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This review is from: Palimpsest: A Memoir (Paperback)
Palimpsest is an interesting, contradictory, opinionated (how could it not be so with such a writer?) and sometimes outright puzzling memoir. Although it has been a personal favourite for a long time, in recently re-reading it, I found there were more questions raised than answered at Gore Vidal's memories of early to mid-life years.
For someone completely new to Gore Vidal's writing I would hesitate to recommend this as the starting point. There is personal detail galore of Mr Vidal's life, views and portraits of people from every arena that he moved in, but, there are only a few details and mostly passing mention of what made him great - his own writing. The novels of that time do appear. Particular focus falls on the work that garnered the greatest attention in those years, The City and the Pillar, and there is the reminiscence of how he started his non-fiction, essayist, career. Just as quickly as they are mentioned the memories glide off into the places and the people of that time. If you have never read a word of Vidal's work before then I'd suggest starting out with Julian and United States: Essays 1952-1992 for his novel and essay writing respectively.
For a dedicated fan there is plenty to delight in. The famous personages, the well-connected names, the disagreements, feuds, passing attachments and friends move across the pages in their successes and failures. There is the wonderful timing of delivery which creates the scene - such as the instance of recounting the public humiliation that Christopher Isherwood suffered at the hands of E.M Forster at a London party. This is also one of the times where contradiction becomes apparent. Leading on from his introduction to Forster; Gore Vidal receives an invitation to call on him at Cambridge, the purpose of which is to invite Tennessee Williams along (Forster was a huge fan of Tennessee Williams according to Mr Vidal). What happens next is one of his famous stories, but there is a divergence between what is written here and an earlier mention of the tale (On Prettiness, published in the New Statesman 1978). Why the re-write? For a better story or a different memory of the event after many years? In this sense Palimpsest is no fanciful name - there other such instances of change between one recorded version and another.
For all the dazzling recollections, and they are dazzling in their variety, there remains that distance between the man who appears in these scenes and the reader. Not that Mr Vidal gives a hoot about such things as others' opinions of himself and it is a good enough reason to like him for that alone. I admire the writer immensely and in this book he documents superbly people and times now gone. There is much in here that is moving to read, his early years with his grandparents, the loss of his friend and love which forms a narrative thread throughout what might otherwise read as unconnected essays. But if you are on the hunt for Mr. Vidal's inner thoughts and imaginative life then look to his novels, plays and essays. That is where he truly lives.