A Review of Gore Vidal's New Memoir
by Christine Smith
A review of Point to Point Navigation: Gore Vidal - A Memoir 1964 to 2006, Doubleday.
Mark Twain wrote "Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy
you must have somebody to divide it with," and so it is, too, with historian and
author Gore Vidal.
Point to Point Navigation is best described as a stream of consciousness.
Reflections, observations, and reminisces, not in any chronological order
necessarily, but as one thought leads to another Vidal recollects interesting as
well as poignant memories from throughout his life. Filled with Vidal's wit and
observations, one comes away from the book with a sense of what it must be like to
sit down with this renowned author simply for a talk together.
Aptly titled, "Point to Point Navigation" refers to the dangerous navigation Vidal
had to use during World War Two when as first mate on an army freight-supply ship
they had to maneuver without compass (inoperable due to weather) but rather by
memorized landmarks and without radar, a process which the writing of this memoir
made him feel as if he "were again dealing with those capes and rocks in the Bering
Sea," for the memoir presents a nonlinear reflection of a life whose course and
recollection thereof has twist and turns but which remained on course.
Vidal is one of America's finest biographers: author of twenty-five novels including
his fascinating informative Narratives of Empire series, six plays, many
screenplays, and more than two hundred essays. He is an esteemed political
commentator who has expertly utilized rationality and erudite humor regarding topics
such as sex, religion, politics, literature, and history of empire.
I have loved the man's works since I was a teenager, from his essays and earliest
novels to his more recent pamphlets regarding American imperialism, his words have
educated, enlightened, and given me much to ponder. When I consider Vidal, I think
of knowledge. As I recall the many Vidal essays, novels and interviews I've read, I
am reminded yet again of a Twain quote Vidal exemplifies, "I cannot call to mind a
single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which
were sacred to other people." (from Twain's Is Shakespeare Dead?) Such unrestrained
candor is what makes Vidal a pleasure to read.
Though subtitled "A Memoir 1964-2006" the book reaches far back into Vidal's
earliest childhood years with touching stories of his fascination with cinema
(including a charming anecdote of seeing his first movie in 1929), as well as his
family and early exposure to politics and politicians. All this is presented with a
wry humor and beautiful style we've come to expect from him, such as this indicative
gem, "Contrary to legend, I was born of mortal woman, and if Zeus sired me, there is
no record on file in the Cadet Hospital at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point..."
Point to Point Navigation seems shorter than Vidal's first memoir, Palimpsest, and
also seems to contain shorter chapters, and in the latter chapters it digresses into
quotes/excerpts/and Vidal's commentary upon other's books: that of Dennis Altman's
Gore Vidal's America, Marcie Frank's How To Be An Intellectual In The Age of TV: The
Lessons of Gore Vidal, and Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann's Ultimate Sacrifice.
As a reader of most of his works, I appreciated his occasional comments on the
writing of such greats as Myra Breckinridge, Washington D.C., and occasional
references throughout the book on his life during the writing of other works.
But in the primary quest to learn more of Vidal's experiences, the reader is
generously rewarded, with this reader at times nearly brought to tears, with other
passages making me laugh a loud at his signature wit and sarcasm. Far more than
entertaining, Point to Point Navigation delves into what this reader would consider
painfully personal experiences, as well as Vidal's recounting of tidbits from the
huge array of well known personalities he has known including among others Jack and
Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Saul Bellow, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo,
Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola.
My personal favorites of Vidal's memories of those he has known are of Tennessee
Williams, Johnny Carson, Rudolph Nureyev, Paul Bowles and Amelia Earhart.
Recollections of his father, Gene Vidal, were poignant. Of his mother, Vidal is
extraordinary in his objective perception and awareness of her even from his
youngest years (a most difficult task for most children even as adults).
For a man who is, as he has oft repeated, not his own subject, Vidal superbly
permits the reader to observe the seasons of his life, heart and mind: taking us on
a journey from the spring, summer, autumn and now into the winter of his life, even
venturing into dreams of Edgewater, Howard Auster, and his father.
Both throughout the writing of the memoir and the years covered, a number of Vidal's
friends and acquaintances of his age-range, die...with the notification or
recollection thereof resulting in yet more memories and thoughts.
Vidal begins with prose reminiscent of his Screening History, with several stories
regarding his youth including memories of the army's dispersion of the First World
War veterans at a Boners' camp in 1932 at Anacostia Flats of which Vidal always
remembered, causing him to be alert to all films regarding the French and Russian
revolutions; his fascination with twins or "doubleness," including commentary upon
the film The Prince and the Pauper"; and memories of his favorite theaters and the
films he viewed and which stayed with him sometimes for a lifelong effect. Later he
ventures into his decision and details of his two campaigns for public office (1960
Willing to share even the most personal experience of the loss of his partner of
fifty-three years, Howard Auster, Point to Point Navigation was particularly
beautiful because of Vidal's joyful memories of Auster (told in a perfect "past
present" tense to use one of Vidal's terms), his sharing of their time during
Auster's illness, Vidal's references following Auster's death of the plans for trips
or celebrations which will never be realized, as well as Vidal's poignant
reflections on death and grief.
It is because of Vidal's willingness to share such deep personal experiences and
observations of his beautiful friendship with Howard Auster, that I began this
review with Twain's quote upon grief. I was particularly touched by Vidal's
references of the "we" (he and Auster) now having become the singular "I, " except,
of course, in Vidal's memories where the "we" remains as if in the seeming
present...making such recollections of their years and travels together all the more
poignant and conveying to the reader the joy of such deep friendship.
Vidal has indeed been the "Fruit of Eden" for many (a phrase Tennessee Williams
noted in a letter to Vidal). May he never deviate from his thus far ever so
accurate point to point navigation. Despite what may transpire in these dire days of
"the last empire," may he stand firm, without compromise, behind the strong message
he has consistently spoken and written for years.
In summary, 'Point to Point Navigation,' as with 'Palimpsest,' brought to my mind
and heart Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Adagio, a composition reminiscent to me
for years of Vidal's life from childhood to the man now in his eighties. A life of
solitude amidst the many around him...a life of reflection amidst worldly
distraction...a life of truth in a world of lies. A life well-lived, and through
which we may all gain more wisdom, intellectual insight, and knowledge with Point to
Point Navigation being one more piece in a lifetime of literary work I highly
Christine Smith is a freelance writer, author, social justice activist
and an aspiring model and actress. She was recipient of The
Outstanding American Award in 2002 and the Amigas Peace Prize in 2000 due to her
humanitarian work nationwide. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications
worldwide and she is author of the internationally popular book, "A Mountain in The
Wind - An Exploration of the Spirituality of John Denver". You may read more of her
opinions at her website http://www.christinesmith.us
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