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Italo Calvino: Imagining Vidal

Italo Calvino: Imagining Vidal

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Italo Calvino discusses the pleasures of reading the works of Gore Vidal.
Italo Calvino discusses the pleasures of reading the works of Gore Vidal.

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Published by: Columbia University Press on Aug 02, 2012
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03/17/2014

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Imagining Vidal

ITALO CALVINO

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Celebrating Gore Vidal here in Ravello, I find myself in a strange, multitrack situation. I think of Gore in his house here, suspended over a dazzling and sheer cliff, or I see him in the main square seated at the cafe where I met him this morning, while at the same time I feel myself transported to a backdrop, one of a huge city on a lake which is encircled by skyscrapers and neon lights. The fact is that I've just finished reading Vidal's latest novel, Duluth, to continuous amusement and stimulation to the imagination. It is a novel in which contemporary life seems to have been completely taken over by fiction, with the world being nothing but episodes ofTY serials, with characters who switch their roles, dying in one of the series only to reappear in another. Or else life is a crisscrossing of plots from cheap novels, published in installments, or issued in massive volumes destined for the masses. One cannot tell where real life, or that which Vidal calls "life, or nonfiction," ends and where the intricate jungle of imaginary stories, with episodes which alternate and overlap, thanks to the combinations of a word processor (whose memory has been fed the plots of all the world's novels), begins. Therefore, inspired by the recent reading of Duluth, in which

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the things which happen do not conform to Vidal's principle of "absolute uniqueness," I must ask myself if we are indeed in Ravello, or in a Ravello reconstructed in a Hollywood studio, with an actor playing Gore Vidal, or if we are in the TV documentary on Vidal in Ravello which we were to have seen tonight and which mysteriously vanished, or whether we are here on the Amalfi Coast on a festive occasion, but one in 1840, when, at the end of another Vidal novel, Burr, the narrator learns that the most controversial of America's Founding Fathers, Colonel Burr, was his father. Or, since there is a spaceship in Duluth, manned by centipedes who can take on any appearance, even becoming dead-ringers for American political figures, perhaps we could be aboard that spaceship, which has left Duluth for Ravello, and the E.T.s aboard could have taken on the appearance of the American writer we are gathered here to celebrate. The key to all those mysteries may lie in the book's finale, when we learn that the world exists only in the mind of a tireless woman novelist who has the power to erase houses, hills, existences, until the invasion of the centipedes from the spaceship creates hundreds of Ravellos in time and in space, complete with all the municipal dignitaries and the guests here tonight, and with a Gore Vidal in each Ravello, all that much more multiform and gifted with ubiquity, and thus that much more "absolutely unique" and faithful to himself. As for the ubiquity of Vidal, I believe that we can gather that right here in Ravello, because when we read or listen to Vidal it seems that he has never left America even for one second. His passionate and polemical participation in American life is without interruption. What we see in Ravello is someone living a tranquil, parallel life. Is it Vidal or his double? Or is there a satellite circling over the Amalfi Coast which keeps him informed of all that is happening in America? Certainly, in today's world where distance has been erased, where everything is present; Vidal has initiated a new way of staying in Italy. For many generations, American writers saw our country as a picturesque background, exotic, mysterious, and anyhow a world opposite to America. Their sojourning in Europe and above all in Italy of those days, so archaic, distant from America in time and in

Imagining Vidal space, signified a symbolic breaking-away almost like going to the great beyond. Not for nothing were they called then "exiles" or "expatriates. " Gore, here, does not feel himself an exile anywhere. He lives with the same ease and assurance on the Mediterranean as on the Pacific or on the Atlantic. In fact, he manages to keep one foot on each shore, which must require some fast footwork as his feet are two and his shores three. That could be the reason why he has never felt the need to give us his Italian novel, his Marble Faun, his Daisy Miller, his Across the River and Into the Trees. I would be very pleased, now that he has become an honorary citizen of one of our cities, if he should feel himself authorized to write that Italian novel. And I'm sure that unlike those of his illustrious predecessors, it would be entertaining from beginning to end. But I must admit that so far, we also may have been luckier

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than we realize! When I think of the ferocious glee with which Vidal rips apart the American reality with a transfiguration both grotesque and truculent, and what could come forth if he were to turn his powers on our manners and morals, I experience a foretaste of enjoyment and at already see the Furies and private image of women-police corps the same time an attack of cold sweat. I can of his fantasy hungrily turning on the public Italian society, with all the gusto of Duluth's when they force "illegal aliens" to undergo

body searches. I can already see all of us in some of his hilariously cruel pages. Which can take their place in the great humour nair tradition from Swift onward. Vidal knows us well. In his essays and interviews about Italy he is right on target. He once defined Italian society as being that which "combines the less attractive aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism." Staying in Italy for Vidal is, to be sure, a less problematic adventure keeping that little distance than it is for us. It is rather a way of from America which permits him to

observe it better. And being American is his problem. His passion for what America is or is not dominates his thoughts. It is not true that this enfant terrible respects nothing and no one. His point of departure can be found in the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence, which, from the first lines, defines as the inalienable rights which all men have received from their creator

