My friendship with Gore Vidal began in the mid-eighties, when I lived with my wife and young children in Atrani, a fishing village on the coast of southern Italy. We had a small villa on a cliff overlooking the sea, with a view to Salerno to the south, and Capri just out of sight to the north. The bay below us glistened, the sunlight like diamonds scatted on the water, almost too bright to bear, with fishing vessels departing each morning in search of mullet, mussels, mackerel, tuna, and squid that they would unload in the afternoon and sell in wooden barrels by the dock. I was writing a novel in the mornings at a café in Amalfi itself, walking into town along a stony footpath where a thousand cats seemed to prowl, where sturdy women carried groceries slowly up hundreds of steps, and children kicked footballs in back alleys. The smell of laundry soap, cat piss, and wild flowers were ubiquitous.
We had a lovely rooftop terrace, above which rose a lemon grove and high limestone cliffs. A massive villa – alabaster white, clinging to the rocks like a swallow’s nest – shimmered above us, and we wondered who lived there in such opulence. Some Italian nobleman? A local mafia don? A film star? When I asked the tobacconist in town about its resident, he said, “Ah, lo scrittore!
Gore Vidal. Americano.” He explained that the writer stopped by his shop almost every afternoon for a newspaper. He retired to the bar next door for a drink, where he would sit and read for an hour or so before taking the bus up the hill to Ravello.
Already I knew the work of Gore Vidal quite well. Having been an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era, I admired his fierce political commentaries in Esquire
and The New York Review of Books
. I never forgot his fiery debates with William F. Buckley during the presidential conventions of 1968, especially during the siege of Chicago. He had held his ground, driving Buckley mad with his relentless logic and unflappable manner. I had read half a dozen of his novels, including Myra Breckinridge, Burr,
Needless to say, I wanted to meet him.
I sent a brief note, telling Gore I was an American writer living at 23 via Torricelli in Atrani, and would like to meet him. That evening he pounded on my door, inviting us (my wife and I) to dinner. I was terrified, as his reputation preceded him, and thought he might be tricky. But a friendship blossomed. I would often meet him for a drink or dinner, and a series of conversations began that lasted until his death in 2012. It would be fair to say, in a crude way, that I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son. We had a good deal in common, including a passion for liberal politics, American history, and books. We both loved Henry James, Twain, Trollope and Henry Adams – just to name a few of the more obvious names – and we invariably found we had more to talk about than time allowed. We also shared a love of both Italy and Britain. By that time I had spent seven years in the British Isles, and it turned out we knew many of the same people. The literary world is, in fact, quite small – especially in Britain and Italy, where writers and editors often converge at parties and literary events.
In the decades that followed, we spoke on the phone every week – for periods on a daily basis. And I would stay with him often in Ravello or, later, Los Angeles, meeting him often when he traveled. I have strong memories of times together in such places as Rome, Naples, Edinburgh, Oxford, London, New York, Boston, even Salzburg and Key West. He proved more than helpful to me as a younger writer, reading drafts of my books, offering frank critiques and encouragement. We discussed his work at length, too – he would frequently send a typescript or galley for me to read.
His phone calls, in later years, often began: “What are they saying about me?” To a somewhat frightening degree, he depended on the world’s opinion. Once, in one of those memories that stands in for many others, my wife and I were sitting in his study in Ravello when he came in with drinks. On the wall behind his desk were twenty or so framed magazine covers, with Gore’s face on each cover. I asked: “What’s that all about, those covers?” He said, “When I come into this room in the morning to work, I like to be reminded who I am.”
Over many decades he had built a huge empire of self, sending out colonies in various languages. “They love me in Brazil,” he would say. Or Bulgaria, or Turkey, or Hong Kong. I took his rampant egotism with a grain of salt. It was part of him, but only part. The narcissism was, at times, an exhausting and debilitating thing for him, as it proved impossible to get enough satisfying responses. He required a hall of mirrors for adequate reflection, and there was never enough. The narcissistic hole can’t be filled. At times, I wondered about how much money and time I spent in winging off to various far-flung cities to spend a few days with him, and my transatlantic phone bills reflected my own mania. But his flame was very bright and warm, and I was drawn to it.
Copyright © 2016 by Jay Parini. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.