Snapshots in History’s Glare
256 pages • Harry N. Abrams, Inc. • November 2nd, 2009 [HB]
Snapshots in History’s Glare is a beautiful book of photographs accompanied by the urbane and sardonic commentary that one would expect from Gore Vidal. It is the fourth venture into autobiography from a writer who for most of his career asserted, “I am not my own subject”. The first of these, Screening History, started out as a series of lectures at Harvard. “My life has paralleled, when not intersected, the entire history of the talking picture,” Vidal observes in this remarkable book, the first part of which is reproduced in the early chapters of his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, on the grounds that it is now out of print. Screening History is about how reality is filtered through the media, whether it be cinema, television or print, and in looking at this through the lens of his autobiography Vidal produced an unique analysis. In Palimpsest, and its sequel, Point to Point Navigation, Vidal followed the more traditional path of the memoirist, and now in Snapshots in History’s Glare he provides the photographic accompaniment that was somewhat missing from the earlier ventures.
It is remarkable how much of this photography was not seen in the earlier books, nor in Fred Kaplan’s 1999 biography Gore Vidal. Kaplan had unprecedented access to Vidal, who hated the biography and rather unfairly refers to Kaplan as nothing more than a gossip. The lack of photography in the biography is striking. Vidal explains in the introduction to Snapshots in History’s Glare that this was because his partner Howard Auster had been collecting photographs with a view to publishing them. Auster was a meticulous cataloguer. Vidal’s archival papers are an exceptional resource and this is wholly down to Auster, who died in 2003. The photographs have now been published “as a memorial to him”.
From the early 1990s, starting with Screening History and the collection United States: Essays 1952-1992, Vidal has been involved in the process of literary housekeeping. He has been preparing to die for rather a long time. His output as an essayist has declined somewhat, and the influence of all the biographical ruminating that accompanied Kaplan’s work led to the arduous novels The Smithsonian Institution (1997) and The Golden Age (2000). The commentary on the photographs in Snapshots in History’s Glare is not mired by this trend. The format frees Vidal to bring his comic asides to the fore. It is a romp through a fascinating life. The addition of newspaper articles, original book covers, and letters adds a dimension to the photographs that enliven it.
The usual suspects are here, and although there is nothing new about Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, there is more on Vidal’s mother Nina, who is the comic villain of the piece. A playbill from 1928 for Sign of the Leopard, in which she is listed as “second female guest”, provides a recurrent narrative device calculated to produce a wry smile from the reader. There is a real sense that Vidal is taking revenge on a woman who made his life a living hell. “In real life she was an all-out furious protagonist with three distinguished husbands,” Vidal comments, before adding that she failed a screen test “because of the prominence of her manly moustache”. His rage his undisguised but rarely unfunny.
The photographs and the reproduction of letters from the time of Vidal’s early career are fascinating. The selection of letters sent to him following the publication of The City and the Pillar is a testament to its significance as one of the first books to be published about homosexuality that did not feature screaming queens who met tragic ends. The City and Pillar has been discussed exhaustively, although it is more interesting for the social historian, and one can see why from the letters reproduced here. It is not a particularly successful novel. It is wooden at best. However, Vidal was only twenty-one when he wrote it and far from finding his own voice.
Vidal’s career as a writer for television and Hollywood, which he undertook when he decided that the novel would no longer pay the bills, is of course served well by the photographic format. The cast pictures, the billboards, and the stars are gold. This can also be said of his congressional campaign in 1960 and later senatorial campaign in 1982. The life of the novelist is after all, as Anthony Burgess once remarked, “a masturbatory one”. There are also many pictures of famous people. Vidal seems rather taken with the fame game and has always been one for the casual name-drop. Part of Nina’s legacy, perhaps. It does at least it mean that one isn’t looking at pictures of people that one doesn’t know.
I interviewed Vidal for Polari at the end of January 2009, around the time Snapshots in History’s Glare was being prepared. Here is an excerpt from the article:
In the mid-90s Vidal was featured in a Vanity Fair quick-fire Q & A, and I was struck by his answer to the question, ‘What is your greatest achievement?’ Duluth, he answered. What would his answer to the same question be now? “I’ve changed the line.” A note of mischief entered his voice. After a pause he continued. “My greatest achievement is that I’ve never killed anybody. Which reveals an awful lot of temptation. Because I have been visited.”
Talking about the interviews he did for Playboy in the 1960s, Vidal writes the following:
I did several interviews for Playboy, because they agreed to my only ground rule: I would write the answers, since they would then sound the way I spoke, and we would get a better interview. I was also able to keep away from the cliché questions that lesser publications always asked, such as “What are you most proudest of that you have done?” To which my standard answer has always been, “Despite provocation, I have never killed anyone.”
Vanity Fair a lesser publication Playboy? What can he be talking about?
In the end, Snapshots in History’s Glare is a superb introduction to Vidal’s life. It is free, for the most part, from the self-aggrandising of the memoirs. It is Vidal’s work and not his life that is of the greatest significance. The rest is gossip.