here, in this Jonah Lehrer post, because I’ve always loved Gore Vidal’s phrase “a patter of penitence.” And – even stranger – I mention Johan Hari in the post, and Hari once conducted an interview with Vidal that Christopher Hitchens mentions in this 2010 essay about Vidal’s having become, in old age, a hopeless crank.

Vidal has died.

One can only wonder about that interview, now that we know Hari, like Lehrer, routinely made quotations up. But one doesn’t have to wonder about Hari feeding lines to Vidal that he must have known would bring out the worst of his nutty nihilistic nastiness.

Rounding off his interview, an obviously shocked Mr. Hari tried for a change of pace and asked Vidal if he felt like saying anything about his recently deceased rivals, John Updike, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer. He didn’t manage to complete his question before being interrupted. “Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist, too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.”

This description of Hari’s shock, and his motive in asking the question, makes Hitchens look naive, though I suppose he can’t have known, at that time, Hari’s amorality. It’s unlikely Hari was shocked and trying to cool things off when he brought up Vidal’s literary rivals. Hari was twitting the old guy; he got exactly what he expected to get.

When Vidal was good, he was very very good. Here’s the opening paragraph of a 1979 review he wrote of a Leonardo Sciascia novel:

Since the Second World War, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism. This was not the work of a day. A wide range of political parties has contributed to the invention of modern Italy, a state whose vast metastasizing bureaucracy is the last living legacy anywhere on earth of the house of Bourbon (Spanish branch). In fact, the allegedly defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has now so entirely engulfed the rest of the peninsula that the separation between Italian state and Italian people is nearly perfect.

There’s a completeness about this paragraph. It’s not only sly and witty and stylish; it actually encapsulates everything Vidal is going to go on to say. When I say stylish I mean that it does poetic things with prose. Take a phrase like

vast metastasizing bureaucracy is the last

Vast and last are a straightforwardly rhymed pair; but there’s also the ast lurking in metastasizing. Few prose writers have this sort of ear, though …

Along some northern coast at sundown a beaten gold light is waterborne, sweeping across lakes and tracing zigzag rivers to the sea, and we know we’re in transit again, half numb to the secluded beauty down there, the slate land we’re leaving behind, the peneplain, to cross these rainbands in deep night.

Light/night; again/peneplain/rainbands; secluded beauty… Don DeLillo does it too.

Of course you could argue that Vidal overdoes it in his last sentence –

In fact, the allegedly defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has now so entirely engulfed the rest of the peninsula that the separation between Italian state and Italian people is nearly perfect.

You could argue he sticks in too many intensifiers and modifiers: in fact, allegedly, so entirely, nearly… But aside from the fact that defunct and engulfed are a nice assonantal pair, there’s the way in which this overloaded language conveys the beyond-maddening reality of life in the broken Italian state. When he wrote this, Vidal lived there, and in his both careful and over the top prose you sense that he’s been stewing in contempt for so long that he’s been able to produce a spectacularly mature carbonade.

This sense of a writer having overcome his raw emotions (see the problem with raw emotions here) enough to create chiseled language, but at the same time having retained enough emotion to keep his blood flowing through the passage is exciting to us — it’s what we go to the best prose for, as in George Orwell’s essay about charity hospitals, and Hitchens’ and Tony Judt’s essays about their last illnesses. You want the writerly control of the language; you also, just as intensely, want the honest, immediate reality of the writer’s emotions. It’s very difficult to provide both of these things, especially at a time dominated by fakers like Hari, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey, Jason Blair, Stephen Glass and a ton of others. We have to be wary now; we have to look out for prose that looks honest but is actually cynical and manipulative.

You never needed to worry about – even to think about – that with Orwell, Hitchens, and Judt. Vidal, for all his nuttiness, was like that.

**************************

Cruella Vi Dal.

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2 Responses to “Strange. I quoted him just hours ago…”

  1. Alan Allport Says:

    “You never needed to worry about – even to think about – that with Orwell, Hitchens, and Judt.”

    Worth noting however that at least two of Orwell’ signature essays (A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant) would no longer be considered ethical journalism – biographical inquiries have shown that they probably never happened, at least not in the way that Orwell describes them.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Alan: You’re right – I’d forgotten that.

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