auchincloss, Sinclair Lewis and Frederic Prokosch.
More often than not, Vidal had read their complete works. That some of those writers continued to be neglected only supported one of his laments: The age of the reader is passing, and we are living through its twilight’s last gleaming.
In the Daily News’ PageViews book blog, Alexander Nazaryan looks at Vidal’s life through a bookworm’s lens.
Everywhere, he subverted the common narrative — for example, presenting Alexander Hamilton’s assassin, Aaron Burr, as a sympathetic figure. In its review of that book, The New Yorker noted, “It is probably impossible to be an American and not be fascinated and impressed by Vidal’s telescoping of our early history.”
Today, writers are told to write what they know. Vidal took the opposite route, using his imagination to explore whatever and wherever he wished. He was utterly unafraid of his own conclusions or of offending public sensibilities. He once said, for example, that no three words in English were sadder than “Joyce Carol Oates,” a reference to the prolific novelist.
In 2010, Christopher Hitchens, who died late last year, wrote about his former friend Vidal’s later years, the “awful, spiteful, miserable way” he ended his public life, flirting with 9/11 trutherism and wild personal attacks.
The BBC has collected some of Vidal’s better quotes.