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the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With these very simple principles as his strength, Vidal fires point-blank at everything which contradicts them. His view is one of absolute pessimism. In Duluth, no social stratum is spared, nor any institution. But he always leaves a door ajar for a harmonious ideal. In this case it is proclaimed by the centipedes from the spaceship (which, however, does not preserve these E. T. visitors from getting caught up in disastrous stock market speculation). This polemical passion for America's public affairs, and for everything which could be called the anthropology of that country's mass-culture, is the nucleus of the "absolute uniqueness" which binds together the many Gore Vida Is who are acting contemporaneously and taking on diverse forms. There is the essay form, of which he is one of the contemporary masters, incomparable for his sincerity, agility, and concreteness. Thereis the contemporary novel form as a grotesque transfiguration of the language and myths of the mass media. There is the historic novel which brutally presents the past in a way which alarmingly resembles our present. (This is as true in his interpretations of the American past, in Burr and in 1876, as when he evokes the more remote past in Creation.) There is the theater form, where Vidal's instinct to make a drama of everything he does or says converges. And there is the conversationalist, or TV personality, form, which made his senatorial campaign so different from any others. As a political animal, he delivers what he calls his Discourse on the State of the Union. We also know what some of the average Americans' reactions to those discourses are, as Vidal has recorded them as well. I chanced to hear one of these discourses before a public of his co-nationals, though probably not typical of the average American, inasmuch as no one was scandalized and everyone greeted his jeu de massacre (or, "hit the baby," a game at a fair or carnival) with a sense of complicity and fun was had by all. But what was the reaction of the foreign listener? It led me to reflect that the strength of a country can be measured by its capacity to swallow the most radical criticism, to digest it, and to draw from it nourishment. And I found myself saying- "only in a society sure of itself, of its stability and good health could a polemicist like Gore Vidal be born! That is the difference between

Imagining Vidal

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the United States and our fragile Italy! What Italian has ever done a satire so radical of our political world, or of our social mores? Only when we shall have writers capable of merrily and mercilessly attacking our government, parties, and institutions, can we be certain of having become a great power." Vidal also can be a lethal literary critic, but here I must mention one exception. That is when he writes about Italian writers, when his criticism is full of simpatia-and coming from a temperament like his, that can only be sincere. Not that the polemicist is nodding on those occasions. He always has a critical attitude toward other American critics which leads him to present our works in the most favorable light. The link between Vidal and the Italian writers he has introduced to the American public is that most of them are of his generation. They began writing after the war, and Vidal never forgets coming to a still-devastated Italy in 1948 with Tennessee Williams. In other words, there is a sense of some shared experiences which he wants to perceive on this side and on the other side of the Atlantic. Vidal's betes noires are the writers and critics in the United States and in France who want to experiment with or theorize new forms of the novel. Is there, then, a conservative Vidal? It would be difficult admitting to that, since one cannot speak of the revival of the novel's form in the last fifteen years without turning back to what may be his most famous novel, Myra Breckinridge. That satirical and grotesque burlesque, made up of a collage of the language and myths of the mass-culture, inaugurated a new phase in the way to present our era, which is comparable to pop art, but much more aggressive and with an explosion of expressionistic comedy. Vidal's development along that line, from Myra to Duluth, is crowned with great success, not only for the density of comic effects, each one filled with meaning, not only for the craftsmanship in construction, put together like a clockwork which fears no word processor, but because his latest book holds its own built-in theory, that which the author calls his "apn~s-poststructuralism." To be sure, Vidal's explicit intention is to parody the current university vogue for "Narratology," but his mythology seems to me to be no less rigorous and his execution no less perfect. For that reason, I consider Vidal to be a master of that new form which is

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taking shape in world literature and which we may call the hypernovel or the novel elevated to the square or to the cube. As for Vidal's wars against new experiments in novels, I don't share his views toward that general tendency because I hope always that some good will come out of it all to bring more life into a pallid scene. But there is a point where I share Vidal's concern: that is the risk today that literature is being reduced to subject matter for universities. The fact that there are books being written today in the United States exclusively for internal consumption on the campus does not offer a happy prospect. (Complementary to that tendency is the spread of novels prefabricated for an undemanding public: the fashionable lady novelist who does not know either how to write or read and who uses ghost writers is a character that appears both in Vidal's Kalki and in Duluth.) Anyhow, you may rest assured, dear Mr. Vidal, that Duluth is one of those novels upon which the universities will base courses and seminars, producing theses and tracts bristling with diagrams. It is a fate which cannot be avoided. The important thing is the spirit which you have put in the book and which races nonstop throughout its pages. With this observation, I want to close my salutations to Core Vidal. He belongs to that group of writers of our times who, precisely because they always have kept their eyes open to the disasters and distortions of our age, have chosen irony, humor, comedy-in other words, the whole range of literary instruments belonging to the university of the laugh-as their means of settling accounts. That is the terrain where literature can reply to history's challenge. In an epoch of tragic mystifications, in which language serves more to conceal than to reveal, the only serious discourses are those delivered as if for laughs.

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