Magazine article The Spectator

Still Almost on Target

Magazine article The Spectator

Still Almost on Target

Article excerpt

VIRGIN ISLANDS:

ESSAYS, 1992-1997

by Gore Vidal

Deutsch, 17.99, pp. 320

Some years ago, a ridiculously handsome young photographer friend of mine told me about the piquant experience of snapping Gore Vidal at his home in Ravello. `Oh to be in England, now that England's here,' Vidal intoned lasciviously as my friend walked in. I don't think it went any further.

But yes, he does seem to love England so - not the landscape particularly, not even the people, but the nuances, the irony, the sly, telling understatement which is meant to be so marked a feature of our cultural manner. America, you feel, simply doesn't get him. Many of the best items in this otherwise rather thin collection of his essays of the last five years have been written in his crispest, most assured style for English audiences (the readers of the Sunday Telegraph, the Observer, and the TLS among them), and none of them hits the mark with a cleaner bull's-eye than his brief report for the Nation on the May general election - I particularly liked the description of Peter Mandelson radiating `the insolent manner of one born to the top rung but three'.

Elsewhere there is a feeling of tiredness, afterthought, repetition. Vidal is over 70 now, and in the introduction admits that the great bulk of what he has been impelled to say polemically is already contained in the massive collection United States (published in 1992, and covering over 40 years of his oeuvre), in relation to which the present volume, as the title suggests, is only a dependency. The stroke is still firm, but the pace is slower, and those killing backhands more predictable. Some of the quips - the contrast between `banal, anal' sex and `floral, oral' sex, for instance - will be embarrassingly familiar to his devotees.

But what one admires nowadays is not so much the insouciant, cavalier brilliance for which he is celebrated, as the sheer dogged consistency of his radicalism (untainted by fellow-travelling). No intellectual has ever been less guilty of trahison des clercs or the newspaper pundit's weekly dose of moral opportunism.

As these essays demonstrate yet again, Vidal has been steadfast in his attacks on the weakness of the US anti-trust laws, the 'cancer' of its defence budget, the mauvaise foi behind its imperialistic adventures, the underlying decline in the vitality of its democracy. …

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