Louis Nowra

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The year 1968 was a tu­mul­tuous one for the US. The war in Viet­nam was a mess, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were as­sas­si­nated and there were the chaotic Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic con­ven­tions to choose pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of this piv­otal time, the ABC tele­vi­sion net­work de­cided to broad­cast eight de­bates be­tween Wil­liam Buck­ley and Gore Vi­dal.

Buck­ley was a con­ser­va­tive writer and the found­ing editor of Na­tional Re­view. Vi­dal was a nov­el­ist and screen­writer whose scan­dalous, campy novel Myra Breck­in­ridge, about a trans­sex­ual who anally rapes a man with a dildo, had re­cently be­come a best­seller. He was a pro­gres­sive lib­eral whose pol­i­tics were at odds with those of his op­po­nent.

View­ers may have been ex­pect­ing a lofty se­ries of de­bates be­tween two public in­tel­lec­tu­als but what they got in­stead was heated scraps be­tween two men who could barely dis­guise their con­tempt for each other. Vi­dal, with a pa­tri­cian voice and pompous at­ti­tude, set out to nee­dle Buck­ley in an at­tempt to make him lose his tem­per. When Vi­dal called him a crypto-Nazi, a fu­ri­ous Buck­ley snapped back, call­ing him a ‘‘queer’’. Vi­dal’s re­ac­tion was price­less. He re­treated into al­most a Zen calm­ness, al­low­ing him­self only a sly smile of vic­tory. He had set out to break Buck­ley and had suc­ceeded.

At that mo­ment all pre­tence at civil dis­course was gone and the de­bates de­gen­er­ated into name-call­ing and in­sults. In other words, for the huge au­di­ence of 10 mil­lion view­ers, this was riv­et­ing and un­for­get­table tele­vi­sion (watch­ing these de­bates on YouTube is a hoot). Vi­dal may have been well-known be­fore, but now he was fa­mous. Hav­ing sought fame since he his youth, he would go on to be­come one of the most fa­mous Amer­i­can au­thors of his time.

Bi­og­ra­pher and nov­el­ist Jay Parini has writ­ten the first bi­og­ra­phy of Vi­dal since his death in 2012 aged 86. Parini was a long­stand­ing friend of Vi­dal and so is in a good po­si­tion to help us un­der­stand the man. Un­for­tu­nately his de­ci­sion to open each chap­ter with a per­sonal vi­gnette doesn’t in­spire con­fi­dence. His en­coun­ters with the ‘‘Mae­stro’’ are oc­ca­sions where Vi­dal uses him as a gofer, a po­ten­tial bi­og­ra­pher and rapt lis­tener who is not al­lowed to in­ter­rupt. Parini’s friend­ship with the nov­el­ist Joyce Carol Oates means he omits Vi­dal’s no­to­ri­ous put-down: ‘‘Joyce Carol Oates, the three most dispir­it­ing words in the English lan­guage.’’ Ev­ery Time a Friend Suc­ceeds Some­thing In­side Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vi­dal By Jay Parini Ha­chette, 465pp, $55 (HB)

Gore Vi­dal in 1996 and, right, his 1960s spar­ring part­ner Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.